Murky Environments

A murky environment is one that is unclear, hazy, obscure, confused, or otherwise obfuscated.  Murky environments are local.  Each has to be understood in its own terms.  They pose serious career challenges because we often feel like we should understand them or think we do understand them, but we don’t.  

During the course of a career, almost everyone enters multiple murky environments, ones where one thinks one should know the rules but then begins to question whether one knows anything at all about how the place works.  The experience is somewhat analogous to what airplane pilots or underwater divers go through when they experience spatial disorientation.  They lose their frame of reference and even find themselves uncertain as to what is up and what is down.  They are more likely to experience spatial disorientation in murky environments, such as hazy skies in which a pilot can no longer make out the horizon or turbid water where it is not clear in what direction either the surface or the bottom of the body of water is.  Airplane landings are especially risky in such environments, because the knowledge of local conditions needed to make a smooth landing at each airport is different.  Often, one does not recognize the murkiness in a local environment until it is too late. 

If you are in a murky environment in your career, you need to make an “instrument landing.”  The problem is that, unlike in a plane, you have to create your own instruments and there often is little guidance as to precisely what these instruments need to tell you.   So what do you do?

There are no perfectly reliable electronic instruments that will guide you through a murky environment where the murkiness is a result of human nature.  The only reliable guidance for human-induced murkiness is human guidance.  But just as you cannot suddenly acquire electronic instruments when you are in an airplane (or a diver’s suit) entering a period of disorientation in a spatial environment, you generally cannot suddenly acquire human instruments when you enter a period of disorientation in a human environment

If there were electronic instruments for each of the causes of murkiness, you would need an instrument for each.  Unfortunately, it often is not even clear what the nature of the murkiness is or what causes it.  Because you will need human guidance, which is fallible, you most likely will need more than one instrument for each potential source of murkiness, although the sources of guidance may be overlapping.  You need mentors and you need them now, hopefully before you end up feeling disoriented.

In careers as in flying, there are different kinds of murky environments.  The most important task for you to is to recognize the environment as murky before it is too late, to figure out if possible the source of murkiness, and to have mentors ready to advise you on how to navigate ahead.  Five frequently encountered types of murkiness are:


  • Foggy

The environment can be foggy, so that you simply cannot see what the right thing for you to do is.  In foggy environments, there usually is either deliberate or inadvertent obfuscation of what your best course of action is.  Just as in driving, dangerous objects often are closer than they appear to be.  For example, no one tells you what it means to “fit” because they want to have flexibility in deciding whether to keep you.  So they fog things up because being clear about criteria would take away some of their flexibility.

  • Stormy

The environment can be stormy, so that what was right even a short time ago no longer is right.  Such environments occur when there are new presidents, provosts, deans, chairs, or others who change the conventions under which faculty may in the past have operated.  For example, teaching counted a lot for tenure until a new dean came in who decided that she wanted to accelerate the institution’s research reputation, and quite suddenly, and with much turbulence and agitation, things changed.

  • Windy

In a windy environment, headwinds may seem constantly to thwart your attempts to progress in your career.  Headwinds can be caused by colleagues who want to see you fail, spreading yourself so thin that you can’t get anything done, or a funding environment that makes it extremely difficult to get funding for one’s empirical research.  If you are lucky, you will experience tailwinds, where others, including granting agencies and colleagues alike, help you achieve goals that you probably would not have achieved on your own.  Winds can be sudden and they are not necessarily preceded by warnings.  Everyone who has experienced “clear air turbulence” in airplanes knows how suddenly it can come on and how disorienting it can be.

  • Icy

No matter where you try to move, you find yourself slipping (or losing altitude).  You can’t seem to get the footing you need to move forward in your career. 

  •  Topographically challenging

You find you simply don’t understand the terrain you need to navigate and it is getting the better of you. You are expected to make too steep a climb or to make too many turns.

I would like to collaborate with others on devising instruments that measure the murkiness of an environment, and in particular that diagnose in what way or ways the environment is murky.  I then would hope these instruments could help individuals navigate the murky environments in which they find themselves.


Key Reference

Sternberg, R. J. (2014). Murky environments in academe.  Chronicle of Higher Education,