BY MEG MYERS MORGAN ’05
As a professor, a writer, and a mother, I’m constantly evaluating my performance. Whether it’s my effectiveness in the classroom, my book sales, or my ability to control my two strong-willed daughters, I spend a bulk of my time trying to size up how I am doing. Now, there are a few obvious ways I can evaluate these three areas: student evaluations in my classes, customer reviews on my book, and the effort my kids put into my Mother’s Day card. But there’s more to the value of a performance than what’s on paper.
Know Your Audience
When I became a mother, it was easy to see my audience as the entire world. Other mothers at daycare; judgmental articles in my newsfeed; patrons at any restaurant. I struggled to gauge my performance because I let my audience get too big. Once I realized that I was just performing for an audience of one tiny person (and a few years later, two tiny people), I saw she was typically eager for all my performances and gracious with her applause.
One graduate student recently came to me upset she wasn’t where she needed to be in her career. We talked through all the issues, and at the end, it was clear her metric of success was coming from her belief that her college friends didn’t find her career to be impressive enough. She worried if her undergraduate professors would be proud of her professional life. Currently, she is the director of an art department at an economically depressed high school that consistently ranks among the best schools in the region. And she’s 25. When I asked her if she was good at what she did she said, “I’m great at it. I know some of these kids go to college because of my influence.” She is having an impact on her direct audience: her students. But she was letting people outside her audience be a measure of her performance.
Students often come to me upset about their place in life. Perhaps they aren’t feeling far enough along in their career, or maybe they aren’t feeling very accomplished. I always ask them who they are looking to for validation of their success. It’s not uncommon for a student to throw her hands up and say, “Everyone! I’m trying to impress everyone! My friends, my family, my boss and you!”
So I remind them that they need to figure out their real audience. A mother should focus on her children. A writer should focus on the readers. A professor should focus on the students. Audiences only get as big as we allow ourselves to see them. But in reality, the audience is so much smaller than we realize.
And ultimately, it’s really just an audience of one.
Understand Your Critics
When my book first came out, I had one customer reviewer angrily spew about his lack of love for my writing. He also mentioned that he was a retired gentleman without children. So, sure, perhaps a book about being a young working mother hadn’t landed. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t entitled to his opinion, and perhaps maybe my writing did “talk about kids too much,” but I could easily understand that a person for whom my book was not written would not be interested in my book.
The most frightening things in life are always those that are unavoidable. And criticism is no exception. After a few years of teaching, a couple of years on the book circuit and five years into parenting, I realized that criticism was coming at me whether I liked it or not. After digesting so much criticism for my teaching, my writing and my maternal behavior, I’ve come to understand the biggest truth of criticism: it is not created equal.
Each reader gets an equal chance to post a review of my book. Each student gets an equal chance to evaluate my instruction. Each of my children gets an equal chance to criticize my cooking. But, I don’t accept their critiques equally. When it comes to end-of-semester student evaluations, I’ve learned that the criticisms from students who were difficult, lazy or whiney do not mean as much to me. But if I get complaints from any student who was engaged, committed and studious, I am quick to correct my ways. My teaching and writing have only improved through critical feedback from people who had an investment in my performance.
Promote Your Show
When I was in the sixth grade, I competed in the science fair at the regional level. I had done an experiment with card games and analyzed the statistical probability of beating a computer versus beating a human dealer. When the two judges came around, they asked just a couple of questions and started to move on to the sad plant-based project beside me. I put my hands out and stopped them. “That’s it?” I asked. They looked at each other and shrugged. “Well, I’m not done,” I said, and continued telling them about the validity of my analyses and the application of my results. The more excitedly I talked about my project, the more excited the judges became. I took first place that day and went on to be a state finalist.
People will work really hard to achieve something, and, once they do, they believe their work is done. In reality, when the goal is met, the work is just beginning. The single biggest question I get before people start graduate school is: what can I do with this degree? Fair question, I guess. But it implies that earning a graduate degree automatically comes with a job. So I continually inform prospective students—and constantly remind current students—that earning the degree is just the beginning.
Just because they had the credentials to get into graduate school doesn’t automatically mean they will be successful. They’ve got to show me what they are made of. And once they graduate with the degree, it will be time to promote the credentials they just earned. Just because I’m the professor doesn’t mean students will automatically engage with my lecture or join in the class discussion.
Just because I am my kids’ mom doesn’t mean I will automatically make them macaroni and show them love. (Don’t worry, I do both. Constantly.)
The biggest lesson I learned when my book came out was that writing it was the easiest part. Talking about my writing to potential readers was as critical as artfully explaining my science to the judges.
After all, if a play happens in a theatre and no one is around to see it, does it make a sound?
People often wonder about their success in work and life. They wonder if they could be, should be, doing more with their time. I find—at least when I’m mentoring my students or evaluating myself—that very rarely should people be doing more, or better. Rather, they should be reevaluating their metrics of success. When digging into those metrics with students, they often uncover that they are pinning their success on the opinions of others. Or working toward a goal set by someone else. Or, they aren’t valuing and promoting what they already do well. But, rare is the case that a person who is worried about their performance is ever truly performing badly. Only those who don’t care are not worth the ticket price.