Casual Friday as a Life Philosophy

Photo by  Riccardo Mion  on  Unsplash

They told me to dress up. So I did. After finishing my PhD, I dressed up even more. It didn’t help my confidence. Instead, I felt like I was overcompensating.

By “they,” I mean other professors. Mentors. Handbooks. The typical sources of career advice.

Some of my friends made everyone call them “doctor,” including their students. That didn’t help, either.

A few of my coworkers have corrected people over email. “Address me as Dr.,” they write. “I have a PhD.”

Students make fun of them behind their backs.

How you carry your authority says a lot about you, I’ve noticed. Some people can leverage their titles without trying. Other people come off as limp and pathetic when they insist.

So what’s the difference? How do you gain actual respect, especially if you’re just starting out?

Credentials are for Kids

The rules are starting to change. Younger generations, especially millennials, don’t seem to care as much about job titles and work attire. Maybe some do. But the rest of us see right through it.

By the way, I don’t think you have to be under 30 to qualify as a millennial. It’s more of a mindset. A 50-year-old can have more in common with a younger generation than their own.

An MD, JD, or PhD matters in some contexts. Your job title matters to some people. But usually not as many as we like to think.

Overestimating and overselling your title, credentials, or experience is the fastest way to lose respect.

That doesn’t mean they’re worthless.

A long time ago, I attended a meeting where a couple of male grad students addressed a professor as “Ms.” The professor corrected them the next breath. She said, “You can call me Dr., or use my first name.”

Bam. That’s how you do it.

She was direct and humble at the same time. Those two guys called her Dr. for the rest of the year.

I’m working on that level of frankness. It comes with age, I guess. And experience. Getting there.

Extrinsic Respect Doesn’t Help

Respect matters for young people, now as much as it ever did. Ageism affects us regardless of gender or social class. My male friends struggle with it, maybe on a lesser level.

Some people go about it the wrong way. Someone who cares about salary, office size, job title, and their fashion line will always feel like less, in the end. These symbols of respect don’t mean much long term. That’s one of the key problems behind our toxic work culture.

Extrinsic forms of respect always leave you feeling unsatisfied. Someone will always have a bigger office, a nicer wardrobe.

A year ago, I ran into a friend at a conference reception. He asked me, “So what are you in charge of these days?”

Loaded question. The awkward syntax warned me what was coming. He’d just gotten a promotion of some kind, and he wanted to brag about it by making me feel small.

So I just played along. I shrugged and said, “Uh, my classes...I guess?”

“That’s cool. I just became assistant director of our grad program. It’s so much work.” He went on for a while about how he never has free time any more. But he did have super nice business cards now.

More wine, please.

Know Where Your Power Resides

The more time I spend in academia, the less my PhD matters to me. The thing is...almost everyone who teaches at a university has one. And anyone without that credential doesn’t care much.

So it’s not special. It’s just three letters.

My work days have become more casual. Now, I wear regular clothes to teach. Because my confidence lies in my knowledge and experience. Not a title. And not the price of my pantsuit.

Sometimes, students are rude. It used to irritate me. I used to try and lecture them about appropriate conduct. That approach makes things worse. If you have to explain your authority, you’ve lost.

So now I just shrug and record their grades. It’s always amusing how the biggest jerk in my class melts when he sees his midterm report. That’s when they come crawling to you.

I’ve had bosses and assistants alike try to start shouting matches with me. They always win the shouting match, because I just sit there and stare at them. They don’t know what they’ve lost until later.

You know, like when they ask me for a letter of recommendation.

Or it’s time for me to fill out their performance evaluation.

Or they want to use me as a reference.

Or they want me to read over something they wrote.

Or they want me to promote them on Twitter.

My advice to anyone is to know where your power and authority comes from. Don’t try to control what you can’t, including other people’s behavior. That’s how you get respect.