When I taught in Georgia, several years ago, I was repeatedly impressed by its many folk sayings. Phrases like “butter my biscuits”, “cuter than a speckled dog in a red wagon”, “rode hard and put up wet” and “above your raisin” peppered the conversations in bars and barbershops, town hall meetings and corner store gatherings. Among all of the sayings that I recollect –few had the staying power of “It’s a poor dog that won’t wag its own tail.” I must admit, upon first hearing this phrase – I dismissed it as either showboating or even worse –excessive pride or boasting. As I have grown older, and have experienced more of this world –I have gained a deeper appreciation of this folksy wisdom. In fact, I have become a practitioner of sorts even though many will dismiss my efforts as mere egotistical self-promotion. Perhaps they are right, but the path I have walked teaches me otherwise.
Long ago, when I was indeed a naive, untenured faculty person, still fresh from the trials of graduate school –I honestly thought that if you did good, worked hard, and kept your priorities straight that you would get recognition, gain respect, and gradually prove your competencies. Little did I know that the world of academia was fraught with petty jealousies, racked with insecurities, and constantly reeled through waves of bureaucratic excess, despotic leaders, and blind sycophants. Through this maze trivia often reigned supreme, mediocrity often hid behind fancy titles, and mendacity often lurked behind smiling faces. In such a scene one is either transformed or radicalized, subdued or renewed, humiliated or empowered.
In the process, I have found that the truly gifted rarely have to be overpowering, overbearing, or overindulgent. I have also found that these giants, though humble, are not without their pride or their sense of accomplishment. I have learned that as they have continued to hold true to their callings, to remain steadfast in their conviction toward excellence, and have refused to cave in to the self aggrandizement –they nevertheless did not shy away from self-promotion, self-_expression_, and self-acclaim. I learned that there was a difference between self-centeredness and self-awareness, selfishness and self-satisfaction, and that one indeed can value self without being self absorbed.
My arrival at this point started from a position where I labored under the misperception that to promote self was somehow both selfish and boastful. I had to learn that through my self imposed silences, others not only promoted themselves but often did so at the expense of persons like me. I discovered that when I offered my ideas silently to aid the team, those ideas were frequently promoted as another’s’ who then reaped the rewards. I learned that in the end, indeed, if I did not promote my own worth, trumpet my own accomplishments, herald my own successes –that I was often dismissed, ignored, and marginalized. I found that if indeed I wanted to be more than “the spook who sat by the door” I had to ensure that my actions were recorded, that my ideas were given credit, and that my efforts were acknowledged. Ultimately, I learned that no one would do this for me, and so I have learned the true meaning behind the Georgian phrase “It’s a poor dog that won’t wag its own tail”.
Note: Rodney D. Coates is a professor of sociology and gerontology at Miami University. He can be reached at coatesrd@Muohio.edu.
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