What’s a Personal Impact Factor?

[First in a series.]

Last year I went through one of those “why am I doing what I’m doing?” experiences that can define or redefine a career. It was a difficult but important time, which eventually confirmed that I’m right where I should be as a professor and researcher.

That time of soul searching did lead to some changes in direction. The more I thought about what I’m good at and what I enjoy, the more I recognized a mismatch between what I felt I should be doing and what I knew I was doing. I had been swept into a system of professional behaviors that were not accomplishing what I would truly like to accomplish, but I was so busy with the details of executing these behaviors, I couldn’t seem to stop to ask where I was going.  “I have a proposal to write, for goodness sake!”

Why the mismatch? In a word: incentives. I get accolades from my university (raises, promotion, tenure, etc.) when I publish papers, not when people read them, or when people implement the ideas.  And what that breeds in the long run is a focus on producing things for their own sake, with little or no thought about whether anyone cares about them, or even, if we are really honest, whether it is a good product or not.  I am rewarded for creating product.

I had expressed many of these concerns to a colleague, who eventually encouraged me to present them to a small gathering of professors at a coming professional meeting. I accepted, thinking that surely I could pull it all together in the two months before the meeting. I finished that talk on the way to the hotel, of course, but the pressure to pull together my thoughts gave rise to what I am now calling my Personal Impact Factor (yes, I am poking a bit of fun at academic journals). Here is the graphic I created for myself:

Kevin Gue's Personal Impact Factor

My Personal Impact Factor (PIF) has four components:

  1. Grand Ideals. You might think of this as a vision statement. What broad aspirations do you have? Your grand ideals should rise to the level of a calling.
  2. Ends. These are goals toward which I should strive in my everyday work. They should guide my decisions and my allocation of time each day. They are more specific than grand ideals, but not to be confused with Means.
  3. Means, of course, should help me accomplish my Ends. This is very important philosophically: Means are not Ends.  They are only useful if they help me accomplish my Ends. I will have much more to say about this in follow-on posts. Hint: universities tend to measure how many means we’ve produced, not whether we have accomplished any ends.
  4. Measures. Am I accomplishing my Ends? A good measure will tell me so, in that an increase in that measure necessarily means an End is being accomplished.

I will describe how I use this model in coming posts, but for now, an example of how it has been useful to me:  I realized immediately that journal publications are means, not ends, and therefore have no intrinsic value.  (I like to ask my colleagues, “If one of your papers appears in a journal and nobody reads it, did you get a publication?”) As means, papers have value only if they help me accomplish my ends. See the shift in mentality?  I should not be satisfied to put an intellectual product on a shelf in a warehouse (library); I must aspire to get my product into the hands of “customers.” This simple insight has been incredibly liberating and inspiring.

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