Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Choosing to Change Direction (Mid-Career Malaise part III)

I've left everything hanging on this series for far too long. It's because mid-career is running me over with a steamroller, work-wise. Mid-career does this. It has no mercy.

BUT... I did promise a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. I can't tell you what can work for you, but I can tell you what turned things around for me. I think it dovetails nicely with what some commenters on the previous post have said, even though it's different in its particulars. My thoughts on this are a bit unformed, so I hope you'll bear with me.

When we last left the discussion, we had brought up the problem of post-tenure malaise/depression/anger, and how it was compounded by the fact that nobody talked about it because... well, in a world where departments are 50% adjunct labor and tenure is not a certainty even if you do land a permanent job, it seems like we should be doing the opposite of complaining (and, of course, one or two commenters have agreed with this position -- that we've got no right to complain, that is -- fair enough).

I also told a bit of my own story: the post-tenure letdown, the frequent feeling of being overworked and underappreciated, the tears, the snappishness, the serious contemplation of walking away from it all because it seemed that my job was making me deeply unhappy. Or, at least, it wasn't making me happy.

What I did, at some point a few years back, is that I really, seriously allowed myself to look at where I was, what I wanted out of work and life, and how my job helped and/or hindered me getting there. Here are a few of the things I realized along the way. Maybe one or more of them will apply to you.

1. You always have a choice. Yes, seriously. Maybe you don't have the choices you want, and maybe the "other choice" is really, really bad. But you do have a choice. Many, actually. Start thinking about those options. Include the most ridiculous (circus) to the prosaic (I can make a good latte) to the "within the field" options (administration; part-time adjuncting) to taking a flier on something totally new. What do each of these get you in the way of better quality of life? What do you give up? Really play out the scene all the way to the end: If you took door #2, where might you be five years from now? I thought about ditching my job, looking for adjunct work + coffee shop jobs in the town I grew up in (and which I love dearly), and maybe writing books on the side. I really tried to imagine what my life would be like. I also thought about the practicalities of that decision.

2. What nourishes you? That's a really hippy-dippy way to phrase it, I know. But it's also the most accurate. Where do you feel most like yourself, both in your job and out of it? Does your work situation enable you to do that thing? Even facilitate it? Or does it get in the way?  Or, maybe a better way of putting it is: does it enable more than it obstructs? Or vice-versa? 'Cause things change from day to day. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I loved writing. I love the creative process, and that little moment where all of a sudden you see something that wasn't there before, and the mad, frustrating scramble to show it to other people, even while knowing that you'll always be inadequate to the task. That's what gets my middle-aged ass out of bed in the morning. And I started thinking, "Hey... my job does give me the space to do this (except when it doesn't)."

3. Realize that your job doesn't owe you anything but a paycheck. We sometimes come into academia expecting personal fulfillment from our jobs. And I think that academics get it more than people in most jobs -- from teaching, from research, from service. But that was never in the contract you signed. You agreed to do a job; they agreed to pay you. Chances are you find some parts of your job more fulfilling than others. So, if you stay, you can think about compartmentalizing your jobs. For me, everything got sorted into two columns: "Things I do with integrity, and to the best of my ability" and "Things I do because it's a joy to do them." Sometimes there's even overlap between the two. But realizing -- really acknowledging -- that my job did not owe me personal happiness... and further that the fact that I did gain personal fulfillment from a decent chunk of it (way more than, say, most food service professionals -- the other thing I'm actually qualified to do), allowed me to reframe the rest of it.

4. Don't de-prioritize those things that make your life worth living. The previous point may sound like I'm saying "Suck it up, Buttercup." I'm actually not. A decision to stay should not feel like a martyrdom. It should feel like a strategic reframing of your relationship to your job. Think about the things you love that you no longer do because you "just don't have time, what with work the way it is." Fuck that noise. If your job is just a job, then you owe it integrity and hard work... but you do not owe it every corner of your life. That, too, was not part of the contract you signed. You get to take a day or two off. You get to go for a hike, or go to a yoga class, or just sit on a park bench with a novel. Start small. Think about a day. Or a three-hour window every day. Practice saying, "My job does not get this. This is MINE." And if your job does not let you do that -- have even a little corner that it can't pre-empt... well, then maybe that job sucks. It's certainly sucking the life out of you. But then again, are we just assuming that the job won't let us have it? Have we ever tried just saying "no"? (I'll tell you: I'm better at this some weeks/semesters than others, for certain.)

5. Think about all this, then make a choice. As an academic -- a tenured academic, no less, you have so much more choice than just about anybody. But that includes the choice to walk away -- or make an internal transition to something like administration, or become "downwardly mobile" to allow yourself more time -- if 1-4 have convinced you that this is the right way to go. Do it. You can recognize that you have a great, enviable job and still realize that it's not working for you. On the flip side, if you decide to stay, make that a choice, too. "I choose to remain in this job because..." For me, it was because I could do more of what I loved in the job than in some other situation (other than "independently wealthy," but even the circus is a more likely option than that for me).

5b. ...and continue making that choice every day. When I decided to stay, one of the things (other than the conscious reframing) that helped was the knowledge that I could walk away at any time if I changed my mind. Granted, there would be consequences, some of them (mostly the financial and personal ones) quite serious. But my job would never again feel like my jailer. As long as I did my work with integrity and to the best of my ability, I could engage with it on my own terms. And let me tell you: that's fucking excellent.

Let me leave you with a little fable -- actual, that's its title: "A Little Fable," by Franz Kafka:

"Alas", said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into."

"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.

You can choose to change direction, whether that's in your career or in your mind. Don't get eaten.


Good Enough Woman said...

This is a very good post, I think. I'm not at a four-year school, but I'm tenured at a community college, and I had a similar downswing around year eight (which for me was four years after tenure, but around the same time most four-year profs would be in the downturn you mention). I was burnt out, rubbed raw--just so over it and everybody on campus.

I remember leaving a board meeting, which made me feel totally unappreciated, and I thought, "Fuck these people. I'm leaving. I'm going to get a job somewhere else." But then I realized that I'd have to have a longer commute and work in a less pleasant environment in a job that might be, in many ways, more difficult. In short, I realized that flipping them the bird and leaving would actually not land me in a better job. So I had to disentangle myself and focus more on the things that I enjoy about my job and let go of what I wanted from other people.

Sabbatical helped, too.

I have colleagues who tell me that they cry in their offices about their jobs and how negative everything is. Although the environment can feel crazy and toxic sometimes, your suggestions are great for dealing with feelings such as theirs and those I had for a while.

I also feel better after I talk to friends and family who work in the corporate world. Eegads.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

That was the longest post you ever posted.

Susan said...

That we have choices is really important to remember. And it's easy to feel trapped -- I've done this so long, how could I possible leave? Well, you could. And you might be happier, and those around you might be too.

ej said...

Along the lines of what Susan said, I often find myself thinking that I've sacrificed so much for my career, how can I walk away? The nature of academia is such that your professional choices really dictate your personal ones. From grad school on you have to live in places you might not otherwise chose to live, knowing that you will eventually relocate elsewhere once you get a job (assuming you are fortunate enough to get a job), often leaving friends, family and relationships in the process. Not to mention any debt incurred in the process. Sometimes I feel trapped by the past. A funny position for a historian!

Hypatia Cade said...

I found this post helpful. I went up for tenure while my mother was dying and I was getting married to someone who might not have a job in the town we lived in 6 months after the wedding. It made me face alot of the questions (about what do I want, what choices do I have) in a much more abrupt pre-tenure way. I was pretty miserable pre tenure but that wasn't separable from other life horribleness. After that year passed I looked at what I was doing and I came to similar conclusions as you about choices and now, post tenure, with a spouse whose job is in town and a young child, I feel pretty grateful for what I have. But I also feel like I actively make choices within university life to stay happy. Choices related to service jobs, hours worked, projects I take on and students supervised. There are still grumpy stressful days, but on balance I do like what I'm doing more than any of the other choices I can seriously imagine.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm glad people are finding this helpful. This is, needless to say, all based on my own experience, so YMMV.

I want to address the point that EJ brings up: Sometimes, it's a choice between two bad options. But even when that's the case, mentally reframing it helps: "I can do A, B, or C. I am choosing B because B lets me..." And, of course, "I can always revisit this decision next year/semester/week."

You may end up doing the same thing as you would have if treating this as your default option. But Making this *your* decision -- and one that you stipulate the right to revoke at any time if the cost-benefit equation changes -- really does change how you approach everything: both the big choice, and all the little choices nested in it.

Anonymous said...

I so needed to read this. I did my first post-quasi-tenure job app the other week. Just applying, and knowing that colleagues would recommend me, has made such a change. It's not so much even the job, but the way it reminds me that I do have a choice, and that it's ok for me to want to work at a place where I can connect my teaching and research more clearly. That, and I hope at a place where I don't have to mark huge numbers of low-stakes assignments just to encourage students to actually do their reading.

Anonymous said...

Yes, these things are all true, but it all depends how toxic your workplace is and how far away the things you need are and whether you can afford to get to them. Semesters when I cannot afford gas to get to a research library are harder, for instance.