I was recently discussing my first two years on this job with a colleague and mentioned my frustration in not having landed some Fed $$ just yet and how I could have approached the first year very differently. The colleague listened and basically told me that I'm doing fine and then added "No one thinks you are slacking, in fact many feel you are going above and beyond."
Wait, what? That doesn't even make sense. It would be one thing if everyone was like "Oh, do you really need another grant? I mean the three you have should keep you busy enough... and that chair your sitting on is actually made of money and accepted manuscripts!" But that isn't exactly the case.
It made me think. Am I setting too high a standard for myself? Is the department expecting too little? Then I realized that I don't actually care what my department's standards are, as long as I exceed them.
When it comes right down to it, what motivates me isn't checking the boxes that should lead to tenure, but rather proving myself to people in this order:
1. Myself. I have a bunch of ideas that I want to work on and to see funded and the desire to answer the questions I see as exciting are the reason I am doing this job instead of getting paid a lot more to do another job with my skills.
2. The colleagues in my field and especially the labs I have worked in. Every conference, every invited lecture, every month that goes by where we are not making a big splash I can feel the people who know me waiting to see if I can deliver. Yeah, I was able to pump out a lot of papers as a postdoc, but now what? Can I launch my own program and make it successful? Luckily I feel like we are on the verge of making this happen.
3. The people who hired me. No one wants to let down those who have given you an opportunity and turned down others who may have been similarly qualified. That new faculty smell wears off after a while and what lies beneath better not stink like bad cologne and BO.
If I can perform up the expectations of those groups, then I should be checking all the right boxes for tenure without setting out to do so explicitly. I know what I need to have on my CV by the time my fourth year review comes around, but I am not pushing to get those things done because of the specter if tenure, per se. I am also not particularly motivated by how my effort is viewed by those around me, since at some point the person who tries really hard and never gets over the hump is just that person who couldn't cut it. There is no A for effort here.