A professor’s “antithesis” to boastful personal websites

Karl Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, has a very unusual personal website. Unlike most academic websites, which often list recent accomplishments, areas of expertise, or awards, Aquino’s has a section dedicated to answering the question, “What didn’t Karl Aquino do?” succeeded in accomplishing?” He advises young researchers to “find co-authors who are smarter, more creative, hard-working, taller, and preferably prettier than you” and offers a submission box for “your 5 worst research ideas”.

At a time when “personal brand” is seen as “more important than ever,” Aquino told “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal the origin story of his satirical website. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Rysdal: So we should say right off the bat here, just to establish your credibility on the street, so to speak, that you are in fact an accomplished scholar in your field. And yet, you have this site that I don’t even know about — could you describe it to me, please?

Carl Aquin: Sure. I, I guess I would describe it as some kind of fun that I created many years ago. But also, I guess, kind of a satirical statement about some of the things I had observed.

Rysdal: It’s, it’s something that has to be seen to be believed. But I’ll just, I’ll just read the first page here. “Welcome to my updated official unofficial homepage. Since 2005, you have been visitor number three. I still have no idea why you chose to visit this site, but here are the things that you can read while you’re here: What Karl Aquino Failed To Accomplish? ‘a first home?’ How – give me the backstory, will you?

Aquin: Yes, well, this is a website that was created over 15 years ago. I wanted to sort of take off some websites I had seen of fellow professors, some of them were pretty lavish with self-praise. And I thought, my friend and I thought – I had a friend I was working with at the time who’s also a teacher – and we thought, that’s kind of funny. Perhaps we should make an antithesis of this kind of website. You know, a suboptimally functioning academic. [So] it’s just meant to portray someone who doesn’t seem to have anything together, yet still dispenses advice.

Rysdal: You know, it’s funny. Clearly, that’s a blunder, right? But #1, you make a point. And #2, you put a lot of thought into it.

Aquin: Yes. Yes, we did. I mean, I’ve worked on it a bit over the years. I have noticed, because I teach at a business school, that I come across different student websites from time to time. And yes, the amount of self-aggrandizement that seems to go into a lot of these personal brands is actually an interesting phenomenon to study. But you know, my website seems to have stood the test of time because people I took it backI don’t know how, and I guess that’s why you’re talking to me now.

Rysdal: It’s true. And you know, we want to boost your brand, professor. That’s why we are here.

Aquin: Thanks.

Rysdal: So look, satire aside, as someone who studies this stuff, right? I mean, you’re a professor of organization and society at UBC. What do you learn when you explore how people mark themselves here at the start of the 21st century?

Aquin: I think part of my curiosity about it is the different patterns. So there are obviously instrumental motivations. You want to present yourself in a positive light. Maybe you will attract attention, you will have opportunities. … I mean, I think it’s also part of the ethos of our current culture to build a personal brand. [But] Is building a fake brand really conducive to a life of psychological health and fulfillment? I guess the jury is still out.

Rysdal: Yeah. Just a few months ago there was quite an uproar in the journalism community about journalists building personal brands and whether it takes away from their work and what value it adds to the journalism they do. So it’s not just academia – it freaks everyone out.

Aquin: Oh yeah. I really think it’s a phenomenon that 15 years ago was definitely not at the level you’ve seen now. And I think maybe that’s part of the status quo in the age of social media.

Rysdal: Are you going to continue? I mean, there’s no reason to take it down, is there?

Aquin: No, like I said, it seems to have had a pretty good shelf life. And you know, if it brings people a bit of humor and fun. … But I think if you’re reading it, there’s actually a deeper message to all of this – it’s meant to illustrate the vanity of human pretensions. I think it shows, you know, how transient our lives are and maybe attaching extreme importance to ourselves and our accomplishments is maybe not something that will necessarily bring out the best in us. It’s kind of a deeper analysis that most people probably won’t watch, but anyway, that was part of the motivation.

Rysdal: Listen, I asked and you gave a good answer. Professor Karl Aquino is Professor of Organizations and Society at the University of British Columbia. He is also, according to his website, the 56,651st most influential management thinker in the world. Professor, thank you for your time, sir. I appreciate it.

Aquin: Thank you very much, Kai.

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Harry L. Blanchard