A friend recently forward me a post from Zen Habits. It was a guest post from a woman named Jennifer Gresham who maintains a site called Everyday Bright. when I finished reading, I realized that I had been chewing my nails the whole time.
Jennifer was writing about her decision to leave her academic position. Here’s what she had to say:
“Ultimately, I came up with three scenarios where I thought only a new career would do.
1. No “fire in the belly”. When I announced to my dad I wanted to be a scientist, he responded with an experiment of his own: he left copies of magazines like Discover and Scientific American lying around the house. In two weeks, I never picked one up. Not once. What I’ve learned in retrospect is this: if you’re not interested enough in a subject to research it, read about it, play with it, and find others to talk about it – it’s probably not the career for you. And it’s quite possible you haven’t yet discovered the work that excites you—after all, there’s a lot you haven’t experienced. When you have “fire in the belly,” as my dad called it, you’re willing to put in the time and effort to build your skills, even when you’re frustrated or depressed by how much you still have to learn. It’s what gets you through Seth Godin’s dip. It wakes you up in the middle of the night with ideas, and then, bleary-eyed, makes you excited to get up in the morning. I was successful as a scientist, but as my dad’s experiment proved, I didn’t have the fire in the belly. Trust me, it’s worth finding yours.
2. The wrong success. We think we know what success looks like, because society tells us over and over the importance of money, power, and fame. When we want to indicate someone is successful, we almost always invoke their salary or who they know to impress. There’s nothing wrong with any of those outcomes, but it’s entirely possible they don’t mean as much as you think. If you’ve ever felt a bit empty after winning some big award, you know what I mean. Define success for yourself, then dare to pursue a career that lets you achieve it. Maybe that means saving elephants in Africa or helping a small business hire their first employee. If you live your life trying to achieve someone else’s definition of success, you’ll always feel a bit of a sham, no matter how high you go.
3. Trapped behind a mask. Even superheroes like Superman and Spiderman got tired of leading a double life. One of the things I hear a lot is that people want to be their true selves at work. For example, the military culture demanded I establish my authority and demonstrate my place in the hierarchy. But I’m an egalitarian at heart—I hated treating people differently based on rank alone. If you’re tired of holding back your true opinions, if you’re tired of working long hours for outcomes you don’t really care about, then it’s time to remove the mask and revel in who you really are. “
[I took a deep breath]
Those of you who know me well know that I’ve been contemplating a similar move for a while. For years it was not my multi-level modeling of area-level determinants of obesity that woke me up int he middle of the night with ideas, and then, bleary-eyed, made me excited to get out of bed in the morning. And for a long time I felt that I needed to hide that from everyone – I was, after all, getting a PhD (which, on some level, means doing multi-level modeling of area-level determinants of obesity from now until forever) – but then something crazy happened. I started acknowledging my definition of success, I started telling people that research didn’t fill me up, make me get out of bed in the morning, make me want to shout from the rooftops, and I took off the “I’m an academic and love it” mask that I was wearing. It was liberating and empowering. And scary.
I’m still not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is that I want to do – what to call it or myself – but I do know that I’m moving closer to it. And I’ve never been happier.