When Sandra Dee met Danny Zuko at the beach “somethin’ begun”. She nearly drowned, he showed off. They got friendly: there was hand holding, late nights (well, until ten o’clock, which is technically late evening), cramp. He splashed around, she got her suit damp… oh, behave, it wasn’t like that! But then, would you believe it (no) Sandy turned up at Rydell High with what, in 1959 California, was the most impossibly exotic Australian accent? And Danny played it way too cool. The Danny Zuko that Sandy had met at the beach had morphed into the delinquent love child of Shakin Stevens and Tara Reid. Turned out he wasn’t that into bowling and lemonade after all. No, Danny had history, and an interest in cars and illegal drag racing. Sandy, to put it mildly, was disappointed.
We all encounter disappointment in our lives. Whether it’s disappointment with something, someone or oneself, in the end we have to understand the reasons for it, live with it and learn from it. And of course there is a whole range of healthy to unhealthy ways of living with it, and a similar range of successful to unsuccessful ways of learning from it. You can adjust things based on what you learn; you can realise that something wasn’t important, or that your expectations of someone or of yourself were unrealistic or unreasonable. There you go; the beginners’ guide to CBT.
We’ll come back to how Sandra Dee handled her disappointment. For now, let’s consider how we deal with disappointment in the academy because, disappointment, is part and parcel of academic life: paper and grant rejections, results you didn’t expect to get (although they can be the most interesting results… save us from registered reports). And academics also often share disappointments with those exotic phantasms from the “real world” like missing out on promotion, romantic failures, politics. What, broadly, are the ways of living with disappointment?
Well (1) you can suck it up. That can work, but not always. It depends, I suspect, on how robust your self-confidence is, but it’s arguably a healthy response if there is no collateral damage. You can (2) choose to externalise – share the load! You can (a) moan a lot (kind of works short term, but you’ll need to find a way to resolve it in the end), (b) start attacking the source of the disappointment or the person you believe was responsible for it. On the plus side, there are lots of creative ways you can do this which can range from a frank conversation to spreading rumours and conspiracy theories). Of these options, (a) is certainly preferable; with (b) you end up irrevocably diminished in others’ eyes. Option (2) is unhealthy because you’re unlikely to learn much about yourself or others and that makes it likely that you’ll be disappointed again. Your third option (3) is to learn from it, understand why it happened, and act to change. That’s the healthiest, so long as you do the learning honestly and objectively.
A couple of months ago one academic described how he had sold out his research in response to years of disappointment at failure to get funding, and started working in an area that would be more lucrative. I thought at the time that this perhaps made some sense in personal career terms, but that it was also perhaps a little sad. We all need to adapt, but if we end up going chasing the money and forget about the things that made us passionate about research in the first place, academic life loses a lot of its charm, diversity and a fair chunk of its potential to innovate too. Informed transformation is a good way to avoid and manage disappointment but total submission to a notoriously fickle funding culture can backfire in the longer term.
Anyway, that’s how Sandra Dee dealt with her disappointment; she chose to change. Specifically she transformed her image to win back Danny. To be fair, Danny also changed his image in a bid to win Sandy back. However in a sartorial metonym for 20th-century gender role power dynamics, Danny’s transformation just involved a cardigan. Sandy’s involved a lycra cat-suit, scalp-tight perm and piercings. Sandy’s transformation was, well, more transformative.
It all worked out in the end of course – Sandy and Danny drove off into a dreamy celestial future (although, had they known that the real future was Xanadu and Scientology, they might have turned back, got their heads down, worked harder, and got themselves into university). Still, it was a million times better than Grease 2. Now that was disappointing!