A year ago, my professional life seemed idyllic: I had a full-time teaching job at a small liberal arts college, I was working with great students and talented, hilarious colleagues, and I was immersed in scientific research on volcanic systems (just the words “volcanic systems” are enough to delight the science geek in me). It looked great on paper… But I felt inexplicably, dizzyingly uncomfortable every single day. It was bizarre to me: how could I have tried so hard to get it right and gotten it so wrong?
I’m going to keep it real and admit that I have struggled (mightily) with this question for months. A person doesn’t embark on the arduous tasks of completing grad school and weathering the academic job market without a high level of passion for, and dedication to, their chosen subject. I loved grad school. It was probably as painless as it could possibly be (I was lucky). So was the job search. When I applied for the teaching position I eventually took, the opportunity seemed to fit like a glove.
And I worked hard. I knew the first year of teaching was going to be arduous. I committed myself to seeing it through, doing my best, and learning from the process. I wanted to make it work because I knew I was capable of being an effective teacher and scholar. When, in the second year, I still found myself hunched over my desk and struggling to make it through another hour much less another day or week, I realized something had to change, even if it meant feeling like a failure.
I’m finally realizing that it’s not so much that I failed at what I was doing. I was just doing the right things in the wrong context. Now, finally, I’ve found the correct context:
- I don’t teach college anymore, but I homeschool my kid. As with teaching college students, homeschooling is a rewarding gig. I get to watch someone explore and discover their world, and I help him navigate that process. As with teaching college students, I often feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Like my college students, Sam learns anyway.
- I no longer advise students, but as a health and wellness coach, I encourage and support people who are looking to lead healthier, more active lives. I get to watch them work hard and meet their goals. As part of that job, I run and do yoga and move… And I love doing those things.
- I no longer attend scientific conferences or participate in geology field trips, but I spend time outside every day. I still drool over rocks and volcanoes, enjoy the outdoors, make observations, ask questions, and admire the view. I still enjoy listening to my geo-friends talk about their work. Geology, I still love you.
So it’s not that I got my interests all wrong… It’s just that I’m now applying them in a way that works for me as I really am, not the me I thought I should be.
Anne Lamott put it this way (I love her way with words): “I was good at being good at things. I was good at forward thrust, at moving up ladders. You’ve never heard of forward thrust? It is the most central principle of American life, the necessity to improve your lot and status at any cost, and to stay one step ahead of the abyss that may open suddenly at your heels. Unfortunately, forward thrust turns out not to be helpful in the search for your true place on earth.
But crashing and burning can help a lot. So, too, can just plain running out of gas.
I quit my last real job, as a writer at a magazine, when I was twenty-one. That was the moment when I lost my place of prestige on the fast track, and slowly, millimeter by millimeter, I started to get found, to discover who I had been born to be, instead of the impossibly small package, all tied up tightly in myself, that I had agreed to be.”