5 Easy ways to celebrate your academic wins

Good times, bad times

We all have good days and bad days. Imagine if there was so little variation in life that it did not hold true. But, as Rousseau, Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers pointed out – we have the ability to shape our own destiny and affect our environment. Leaves, blowing in the autumn winds, we are not.

As academics, we often look down upon those $9,99 “How to…” quick-fix books that dominate the top shelf in airport bookstores. Yet, the enduring nature of the genre dealing with ‘positivity attitude’ and ‘personal energy’ since popularised by Dale Carnegie in our grandparents’ generation should suggest there is something about it.

The main contention is that we feed off positive energy. It sets off a virtuous cycle. It ignites the same in others that one encounters and they, in turn, feed us more of the same energy. Good days, as they are, are then likely explained by the first couple of encounters on that day that kick-start this spiral of spunk. Goal achieved – check.

Small wins and big wins

What then are the milestones and achievements that call for celebration? Do we only pause when we achieve large goals, or should we celebrate small wins too? Needless to say, you would only recognise a ‘win’ if you actively set goals and strive to achieve them. Incidental wins you should take if they come your way – they matter. But the true reward comes from achieving hard-won, targeted goals. We could distinguish between the big and small wins, although the latter may be called as such only due to their less formal status. They may be as impactful as any big win, across any of the facets of your life.

Big wins:

  • As academics, the first major win is completing your dissertation. Gone with that ABD albatross around the neck. You have now formally entered the profession to which you aspired for many years. Invite the whole family. Fling that cap as high as you can on graduation day. Break out the Champagne. That torturous, yet fascinating first phase of your career is over.
  • Promotion and tenure. These are life-changing milestones. They map the road for your future and significantly validate that your abilities have been recognised by capable peers and senior colleagues.
  • The release of your first book. It may be a monograph of your dissertation or an entirely new project.
  • Acceptance of an article in a prestigious journal. Even if co-authored, you know your research is now central to the conversation in your chosen discipline. Many more will come and you will get a thrill every time you see your article cited. You have added your pebble to the edifice of knowledge.

Small wins:

  • Teaching can be so impactful, yet it is often undervalued in the academic trajectory. When it comes to this valuable human interaction, there are so many small wins that can be celebrated in a joyous fashion. Wear your academic gown when your students give you a good rating. Hand out small, unexpected performance awards when students shine.
  • You reached your dietary or health targets. As unrelated as they may seem to your work, make no mistake; they establish a habit of goal achievement that is essential to your career.
  • Other events that may brighten your day and boost your self-worth could include: Selection to a committee; admission to professional societies; acceptance of a conference paper submission; a good peer review; a compliment from the Head of your Department. Look around you – a lot of good is happening in your life without much fanfare.


3 Benefits of celebrating

  • Motivational/Inspirational

In developing the ‘Progress Principle” authors Amabile and Kramer, in the Harvard Business Review explain how their research linked achievement and a positive disposition to actual progress.

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.’

Celebrating small wins are the visible milestones of progress. When we celebrate, we know there was progress.

  • Emotional/Psychological

Stress can be correlated with uncertainty. By creating the opportunity to mark your milestones, you know that there is a part of your life that is positively under control. People who take this time to reflect upon their progress are reported to be more positive about life, give more attention to their own wellbeing and have significantly reduced levels of stress.

Note that the emphasis here is on an element of reflection and personal acknowledgement, rather than on grandiose displays that seek external validation.

  • Relational/Political

It is important for your career that you signal your successes. Success begets success, and if you do not regularly create the opportunity to remind people that you are no longer the insecure Master students they met for the first time many years ago, that sense of hierarchy with all its exclusion may continue to exist.

In terms of collegiality, few successes are achieved without someone who played an important role in providing guidance or support. It is not only the right thing to shine the light on these individuals; to let them feel like your success is theirs too, but never underestimate how much they may mean to you again at a later stage of your life.

If there is enough happiness to go around for all, what is to lose by making other part-heroes in your story?


5 Meaningful ways of celebrating

Knowing that there are benefits to rewarding your achievement of goals, here are a few ideas on how you may go about it:

  • Make learning a shared experience

Whether family, neighbours or colleagues, bring people together as witnesses to your achievements and use the opportunity to show appreciation for whoever played a role in your success. 

  •  Journal the moment

If you keep a record of life events, draw a big red circle around this date. There may come a time in the future where you may need to be reminded of where you came from and what it took to be where you are.

  • Gift yourself

Social recognition may have its reward but make sure you get thorough enjoyment from the treat you give yourself. Those phenomenal headphones where the high C takes on overtones? Every time you listen to the Queen of the Night aria, remember that your hard work gets you places.

  • Create your own power move

You are as professional as any athlete, so go ahead, do that power move and circulate it on social media. The idea here is to create some unshackling from the daily pressures of living up to other people’s idea of ‘what applies to academics.’ One could go dance under the stars or in the woods, or something active, frivolous and almost infantile. Socially unconstrained joy is a sure way of marking your big moment.

  • Take time off to do what you love

Go for a hike. Cycle down the coast. Or spend days watching a double feature at the movies till you smell like buttered popcorn. It is an indulgence and despite the bruising that your ego had taken at times on the academic highway, you deserve every moment of it.

You be the judge on what counts as big or small wins in your life. But whether big or small, take the time to get that pat on the back.


Unsplash 2021 / image: Juan Ramos