Saturday, December 17, 2005

Keeping score.

I had a long talk with a friend at work yesterday afternoon about career, places to take risks and places to (attempt to) fly under the radar, ways of navigating certain personality types, and general approaches to career growth. It was really useful. She brings a good perspective because she's not in my group but knows a lot of the people in my group; does different work from what we do but gets the point of what we do; and finally, knows me well enough to give great feedback. It was the first time I'd gone through a number of scenarios I'm thinking about really end-to-end, and it was the most helpful conversation I've had in this space in a long time.

I used to think that the kind of existential crisis I had when deciding whether to stay in academia was mostly restricted to my friends in academia. I still think that is mostly true. There is something about the particular ego roller coaster of a doctoral program that imposes pretty unique pressures on its participants: the long, open-ended projects with few milestones to measure progress; the all-consuming politics without any real grounding bottom line to keep things in perspective; the poverty line lifestyle when one is generally accustomed to sucess and accomplishment. On the other hand, the academic lifestyle also affords pretty unique joys: the sense of getting to do exactly what you want, when you want, more than in almost any other job; getting to pursue something solely because you think it's cool; and, let's be honest, the smug sense of superiority that most academics allow themselves to feel with respect to other people. It's a weird domain where the highs are really high, the lows are devastating, and everyone drinks a lot.

Most of the existential crises that I see friends go through now are distinct from this. I have friends who are looking for jobs, friends who have jobs but aren't sure they're the right jobs, friends who know what they want but aren't sure how to get there, and friends who don't know what they want but are pretty sure that where they are now is the wrong place. And it's not all about jobs, either. Marriage or no marriage? Kids or no kids? Relationship or no relationship, given the full matrix of four different answers by two people to the two questions above? No, people are still having existential crises. The main difference is that now I know more different kinds of people and it's no longer so easy to generalize across their paths for common, uniting trigger issues.

For a generalist with a multiplicity of interests, there are a huge number of paths that can make you happy. All of those paths also come with misgivings.


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