The Study Dude—Why Academia Needs the Broken-hearted

How might love, comedy, kindness, beauty—whatever defines your soul—fit into your research assignment?  Shouldn’t you be an aloof observer writing as objectively as possible?  Well, take heart from the world of fundraising: “When you as a non-profit fundraising or communications professional sit down to write something for your donor audience, you might take on the ominous ‘corporate voice.’  You let go of your personal voice, because you think you need to sound polished, professional, and reputable.  This mindset prevents us from being authentic and unique” (Lockshin, p.5 of 198, 4%).  Author Vanessa Chase Lockshin “calls us to embrace vulnerability, transparency, and authenticity in our organization’s voice.  To invite narrative and emotion into the conversation.  To be inclusive and to make sure that our donor community knows their real impacts” (p.6 of 198, 5%).

When I enrolled in the Faculty of Psychology, I watched a video of mice placed upside down in test-tubes.  The mice were being studied for how long they’d live.  When I peered into the wide eyes of the last mouse alive, I couldn’t do it.  I dropped out of the program.  But if ever your heart breaks in a course, then, just know, you belong there.  You’ll fill the gap of compassion.  After all, filling a gap marks a must-have for original research.  “It’s time to let go of being an institution and start being a group of people who are passionate about a mission and a vision” (p.6 of 198, 5%).

In graduate studies, you may find yourself researching a group of people.  When groups of people—even animals—become your research subjects, seek empathy.  One male professor cited all his research subjects as coauthors of his project.  But he got their permissions to publish their names first.

I once saw a YouTube video on chimps newly released from a research facility.  The chimps saw sunlight for the first time.  When amazement washed over their faces, my heart broke.  I sent those chimps gifts of peanut butter and crackers.  In doing so, I felt united with something bigger, something more beautiful than merely self.  In one word, I felt compassion.  This feeling is the lifeblood of many non-profits, but to garner compassion you first need to discover connection.  “At first glance, you might think you’re telling stories to donors so they will understand your organization or get them to donate more money.  However, if you peel back the layers, non-profit storytelling is really about making your donors feel connected to something bigger than themselves” (p.4 of 198, 3%).

Feeling “is what distinguishes the great non-profit stories from the not so great ones.  It’s also what makes certain non-profits and their brands more memorable than others” (p.4 of 198, 3%).  The same could be said for your research.  So, create feeling through meaningful stories.  The people you research may depend on it.

But how do you tell meaningful stories when you know little about your subjects?

A non-profit rep, Vanessa Chase Lockshin needed to discover ways to identify with cancer patients represented by her organization.  “I thought, I don’t actually know what this experience is like.  How will I do justice to these patients and their loved ones?” (p.  2 of 198, 2%).  Yes, it’s hard to feel empathy when you haven’t felt someone’s pain.  When people used to tell me they had fibromyalgia, I’d think of Jughead snoring on his cot.  And I’d think little else.

But when I got hit with chronic fatigue syndrome, I couldn’t believe how painful tiredness could feel.  And I realized that every disease or pain could bring unbearable suffering.  That triggered a deep empathy in me for others’ pains, whether chronic disease, illness, broken hearts, or loneliness.

But even if you can’t identify with someone’s pain, you can dig into your own story to uncover deep empathy.  Vanessa says, “When I identified the emotions these family members are feeling when they call, I realized that I too am well acquainted with that emotion” (p.  3 of 198, 2%).  Acting books say let love drive your character—love for all characters on stage.  Acting books also say to find any inch of common ground between you and the character you act.  If your stage character’s cat got gnarled to death from a neighbor unleashing his dog, and you’ve never owned a pet, find empathy.  Think of your year as a toddler when you brought home a frog only to watch it die.  Identify with how your heart broke.  And mix it with the anger you felt when your grandfather died without a visitor except for you.

Some people feel moved by beauty—so much so that they have a special wisdom to share.  Some people feel tickled by the comical.  Others know the humbling depth of humility.  Your emotional strengths can create connection.  “Feeling something is far more memorable than any eloquent description of your work” (p.  4 of 198, 3%).

Certain positive emotions, values, and beliefs serve as your strengths.  Let your strengths guide your research.  “By telling your donors stories and highlighting a universally experienced emotion, value, or belief, you can help them feel like they belong to a community—your community” (p.  4 of 198, 3%).  Drum up the emotions, values, and beliefs most aligned with your strengths.  I’m strongest in love, kindness, and love for learning.  Your special gifts may be different from mine.  But all strengths have the power to create empathy in research—and for everyone around you.


Lockshin, Vanessa Chase.  (2016).  The Storytelling Non-Profit: A Practical Guide to Telling Stories that Raise Money and Awareness.   Lockshin Consulting Inc.

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