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PENNING: Achievement of accolades leads to awkward response

• Oct 11, 2018 at 3:00 PM

It’s kind of a big deal. Or I should say, they are kind of big deals.

I’m talking about two professional achievements I’ve had this year, two accolades recognizing my professional accomplishment, the recognition of peers and the cache’ of elite membership.

In April in New York City, I was accepted into the Arthur W. Page Society, a group of top public relations or corporate communications executives from major organizations, or, like me, academics with a strong track record of leadership and scholarship. I had to be nominated by two or three current members and pass the consideration of a membership committee and the organization’s board.

Then, this past weekend, deep in the heart of Austin, Texas, I was inducted into something called the College of Fellows, an elite group within the Public Relations Society of America. In this case, I had to assemble six letters of recommendation from public relations professionals who can vouch for my career accomplishments and integrity, the consent of the local chapter of PR professionals, and lay out 20 examples — across five categories — of how my work has been exemplary and significant during my career.

Someone recently asked me what I felt when I learned I had been accepted into these two groups. I have to say it was a surprising mix of emotions. I recall for years, decades even, thinking that one day I might have my name among these admired, respected and accomplished professionals in my field. And I did feel a whiff of pride and satisfaction. But I was also surprised by how muted my response has been.

I’ve been thinking about why.

One reason is the sense I have that there are so many accolades in our society. Am I in part contributing to this culture of celebrating accomplishments, in large part accelerated by the humble brags constantly in our social media streams? Maybe. But these two things are significant. Why would I not celebrate?

Maybe I’m just tired. Looking back at my career to assemble the needed materials to be accepted into these two groups, I became both reflective and exhausted. My goodness, I’ve done a lot! Maybe I need to just slow down. I could be like the marathon runner who, crossing the finish line, has no energy to celebrate but just wants to lie down.

Perhaps I’m more like the mountain climber at the summit, or Alexander after his final conquest. That was exciting, they say. Now what? Having reached the pinnacle of my career, do I have a fear that it will just be “lather, rinse, repeat” from now on? Will I lose the thrill of the hunt, the desire for conquest. Am I having a midlife crisis, just without a sports car?

I do think a big part of it is perspective. As many readers of this paper know, my wife and I have been on a roller coaster of emotions dealing with the many phases of her cancer treatment. I tend to see things in terms of life and death. Work is not the focus of life, it’s merely a marginal part of it, including all the accomplishments within a career. Yes, I have made some professional goals. But that is a minor diversion as I continue to walk alongside my wife as she fights to survive cancer and its side effects.

Add to all of the above the simple mature indifference to personal flourishes. These accolades are not a pedestal on which I stand, but a platform from which I serve. Both organizations do stress mentorship of younger professionals and students, advocating for the profession and other forms of giving back in service. Being part of these organizations is a privilege and a responsibility, and my demeanor is an indicator that I take that responsibility with calm sobriety.

So, don’t get me wrong. I am satisfied when I think that I have joined two organizations of people I have admired for decades. When I was younger, I would have danced with excitement at the achievement. But I have arrived in a season of life when I just may get more excited about marmalade than an accolade.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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