On The Value of Jerks

Jul 29, 2021

 A digital illustration of an angry boss yelling at their employee.John W. Traphagan, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Department of Anthropology
Professor, HDO
HDO One-Day Professional Seminar: Ethics, Culture, and Leadership

July 29, 2021

There is a great deal of conversation these days about the importance of mentorship.  We need to mentor new hires in companies or junior faculty at universities.  It’s essential to help them find ways to be successful.  We need to be there for them.   That’s part of having an empathetic and supportive workplace. And we all want that, right? 

I think there is much value in good mentorship and have been the recipient of caring mentorship that has profoundly shaped my career.  My advisor at the University of Pittsburgh was certainly the most influential person in my entire academic life.  He was, and continues to be, a great mentor and friend. 

But in all of the talk about mentorship, we often lose site of the fact that the jerks we encounter can be equally important and can have positive impacts on our lives and careers.  I’ve been fortunate to experience several jerks throughout my career and in each case, The Jerk has played a major role in helping me find the right path.  The assistance wasn’t intentional, of course, but it was no less significant than supportive mentorship by someone who wasn’t a jerk.

Let me provide a couple of examples.  I started my PhD at the University of Virginia.  My advisor was a jerk.  He had no time for, nor it seemed much interest in, working with students.  I would visit his office to discuss something related to class or the program and he would hold up two fingers and say, “two minutes.”  He then immediately began looking at his watch.  It was clear he didn’t have time for the silly questions of graduate students.  There were more important things to do, like going on national talk shows. 

I’m quite thankful to have run into this particular jerk.  I left the program after one semester and over the next five years worked in the computer industry.  It was there I met my wife of now thirty years.  That experience also taught me that I really disliked the business world—it was a bad fit for me.  I needed to return to academia.  In many ways, I owed all of that to The Jerk. So, with my new wife’s blessing, I applied for graduate schools and decided on Pitt where I intended to focus on Japanese Buddhism.

Thankfully, my advisor was—again—a jerk.  She had a wonderful way of condescending to graduate students—one always felt tiny in her presence.  She also often returned student papers smeared with mustard from her lunchtime sandwich.  The great jerk moment came when we arrived at her office one day after her class on East Asian Buddhism.  We were discussing some fine point of Zen, perhaps (I no longer remember the content of the conversation precisely), when we reached her door.  As we talked, I listened to her profound words while nodding as I followed along.  She stopped, looked me in the eye, and said, “you’re nodding your head, but I don’t think you understand anything I’m saying.”  She may well have been right, but it was still a rather jerky thing to say to a first-year graduate student. 

Fortunately, I had taken a course in the anthropology department at Pitt and encountered a professor there who was a true mentor.  He was interested in students and treated them with respect and concern.  I also realized that anthropology was an attractive discipline.  It accepted variation in the human condition and explored the complex ways in which humans found multiple truths about how to live in the world.  Anthropology was a place of openness to cultural difference, which had not been my experience in religious studies at that time.  I said good-bye to The Jerk and headed directly from her door to the anthropology department (literally), where I asked, “what do I have to do to transfer to anthro?”  I was told that I would have to apply just like a new incoming student and there was no guarantee I would either be admitted or get funding.  Fortunately, both happened and my career went in a much better direction.

The point I want to make here is that my career, which has been enjoyable and productive, was the result not only of good mentoring.  It was also the result of a couple of well-positioned jerks who profoundly shaped my life in good ways.  Had Jerk Number One not come along, I might never have met my wife.  Had Jerk Number Two not come along, I might never have become an anthropologist.  There have been a few more jerks as I’ve worked through my career in academia and I can honestly say that in each case they helped me clarify my perspectives on both work and life.  In many ways, I am genuinely grateful to the jerks who have been there for me along the way.  I’m fortunate to have met them and owe them much.

I don’t write that in a facetious way—well, perhaps a bit facetiously.  And I want to be careful to differentiate moderate jerks from truly toxic individuals who intend harm upon or exploit others.  None of the jerks I’m discussing here fit that description.  But it’s important to recognize that the negative experiences of one’s life are just as impactful as the positives.  The jerks can be just as influential as the mentors.  If I had encountered nothing but kind, warm, empathetic mentoring throughout my life, I’m not sure I would have accomplished much.  And I am close to certain I would not have become an anthropologist nor married the woman I’ve spent half of my life with. 

The reason jerks can be just as important as mentors is because we live in a world of uncertainty and constant change.  We cannot ever really know where life will take us, because we live in a flow of events that bounce us in various often unpredictable directions.  Not only do the calm, supportive currents influence us, but the dangers of the rapids do, as well.  Both jerks and mentors are variables in the process of intellectual, personal, and emotional growth.  

So, appreciate the jerks in your life.  They’ve helped you become who you are and, most likely, assisted you in your career more than you realize.  Without the jerks, your life path would have been different, but there is no way to know if that path would have been better or worse than the one you happen to be on at the moment. 

John W. Traphagan, Ph.D. is a Professor in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin.  His most recent book is Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures, published by Sumeru Press and available on Amazon.



UT Austin