On challenges, and being an alpha (or not)

A couple of weeks ago I visited Edinburgh Zoo. I spent some time watching squirrel monkeys and capuchins running and jumping in imaginary circuits around their enclosure, for no apparent purpose than to be energetic and have fun. I wondered what was going on in their cute little heads. Then right outside the enclosure I saw humans doing the same thing, albeit with less speed and agility, on a suspended obstacle course they had paid £4 to get onto. Why is it fun to do things like that? I guess it has something to do with our tendency to like challenges, to find them thrilling – so much so that we set ourselves little ones just for fun.

I also recently read an article by a woman who confesses to “limiting” her working hours to about 56 per week (!) during her tenure-track academic job because of having 2 young children, and it got me thinking again about challenges, drive and motivation. Why are different people so different in what they will strive for, and how hard?

The woman in the article described her household as being headed by “two alphas”. This phrase in particular triggered a series of thoughts: how much does our perceived/desired status play into our goals and achievements? I’ve noticed two types of high achievers: the careerists who just want power and success by any means and in any field of work, and for whom climbing the ladder as high as possible is the challenge; and those who are actually passionate about something specific, and whose challenge is to take that thing as far as they possibly can. Both are ambitious and driven and will put in a lot of effort. But I would say the former is much more motivated by status than the latter.

The term “alpha” does seem to nicely sum up both types, though. It definitely connotes high social status, even if it doesn’t imply the person actively pursues this. It suggests a personality to whom self-confidence comes fairly easily, as well as plenty of grand ideas. A natural leader; a passionate person who knows what they want and makes it happen. A person who puts much more energy into forming and expressing their own thoughts and opinions than into anticipating the reactions of others to them.

Working in academia, I am surrounded by people who are like this. It is an environment in which they can thrive. ‘Alphas’. It’s funny how powerful words can be. Suddenly I have this label under which I can group all the personality traits and behaviours I’ve observed and tried my best to develop: things like confidence, and extensive knowledge, and what I call “engagement”. A label that seems to make sense of why, despite my proven abilities, a phenomenal effort in these areas still seems to be needed for me to really succeed; and why, unlike this incredible woman (who eventually did make tenure), I’m simply not enjoying that kind of challenge. Maybe I’m just not born with a natural predisposition to be an alpha. And the nice thing about this label is I can now easily ask: Do we all need to become alphas? Or is it perfectly OK that some of us don’t?

I’ve been going to all of the “sort out your career” or “women in science” workshops available to me lately, and I’m getting tired of trying to “find my passion” or being asked to close my eyes and visualise an ideal day at work. And I’m sick to death of hearing that I need more confidence. These are just very boring, unquestioned axioms: we all need to find and realise our passions, and maximise our confidence. Don’t we?

Now that this little word “alpha” has entered my vocabulary, my growing sense that such advice is too one-dimensional and that there might be other paths to fulfillment is starting to crystallise.

Perhaps some of us just aren’t bothered about changing the world or being a world leader in something, and the challenges we set ourselves reflect that: we might want to live in a nice modest home, have a happy family, eat good home-cooked food, earn a decent living in a job we feel effective in, travel the world, learn a language, stay in touch with good friends, read lots, get good at a musical instrument, and so on. Perhaps some of us develop intense passions much more readily outside of work; perhaps this isn’t just a coincidence, a case of missing one’s vocation. And perhaps it’s OK.

These reflections won’t change my plans and goals. I do want to develop more alpha behaviours, and progress my career. But they do make me think that maybe I don’t need to go and read an entire library and overhaul my whole personality, to be successful and fulfilled. And that’s a relief.

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