Do Something Different—Get Off The Higher Ed Hamster Wheel

Get Off The Higher Ed Hamster Wheel by Julie Payne-KirchmeierAre you on the higher ed hamster wheel?

Face it—we all generally end up traveling down the same path. We follow our routines at work, we deal with the same topics, and we discuss the same issues. We eat at the same places with the same people, and complain about the same things. During conference times, we jump on the conference hamster wheel and attend programs that directly pertain to our functional areas, we talk with the same people, and we follow our traditions.

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Don’t get me wrong, doing your job is important, and so working with specific topics and ideas is critical for you to be successful in your role. I’m not asking you to stop doing your job, or collaborating and networking with people in your field. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t keep your knowledge base and skill set sharp in your particular area of concentration. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t solely focus on what you already know or do.

It’s time to step outside of what you know and do something different.

Frans Johansson says in his book, The Medici Effect, that interacting with people in your own line of work is a good thing, as it makes you a better professional or expert in your field. However, that won’t expose you to new ideas or new ways of thinking. He recommends that you learn something new—learn a new language, take dance lessons, or anything that takes you outside of your comfort zone. By stretching yourself beyond what you already know, innovation can happen—and innovation positively impacts your work.

There’s another benefit to doing something different, and learning something new. Our brains physically change for the better. Sure, we all know “practice makes perfect” (actually, I’ll amend that to “practice makes better,” as perfection is never attainable), but aside from mastering a skill, our brains are enhanced as well. Not only do we grow dendrites which help our neurons, we increase with enhanced learning (practice) our myelin. Increased myelin speeds up the signals in our brain—and this increased activity stays with us for a very long time. In effect, our brain is enhanced and supercharged as a result of learning and mastering a new skill.

The other benefit of stretching ourselves is that we are now free to make interesting connections—connections between what we know and what we’ve learned. Some of these result in game-changing approaches to our work. These moments are considered positive disruptions, and can change the very fabric of our field. Consider the use of Twitter in a classroom for engagement. Consider the concept of a flipped classroom. Or consider the idea of offering education to people by the thousands for free. These ideas did not come from people doing the same thing over and over again. These came from people who exposed themselves to new things and took a risk—this time in the area of technology—and higher education was forever changed.

We need creativity, innovation and positive disruption in our work, and we need everyone to embrace this philosophy. When we do this, our ideas get stronger, we create unique and engaging programs, and we make ourselves better. Yes, it takes time to learn these things, but think of all the benefits gained when we stretch our minds and challenge ourselves to try something new. We are in higher education, after all. Let’s embrace learning again.

So go out there—and learn something new. Get off the treadmill and head outside to explore. There are so many amazing things to learn—and so many new ideas to create.

And remember—you’re not a hamster, so stop acting like one. No one likes that hamster wheel.

About the Author

Julie Payne Kirchmeier PhotoDr. Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, Associate Vice President for Student Auxiliary Services at Northwestern University, is an active speaker, consultant, leader, researcher, teacher and administrator in student affairs and higher education. Dr. JPK (as her students call her) is passionate about serving students in all capacities but most importantly, focuses on developing dynamic and engaging physical, virtual and experiential environments that challenge and change students lives.

A native Texan, Julie earned her B.S. degree in Genetics and her M.Ed. degree in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education from Texas A&M University-College Station, and her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Administrations and Foundations at Indiana State University.  Most recently, she earned the designation of Certified Auxiliary Services Professional from NACAS. She has received state, regional, national and international awards for her service to her profession, and currently serves in leadership positions with both NACAS and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).

Julie served on the graduate faculty for SIUC, and is currently a faculty member in the masters program in higher education at Northwestern. Her research focuses on feminism and women’s issues in higher education, social media use in student affairs, and on organizational management in student affairs/higher education.

Prior to joining Northwestern University, Julie served in various student affairs leadership roles, including as the Director of Housing for the University of Southern Indiana, the Assistant Provost for the University College at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) and concurrently, as SIU’s Director of University Housing.


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