Dr. Justin Esarey

Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University

1. How do you define success for yourself? What has helped you to be successful?

Man in dark blue blazer with arms crossed
Dr. Justin Esarey

To succeed is to achieve one’s goals, so I think the overarching philosophical problem behind these questions is about how a person ought to choose a set of goals and then achieve them. My own goals have changed over time. At first, like most young people, I had very discrete milestones that I wanted to hit: get that scholarship, get into that program, publish that paper, get that job, and so on. Those are reasonable goals for a young person. But there is a danger in that way of life. If you fail, you will be sad… but what if you succeed? Will you be satisfied? Are you simply following a track-like pathway that someone else has laid out for you? Have you explored enough, taken enough risks, that you really understand who you are?

To paraphrase Thoreau: I would like to be good, and to be good for something. If I can look myself in the mirror each morning and conclude that those things are still true, I am satisfied. That leaves many details undefined, but it’s specific enough to highlight one of the major challenges with pursuing success: it can’t be done by simply following the community’s desires nor by ignoring them to single-mindedly do what you believe is best. It can’t be done by neglecting your own moral framework (or, worse yet, simply failing to build one). It isn’t driven by external validation (goodbye, Nobel Prize) but it isn’t solipsistic. And, if validation comes, perhaps I will be more worthy and gracious in receiving it.

2. Think of a time that you faced a challenge, obstacle, or roadblock. How did you get through that and what did you learn?

Almost everything that I was afraid would happen to me in my early 20s has actually happened to me at some point. In some ways, those failures were just as hard as I was worried they would be. But I did learn that being able to deal constructively with failure is a critically important skill for long-term success. By failure, I do not mean experiencing unfortunate setbacks or being an honorable mention instead of a champion. Failure means something more akin to making significant and public mistakes or misjudgments that force you to seriously re-evaluate what you are doing and why you are doing it. I believe that I spent too many years afraid of that sort of failure, which is always a risk when you’re trying to do something that is difficult and important. To quote Neil Gaiman, “it is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt. If you do not climb, you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall?” You won’t be able to find out what you’re capable of without pushing your limits, and you won’t be able to find out what’s possible without occasionally running into what is impossible. Rarely does failure have to be the end of a story.

3. Who are your people (either by name or role) who help you to be successful/confident/intentional/reflective/any other descriptor you want to use? And how have they helped you?

I think everyone needs people around them who care about them enough to tell them the truth, good or bad. They also need people who will advocate for them when they are not around. I have been fortunate to find many such people. It seems trite to say it, but my wife Betsy Barre (the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching here at WFU) often fills these roles for me. I also have many colleagues here in the WFU Department of Politics, like the other members of our PS: Political Science and Politics editorial team (Peter Siavelis, Betina Wilkinson, and Lina Benabdallah), that I trust in such matters. My erstwhile co-author Leslie Schwindt-Bayer (a professor at Rice University), former chair Ashley Leeds (also a professor at Rice), and friends and colleagues Rick Wilson and Clifton Morgan (professors at Rice) were and are also important mentors and sources of feedback and support for me, as was my PhD advisor Bill Berry (a professor at Florida State University). I still have a picture of my undergraduate mentor, John Hoag (professor emeritus of Economics at Bowling Green State University) on my bookshelf; I would have one of my other undergraduate mentor, Bernadette Jungblut (a former professor at BGSU and now Associate Provost at Central Washington) if I had thought to take one at the time.

4. How did you find your people?

As with most things in life: a combination of being presented with opportunities by chance and seizing them when I could.

5. What advice would you give to Wake Forest students as they look for their people?

I quote a letter from EB White:

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”