How to Be an Authority without Being a Jerk

If you’re anything like me, then the idea of claiming to be an authority seems a little bit distasteful. Not just because of imposter syndrome – feeling like ‘who am I to claim to be an authority’, but also because authority is so closely linked to the word authoritarian – something I do not wish in any way to associate myself with. Nope, not me – I’m all about cooperation, sharing, and other bleeding heart stuff like that.

On a recent drive along I-80 in central Pennsylvania (I have some of my best thoughts while on the road), it occurred to me that my repulsion toward the word authority may be rooted in my interpretation of the word rather than what the word could potentially mean.

The concept of authority has become entangled with authoritarianism and top-down, hierarchical leadership styles that are slowly, but thankfully, becoming a relic of the past. We think of the word ‘authority’ to mean ‘I wrote the book. I’m special and better than (collective) you because I know it all – and anything you say to try and challenge me is just going to make you look like a fool.’

I see authority as an active process of envisioning and creating. It doesn’t mean that you wrote the book that sits on dusty shelves and nobody reads anymore but that you are actively and continually writing – creating – in response to an ever-changing world.

If you think you know everything you aren’t an authority; you’re a jerk and nobody cares about your impossible and improbable claims to know everything. The only way to establish authority while also building credibility and respect is to take creative risks, learn, renew perspectives, and repeat the process over and over again. Let’s rewrite the script on authority.

Rediscovering the Library

library

As a young woman, I spent a lot of time in the library. It was more than a place to kill a few hours every day in-between school and work; it was a magical place where all things were possible.

But lately, I have gotten out of the habit of visiting these local treasures. Enrolling in a Ph.D. program interrupted any leisure reading I might have enjoyed for several years and since (temporarily but for what is becoming a more extended time than I originally anticipated) disenrolling, I have, for some reason, not been voraciously reading as I had been in the past. While I still enjoy good books and articles, and read when I can, I often find myself too tired at night when I snuggle into bed to read and too busy during the day to take the time. I also spend much too much time at work in front of a computer so using my eyes to read text above and beyond that time is sometimes undesirable.

I recently visited three local libraries as part of a history research project. I have been to all three countless times before, as I have lived in all three cities, but had not stepped foot in any of them more than once or twice over the past few years. I felt that magic feeling again, a mixture of possibility, stillness, intellectual stimulation, and safety. It is an environment beautifully calibrated with my soul, a place where I feel right at home. According to the 2015 State of America’s Libraries: A Report from the American Library Association, Americans see libraries as “anchors, centers for academic life and research, and cherished spaces.” Yes, that’s it.

Libraries fill my heart with joy and my mind with wisdom. Like my home, the beach, and farms, they are one of the places where I feel most at ease, inspired, and alive. The last time I visited a library. a toddler was screaming and crying after story time because he didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Epiphany

Once you experience an epiphany, there is no going back. So it was when I realized that my emotional difference was an integral, and beautiful, part of me rather than something to be feared, suppressed, and eliminated.

peak

But the other side of the epiphany, the point when everything you ever believed to be true is found to be a lie, is lonely. Those who have not reached that peak, who are lost in the struggle of self-discovery, cannot see what lies on the other side. It is not because they are blind, or see the world with disillusioned eyes, but because they have not yet organized the frames of reference necessary to make sense of this strange new world. It is a blur, a frenzied state of meaningless fluff that is of absolutely no practical use.

So for those of us who have an epiphany, in whatever field we practice, we have an obligation to make what we have envisioned, and found to be true, more clear and more real to others on a similar life journey. Sometimes we do this by prodding them on with tough love, other times we seduce them with incremental measures of success, and yet other times we bridge the new world with the old, weaving together intellectual, cultural, and mythological wisdom into an inclusive tapestry that captures our collective imaginations and life aspirations.

The epiphany, the discovery that opens up unlimited new potential discoveries, is a unique, personal experience. It is one that compels us to share that experience with others so that they, too, might benefit. Doing so in a meaningful way is a burden borne with love by those who experience these life-changing moments. We write, we talk, we use our lives as an example, we hope that someone will understand. Not to confirm that this new world exists, because the epiphany is not tainted by uncertainty, but to give it wings.