Striving in Your Career: Challenges and Opportunities of Always Striving for More at Work and the Benefits of Emotional Intelligence

One of the most challenging things in academia that we can deal with on a regular basis is the emotional impact of striving towards our goals. No matter what career you are in, as a professional or within the academic field, you are trying to do better every day. That brings a tremendous amount of emotional impact. Many graduate students and professors will feel that no matter how much effort they put towards their goals that they are never going to get there. The feelings of being behind your peers or behind the 8-ball can leave you down and doubting. This post is about striving in your career, reacting positively to striving and unproductivity  and how nurturing your emotional intelligence can help you deal with disappointments and challenges in your career. (If you feel like this, you should check out this blog post on motivation to work – it tells a bit of the story behind R3ciprocity).

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Striving and feeling that you are getting nowhere

Striving in your career can be difficult when you try and try and feel that you’re getting nowhere. There can be a tremendous emotional impact of always striving and feeling like you’re running in place. This can be a big problem in academia. As doctoral students or professors we can feel that we are doing the research and teaching and doing the service work, but not achieving that next desired phase in our careers. The emotional impact can be devastating, but you need to learn how to turn that around. 

Dave describes how striving and feeling like he is getting nowhere can make him feel in this vlog:  

One way is to harness the negative emotions and turn them into a positive. Sometimes reaching a low point or feeling that you are running around in circles can provide a moment of clarity or inspire new goals or directions. For example, as academics, sometimes we have to realize there are more important things in life than getting more publications and making more money, or even dare we say getting tenure (ouch!). In academia, there are multiple goals we can establish for our careers and multiple ways to feel accomplished and productive.

The emotional impact of striving

In his vlog video, Dave describes how feelings of frustration and sadness can be the impetus for turning things around. He says it is normal to feel down that you’re not accomplishing what you want to accomplish. It is normal to have these emotions, when you feel things are not working, but it also means you actually care about something. Pick yourself up and realize this is a signal that you care about the things you are doing. It means, “I want to push forward and move in a forward direction.” Dave says our negative emotions and feeling stuck can motivate us and give us that gut feeling about what we need to do next to keep moving forward. 

Dave also advises us to remember that we are not alone in experiencing these emotions. There are times when you’re not accomplishing the things that you want to accomplish. You want to perform at a level that you know you’re capable of, but it’s not panning out as you had envisioned. All academics and professionals experience these emotions at one time or another. It’s normal. Realize that others deal with similar emotions, even if on the outside they seem perfect, and try to move on to a better place.

Feeling unproductive

Related to feelings of striving and not getting anywhere is feeling unproductive. The former has more to do with setting a goal and feeling like you’re not getting close, while the latter has more to do with feeling like you are not getting anything of value accomplished and you are wasting your time. The culprit could be that perhaps you are not working toward a clear goal or don’t have a clear goal. It can also be related to feeling like you’re not reaching your full potential. Feeling unproductive can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression, which if they become serious enough should spur you to make an appointment with a mental health professional. But usually, feeling unproductive is natural, common, and can lead to new things.

To deal with feeling unproductive, you have to set some smaller goals. These may be goals around what you are going to accomplish in a given day or week, or maybe setting longer-term goals will be more helpful for you. Working without even a small goal or endpoint in mind can be a major precursor to feeling unproductive, so write down those goals! 

Also take note of multiple things you are accomplishing, whether short or long term. They may be hard to see while you are feeling unproductive, but believe us, they are there. Also write down everything that is important to you. How is your work, even when you’re feeling unproductive, helping you nurture those other things that are important to you. 

Face it, even for academics, sometimes work is just work. It is a paycheck and it serves the purpose of supporting you and a family if you have one. It puts a roof over your head and food on the table, and that’s important! As academics we want everything little thing we do to have meaning, but sometimes we just have to face the grind until we find that next goal to work toward or that next accomplishment to celebrate.

Check out Dave’s vlog on feeling unproductive as an academic:

Assess your internal resources

To move forward productively we also have to assess our personal resources. When we take resources into consideration there are observable and unobservable resources. The ones we can observe are skills and abilities, intelligence, being articulate, athletic, speaking multiple languages or anything that can be seen and heard to help you along your path. Take advantage of what you have to offer. We all come with a set of observable skills that are unique. (Here is a short blog post on worrying about feeling unproductive.

Often those observable traits allow others to compare us based strictly on IQ or our fields of study, or even departments we sit in. All things like age, level of education, where a person grew up, and IQ are examples of how we are put into boxes that state we should be like those people, and if we fall short based on their perceptions or bias, we often end up struggling and filled with doubt. Try not to compare your observable resources to those of others –this will only keep you in a rut. 

Unobservable resources are more internal and not as easily discerned by the observer such as emotional intelligence, authenticity, an ability to speak your mind, reasoning abilities, and analytical abilities. One way to respond and start heading in a more positive direction is to assess your unobservable resources. Realize what your own unique internal resources are and make them work for you. For example, dogged determination and grit are assets that not everyone possesses. If you have these qualities, you will deal with life’s challenges better and break out of the endless cycle of striving. The good news is internal resources can be nurtured and developed through one’s life. Emotional intelligence is one of the most important internal resources you can have.

Learn about and develop greater emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is the amount of self awareness you have, and how well you deal with your own emotions and those of others. There are a number of studies and literature that talk about success and Emotional Intelligence (EI), and specifically compare EI to IQ as a predictor of academic success. Those with a developed EI are often more successful than someone with just a high IQ, which makes a lot of sense when we look at the makeup of EI.

Emotional intelligence* has five main elements:

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-regulation.
  • Motivation.
  • Empathy.
  • Social skills.

*Popularized by American psychologist Daniel Goleman 

A 2018 paper, A New Layered Model on Emotional Intelligence, published by The National Center for Biotechnology stated, “With emotional intelligence you acknowledge, accept, and control your emotions and emotional reactions as well as those of other people. You learn about yourself and move on to the understanding of other people’s self. You learn to coexist better, which is very important since we are not alone in this world and because when we want to advance ourselves, and society as a whole, there must be cooperation and harmony. With emotional intelligence, you learn to insist, to control your impulses, to survive despite adversities and difficulties, to hope for and to have empathy.” (1)

Self-awareness of your feelings is an indicator that you care about what you are trying to accomplish. The fact that you care will help you keep going when it gets tough. Striving towards a goal and managing your expectations and emotions while pushing forward is a form of self-regulation. When you care and push forward you notice that you’re not losing it and giving up. The fact that you are persevering is motivation. Each step forward is a sign, even if it sometimes feels like you’re walking through quicksand. 

Motivation is derived from positive signals that you’re doing the right things and moving in the right direction. (Read this post about the journey towards getting your PhD.) With authenticity comes the ability to speak your mind, the ability to think about things from a mental and emotional standpoint, to analyze those feelings and the perceptions of others. Every step along the way conditions you to persevere. Each resilient moment improves your EI. Each time you practice empathy towards yourself and others EI is compounded — because it’s easy to give up. But that’s not why you do what you do. You are not here to blow up and give up. When you take a breath and forgive your mistakes and give yourself another shot to get it right, you are being empathetic to your situation. 

Intelligence is important but not as important as your EI. You can have a very high IQ and be successful, but many studies show that even those with average intelligence, when combined with a developed emotional intelligence, they are often more successful. A lack of EI can be detrimental to success. What you know about a subject or subjects can get you through, but it’s where you connect and feel with your own emotions and those of other people where your authenticity develops. 

According to the World Economic Forum 2016 report Future of Jobs it was predicted that by 2020 Overall, social skills— such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.” (2) When we look at the current issues facing academics, we can’t help but agree. Emotional Intelligence is more of a key to success than observable skill sets. 

How do I grow my emotional intelligence? 

It may seem that EI is some kind of gift or internal resource that either you are born with or not. EI may be a trait that has some biological or genetic basis, but that does not mean that everyone can’t develop EI. Like any value or trait that some seem to have more of naturally, EI can be nurtured through learning and reading, observing others, and even therapy. 

We all have dealt with the person who is very grating and difficult to be around or work with. These people are overly critical and dismiss others’ points of view or feelings. We all know someone at the office or at school who is this way. They can suck the air out of a room, a conversation, or workplace. They need help developing their EI. Maybe this person is you. If it is, you need to work on your EI because this trait will help you move forward more than any bullying or coercion tactic you have used. 

Some may consider EI a soft skill, but as noted above, it is hardly on the margins of success. In fact it is central to success in today’s world of work where boundaries between our personal and professional lives are more blurred than ever and we spend ridiculous amounts of time working. A manager with EI will get his or her team to the finish line or to greater success more effectively and quickly than someone who takes an authoritarian managerial stance. In particular, millennials and Generation Z have no patience for the authoritarian manager. They want their skills and success to be nurtured, not stymied, and they certainly don’t want to spend 10 hours a day around someone who does not have one iota of EI. 

Bringing it all together

Bringing this all together — striving and EI — we see that when we have more EI we can strive in a more productive manner, set more realistic goals, have more self awareness about how we strive for those goals and how we treat others along the way, and we can deal with setbacks and challenges more effectively. We all strive for success, and we all feel like we’re failing at one time or another, but with greater EI we can realize that we are not alone, others also feel this way at one point or another, and that we can and will find a path forward. 


  1. NCBI
  2. World Economic Forum

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