If you’ve ever wondered what your professor thinks of you and your fellow students, you’re not alone. Plenty of students at every level have these feelings of curiosity about how they’re perceived and thought of both at an academic and human level.
Still, the reality might surprise you.
Ask around any university campus and you’ll find that most professors find their students to be self-interested, lazy, and exploitative.
If you’re dealing with a difficult professor, check out this video for some advice from Dave.
This post was written by Abbie Van Wagner (freelance writer) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software).
Why are Students Self-Interested, Lazy, and Exploitative?
Understanding why so many students have these characteristics requires taking a deeper look at the foundation built by society at large and the education system itself.
In fact, it’s not just students that behave this way – professors do it, too! Behaving in our own self-interests and searching for means to success in a competitive environment has become part of our human nature within our society.
Think about it like this: Why did you choose to go to college in the first place?
Was it to get a better job in the future? To improve your earnings potential and make more money some day? Was it so you could feel the pride of having accomplished getting your degree? To make your family proud?
Most of us would choose at least one of those reasons as what motivated us to go to college, and they’re all pretty self-interested at their core.
Not many people would say they chose to go to college because they just wanted to gain a better understanding of the world and share ideas with other people, be better citizens, or make an impact on future social values.
This is despite the fact that we know how much education can do to improve our lives and situations, and how much it benefits our society. Education matters – it changes you (read this great post on why).
The same could be said for taking responsibility for academic outcomes. This self-serving bias tells us that we’re more likely to take credit for positive outcomes while pointing to external factors out of our control (shifting blame) for negative outcomes.
So, it’s natural for us all to be self-interested and focused on our own endeavors. We also want to “look good,” which usually means doing and saying things to position ourselves in a way that’s superior to those around us.
And, we want to do all of that with the least amount of resources possible (work smarter, not harder, right?).
But, how do we get ahead or move up within this system? Is it through being more self-interested and exploitative? Or is there an alternative?
How to Move Up in This Kind of System
To better yourself or “move up” within academia, the work force, or within society, you’ll need to choose. Either you can lean into what the system has encouraged you to do up to this point (being self-interested, lazy, and exploitative) or you can do the opposite.
Instead of working in your own self interests to take whatever you can with the least amount of effort, take advantage of situations or even people, you can actually reverse engineer the system.
You can ask yourself: “what can I give?” You can think about how you can do more to help others and what you have to offer.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as just offering encouragement (this blog tells you why encouragement really does matter).
When you look for ways to help others, you elevate your status within your social circles. You can build your social capital and create connections with people you may have otherwise missed out on. Not to mention, you can create a reputation for yourself that you can be proud of – with professors, classmates, colleagues, employers, and anyone else you interact with.
To learn more about what you can do to move up, check out this video where Dave shares another secret!
So, What’s In It For Me?
Looking at how you can reverse engineer the system to do better for others doesn’t mean that you stop being self-interested. There’s actually a huge benefit to finding ways to give back.
Finding ways to give and looking at what you have to offer leads to something very important: opportunities. Opportunities come about through building relationships, increasing your social capital, and creating friendships and associations with other like-minded people.
When you look for ways to make positive impacts in the world around you and develop relationships with other people, it helps create a positive image for yourself. It causes people to like you and, more importantly, trust you.
When people like you (or at the very least respect your character), they’re much more likely to open doors for you and provide you with opportunities to make connections that you may have otherwise missed out on.
Building social capital helps build trust with those in your social circles. As you receive opportunities, you may find that they build on one another, ultimately giving you the chance to get involved in bigger, more significant projects, tasks, or activities.
You may even get the kind of opportunity that could change your life.
Those opportunities come about through looking outward and thinking about what you can do to help others. They don’t happen when your focus is being lazy, exploitative, and being solely focused on your own best interests at that moment.
Emotional intelligence is a similarly important trait that’s becoming more and more essential to success. Check out this article (we think it is one of the most important ones) to learn more about striving for more in your career and the benefits of emotional intelligence.
Why Social Capital is So Important
Social capital fosters trust and mutual respect. It’s true among individuals, businesses, and organizations. People with higher levels of social capital tend to be higher achievers across multiple facets of their lives. That means having less social capital typically makes it more difficult to achieve the same kinds of goals.
Social capital leads to trust, shared values, support, reciprocity, collaboration, and greater satisfaction within interpersonal relationships. (Honestly, the academic research is very sound on this topic).
In academia, in business, or in the workplace, people from all backgrounds are expected to come together to work toward shared goals. When the social ties within the group are weak, it makes the work significantly more difficult.
Building social capital improves outcomes and makes it easier for all group members to succeed.
When you make it a goal to connect with others and give back or help others whenever you can, you contribute to building social connections and improving social capital in the group.
Those are traits that are incredibly attractive to professors, employers, and other group members. It’s a great way to demonstrate leadership abilities and find yourself being invited to be a part of teams, projects, and organizations that could lead to bigger and better opportunities.
Here are some of the immediate benefits of thinking in terms of reverse engineering the competitive, “me first” system:
- Leadership: When you look for opportunities to help others, give advice, share resources, or offer support, it helps to establish your reputation as a leader (you will love this post on being a leader). It shows that you’re someone that other people can trust and that you’re focused on the shared goals and values. When you’re confident to offer what you have to others it also demonstrates a level of confidence and expertise that makes you more attractive in terms of social capital.
- Stronger bonds: Whether you’re working on a group project, offering to assist a professor, helping out a colleague, or picking up extra responsibilities at work, you’ll find that when you give back to others it creates opportunities for stronger bonds within the team or group. People feel loyal to those who extend a helping hand and they’re more likely to provide support when it’s needed.
- You get what you give: Giving back and helping those around you creates a culture of mutual respect and shared responsibility for the group. It lends itself to a “succeed together, fail together” mindset. When you take initiative to provide support and assistance to others, you’re more likely to be able to count on them in your time of need. It also creates relationships where they might think of you when there’s an opportunity later on.
- Social capital begets social capital: When you start increasing your circle of influence, you’ll find that it’s easier to build more connections and relationships that you may have otherwise missed out on. There’s really no downside to increasing your social capital, so plant the seed early and let those relationships build naturally over time.
It’s in our nature to be lazy, self-interested, and exploitative. We would not be modern humans if we were not. To put it bluntly, we often live in an “asshole culture.” (Bob Sutton’s book on assholes is a must read). We’ve been taught to act that way from the time we were children, competing with other children in classrooms and on sports teams, trying to get the good grades and impress our teachers and parents, and ultimately feeding into our market economy where we live our lives entrenched in constant competition.
That’s the reason that academia in general is so competitive.
Still, there’s an alternative to this madness, and it’s a mutually beneficial way of thinking and living.
Ask yourself what you can do for others, how you can give back, and what skills you can share. We all have gifts, knowledge, experience, and other resources we can share if we choose to do so.
Building your social capital is one of the biggest investments you can make in your future, so don’t wait! Plant the seed now and let it grow.
The opportunities are there for the taking.