Meg Myers Morgan wears many hats, and she likes it that way. As an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma – Tulsa, she leads the graduate programs in public administration and nonprofit management on the Tulsa campus, a role that includes teaching as well as working closely with graduate students. But Morgan has also built a career as a speaker, consultant, career coach and author.
Morgan’s first book, Harebrained, a collection of autobiographical essays, received positive reviews and even won the gold medal in humor at the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards. With her second book (out December 4th) Morgan moves into the self-help genre, drawing inspiration directly from her experiences in higher ed. Through case studies and humorous anecdotes, Everything is Negotiable explores women’s “preconceived notions about adulthood, parenthood, and career paths” and the way they can limit us. It’s a book that will speak directly to women in higher ed. as we seek ways to balance and negotiate our passions and goals. I spoke with Meg Myers Morgan about the themes of Everything is Negotiable, her work in higher ed., and that vexing question: “How do you balance it all?”
proF: First of all, tell us about your upcoming book, Everything is Negotiable. How did this project come about?
I had self-published a collection of humorous essays in 2015, which has nothing really to do with my field of research and study. But it was about the time I was working on my doctorate, and I was married – all that stuff. So when it came out, someone asked if I would give a TED talk for TEDxOU about the themes in the book, and more specifically about trends I was seeing while mentoring young, professional women, and advice in that area. That was kind of the first time that anyone had asked me to move my writing from reflective to prescriptive – which I guess was a light-bulb moment, in a very slow way. So I gave that talk, and then I thought, “Maybe that’s the direction my writing should take.”
I hadn’t really thought about traditionally publishing before, but I drafted up a proposal that matched – with the same framing device as the TED Talk. And I got an agent, and she sold the proposal within a couple of days to one of the top publishing houses in New York City, which was cool. It’s really different from what I experienced self-publishing, although I did have some success there. [The book] is a look specifically at my own experiences, but then also case studies of the young professional women in my graduate program – their journey into their career and in that work-life balance area.
proF: What led you to a career in academia?
I have maybe the oddest path to academia. I was an English major as an undergraduate and I wanted to work in the nonprofit [sector]. So I took a job with a nonprofit right after college, and then I wanted to be an executive director, so I thought, “I’m going to go back to OU and get my MPA.” And there just so happened to be a campus here in Tulsa, and so I got the degree. I loved researching nonprofits, versus maybe leading one, and so I took a job as a graduate research assistant, quit the nonprofit and finished my master’s. The research lab where I worked, which was primarily looking at the nonprofit sector, said, “Well, if you stay on and get your PhD, we’ll pay for it.” So I did that and worked doing research for about six years on nonprofit effectiveness and governance. And then they decided to open up a position to actually lead the MPA in Tulsa. We’d never had anyone on the Tulsa campus before that was devoted to the MPA, so it definitely shifted the way they were going to be delivering programs. And so that was sort of a dream situation that I couldn’t have even thought about.
proF: How does your writing fit into the picture? Did that passion come first?
I continued to write when I left college, but I really started writing when I was still in my doctoral program. I was seeing the differences between how my husband was being treated in his career when we said I was pregnant, and how I was being treated. And I’ve always been a strong feminist, but holy hell, did it ramp up once I had a kid and saw just how many more obstacles were in my way than in my husband’s way career-wise. So around then my writing started to take that bent of exploring what it’s like to be a woman trying to navigate this.
A big part of the negotiation that I do is I don’t look like other academics on paper. I don’t look like other writers – we sort of have these images in our heads of what academics look like and what writers look like. It just sort of was this mash-up of the two. And predominantly what I write about are my experiences teaching. I’m in a teaching-heavy role; I’m not tenure-track. So it’s really about that advising and teaching role, and what that say about – not to put it too dramatically, but – the human condition. What it means to be in front of a classroom and to be working with people as they are on their journey while you’re sort of on your own journey, too.
proF: You mentor students, correct? What are your thoughts on mentorship as a way for women to support one another?
I would say that my career did not start taking shape until the mentor that I have now, who is in our department, first came into focus. I think [it’s necessary to] be a mentor simultaneous to being mentored, because I don’t think you can do just one. And you can have really bad mentors – they can actually harm your career. What I always recommend students do is find one who’s not in your path of what you’re trying to do. If it’s your boss, they can maybe inadvertently manipulate you into doing the work that they need to be done. You want to find the mentor that is objective enough to call you on your BS but also invest in you – and that’s pretty typically hard to find. But it’s easier to find that in a professor, because they want you to succeed, but they’re not the person that’s going to give you a promotion.
There are about 50 in the programs, so I advise all 50 of them. And I would say about 60 percent of our students are female. I think everybody has to find the right fit, but because I’m all they have I think that on my part, it’s trying to be what people need, meeting them where they’re at and trying to help them. If there were six or seven of us up here, it would be easier to say, “I’ll go with this or that professor.” So it really kind of makes you work as a mentor to make sure that you’re helping in the right way.
proF: How do you balance the different aspects of your career?
It’s funny, I get that question a lot. I struggle a little bit – not that you’ve asked a bad question, but it’s very hard to answer because one of the things I’ve noticed is that we’re always asking women how they do it, but the “how” isn’t really important. Asking “how” they balance it is part of the reason women are worried they won’t be able to, because we put women in a position to justify what we do. If someone says, “How do you juggle it all?” then women get really defensive, like they almost have to admit their failings to seem normal, like “Well, I almost never get to the gym!” (which is also true) [laughs]. But what I try to tell people is: I don’t do things that I don’t want to do. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have to do laundry and all of that, but if you’re being pretty selective and saying, “these are all things that I want to be in my life,” then it’s pretty easy to prioritize them. [For example] right now, the book’s coming out, so that gets more mental energy and attention and weight than it normally would.
I think the danger is that women are afraid they can’t have it all because they have bought into the belief that they have to be perfect in it all, and that’s not it. We would never ask a man, “How do you balance fatherhood and having a career?” Because that’s what my husband has; we have identical things – a job, mortgage, kids, hobbies, social life. And I wonder why we don’t question how men balance it, and it’s because the resources and the expectation are already on the men. The expectation is that of course he’s going to have all of those things because someone else is going to offer a lot of support, and that somebody else is usually a woman. We have to figure out a way where women have just the expectation to be able to do everything they want. And how can we do that? Well, we have to have better policies in the workplace; we have to have better societal training in how we look at women.
So I don’t know how to answer your question, but I have grappled with it a lot, because it’s the single question I get the most. And I can’t help but think people question it because they don’t believe it’s true. It’s almost like: “You’ve got to be failing somewhere, so where are you failing?” So that to me is the most interesting question of my career, and what I hope the book is getting at: the weirdness women feel about that question, because they feel like maybe they’re doing something wrong, and how we can negotiate better terms, both at work and with ourselves.
proF: Can you explain further this concept of “negotiation” that you explore in the book?
A lot of this book is about your own personal negotiation. For a while, because everyone was asking me how I do things, I really steered into that very harried, busy mom feeling. I thought that maybe justified all the things I had going. And then I [realized] that was dumb. Because I really did feel stressed, but the normal level of stress that all people feel, and it definitely ebbs and flows. So I thought, “Is that really the kind of woman you want to be? Is that really the kind of mom and working person you want to be – this sort of harried, put-upon stressed-out mom?” And it wasn’t, so I was just like, “Nope. I’m not going to do that.” I’m going to play it how I know it’s true and authentic.
proF: I often think about the culture of busyness we have, where being “busy” is sort of a status symbol. I liked the part in your TED Talk where you discuss the idea of giving things “your all,” and how women buy into the idea that they have to do that, when it’s not always possible or even desirable.
Yes. You know, I struggle mildly with perfectionism and anxiety and those types of things. I think you find that in most high-achieving or highly ambitious women, who you find in graduate programs and who you find wanting to go into leadership. So my point of view is sort of around that arena where, not only do I want to do things, but I have to be perfect at it. But no! Those are two different things! So I don’t really buy into the [attitude of], “I just want to do one thing really well.” Because then, what’s the one thing? Is it just going to be kids, is it just going to be this one career – it’s too limiting. I am challenged a lot on that idea of “give a little bit to a lot of stuff,” but that’s what works for me. This is because there are times when I feel like a bad mom, but I still have this book coming. And if the book doesn’t do well, it’s okay, because over here I have this career I like, and these kids that love me. So I think you also just spread out your disappointment and achievement in a way that your eggs aren’t all in one basket. I would much rather be the person that tries and doesn’t get it right than doesn’t try at all. And you kind of get this weird sense of bravery when you’re like, “I’m gonna do it all.”
Also, I have a very equal partner. Not only is he one, but I also demand it. I find a lot of women that I talk to don’t demand a better, equal partner. So a lot of the time I get people saying, “Well you’re just very lucky . . .” and I say yes, he’s wonderful, that’s why I married him. However, we negotiate that daily. Just this morning we had one of our kids who was sick, and we negotiated who’s going to give up what today to make this work. So I think the book really hits that. My personal thesis is that everyone’s trying to find the answer. It’s just a series of daily negotiations that you take as they come. It’s just leveraging your worth for something that you value. You’ve just always got to know what it is you value, what it is you want, and what it is you’re worth. That may sound easy, and I don’t mean it to be easy. But I do think that most of the negotiations women are struggling with are often self-imposed assumptions of their own limitations that aren’t really there.
A great example is that recently I had someone come talk to me about wanting to do a program, and she was like “I’m about to have a kid.” When I said congratulations, she said, “Oh, I’m not pregnant yet.” It’s like, that’s great – but we compartmentalize. In her mind, she’s wondering, How can I negotiate around this baby? So that’s how women stop themselves. They say “well I also want this over here.” I’ve never had a male student say, “Well I’m going to have a kid, how am I going to do this graduate program?” I just want women to have the same privilege.
proF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about Everything is Negotiable?
I think the book will be a good read because it really is so much about what happens in the classroom, what happens with students, what happens when we’re giving advice on something that we’re struggling to face ourselves. I think that really will appeal to your audience because I’ve never read a book that’s about what I’ve experienced in the classroom, which are very universal things. But the book is really about those experiences that we as professors have had. That’s kind of what started this whole thing because after that TEDx talk, I was out in the lobby area and all these college students came up to me [asking for advice]. And I realized it’s just about knowing that all these thoughts and concerns we’re having are universal, and we all feel them, but we don’t want to admit them – because part of the process is pretending like we have it all figured out. No one has it all figured out, and that’s the big secret.