These reflections are drawn from my journals of 1999 and 2000. I was in my early 50’s when I made this particular job transition from a small Catholic college, where I was being considered for tenure and full professor, to a prestigious engineering school, where I would be in a faculty development support position. During this threshold time, my attitudes and values related to work were fairly representative of the job transitions I made in my 20s, 30s, and 40s.
I had a dream last night about new jobs…. and wanting to leave my current job. I am reminded of the words of Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (1992):
Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity.
Tonight I recognized a clue as to why I am at this college. I met with two graduate students who each in her own way need to customize her program if she is ever to get a Master’s degree. One meeting was with a young woman dealing with debilitating illness, still wanting to do it all, and do everything perfectly. We had a good conversation about The Artist’s Way. In previous jobs, I couldn’t have offered her the accommodation she needs or the understanding and encouragement.
The ends of academic semesters are always stressful, especially when combined with the stresses of Christmas preparations. I worry that I won’t finish grading on time or complete the work that has piled up on my desk. Sometimes, I feel betrayed by my colleagues who have already turned in grades and deserted campus for the holidays. I have to ask myself: What is the worth of all this worrying and fretting? What is the worst that can happen if I don’t finish or if I don’t finish until January? Adequate is good enough. I just have to get stuff off my desk.
I sometimes have difficulty sorting out what’s worthwhile from what’s not. I need help in letting go and saying “No, thank you” to requests for assistance. Too often, I say a “qualified yes,” instead. I need to be reminded of what I enjoy about my current job – the flexible schedule, the independence, and choice of tasks. Otherwise, I won’t look forward to teaching – as I usually do. Creating a syllabus usually gets me excited about classes, but when I am feeling stressed, the preparation just feels like more of the same – “been there, done that.”
Sometimes, I need to remind myself that there are parameters to my areas of responsibility. I don’t have to save the college or the world. Even within the parameters of my responsibility, I need to remind myself to take care of me, too. As St. Bonaventure reminds us:
Come, let us give a little time to folly . . . and even on a melancholy day let us find time for an hour of pleasure.
There are often precipitating events or signs that it is time to make a change in my work life. For example, in one job, when my supervisor reprimanded me for insufficiently supporting a colleague and helping on her project whose deadlines were less immediate than my own, I left work in tears and decided to start looking for another job. This time, it was not a single incident, but an accumulation of frustrations. I recorded the following cry for help in my journal: People are counting on me. It’s April – a difficult month for me. God, help me to step back, breathe deeply, and maintain my balance. What is the worst that will happen if I don’t finish something? What is asking acceptance of me? My limitations. It’s all too much. I want to quit. I want to run away. I can’t be the answer. I’m not doing the things I said I would do. God, help me to let go. I don’t have to be perfect. I’m tired, close to tears, discouraged. I don’t want to go to work. I want a life apart from work. God, help me to want what I have, and not want what I don’t have.
In the months prior to this journal entry, I had been applying for other jobs in higher education in my local geographic area. I received a call to interview at the engineering school. Once I heard from the school, I was afraid. I had doubts about my ability to succeed in the new job. I was not sure I was ready to leave my newly re-decorated condo.
I listed all the reasons for “crossing the threshold”: a prestigious university, life in the city, a better salary, a field of study that commands more respect from the public (engineering vs. teacher education), the challenge of learning new skills, and an opportunity to study new areas, for example, architecture. Then, I listed all the commitments in my current job: teaching a course for another two months, leading a teacher mentoring program, chairing a local camera club, serving on the board of a state teacher education group, advising an independent study for a graduate student, and completing the process for my own tenure and promotion.
The reasons for the job change were still not completely clear at this point. Was it just a feeling, an intuition, or a dream to change my line of work? I knew that I was good at what I did. Was this my calling and my purpose in life? I didn’t want to get too excited about the interview; at the same time, I was very interested in the position. It would pull together so many of my previous and current experiences, and yet be new and challenging. Was I ready to leave the small college in the country for the prestigious university in the big city? Put that way, what was the choice? Why did I even have to think twice? It seemed premature to make comparisons because the new job had not yet been offered.
During this threshold time, I made lots of lists. First, I looked at the changes I had made successfully in the past and the feelings that I remembered experiencing at the time. In my 20s, I moved from teaching middle school to high school with the confidence of youth and the determination to make a difference. After nine years, I was relieved to leave teaching for the exciting life of a full-time graduate student at a large university in the Midwest. During my 30s, I taught in teacher education programs at two universities in the Midwest. I earned promotions in my field, as well as the respect of my colleagues. Despite accepting jobs with vague descriptions, I was able to carve out areas of responsibility that matched my skills with the university’s needs.
By the time I was 40, I realized that I wanted to be closer to family. I wanted to be “in place” so to speak, for the time when family would need me to be nearby. I worked in education programs at two large corporations, first, in New Jersey, then in Connecticut – all the while moving closer to family in Massachusetts. Because location was the primary criterion, I compromised on other job criteria that had been important to me. Finally, in my late 40s, I found myself back in teacher education, directing all education programs at a small Catholic college.
Next, I made a list of the life changes, relationships, and feelings that correlated with the job changes: from home, to student housing, to home ownership, to apartment rental, to condo ownership. During my 30s and 40s, I had three serious relationships that were short-lived, but with amicable partings. All these life changes generated the whole gamut of feelings: adventure, freedom, finding myself, heartache, self-doubt, loneliness, anger, financial worries, excitement of a new home, and the joy of being close to family.
Next, I made a list of the best and worst aspects about each job. From this list, I could then describe what my ideal job would look like – at least what was ideal for me in my 50s: a large, respected, stable institution or organization; responsible only for myself (apart from students or clients); a single, focused role; opportunities for travel; autonomy, that is, in charge of my job; opportunities to learn new things; respected by my colleagues.
It’s getting harder to stay committed to my job . . .and easier in some ways. I feel as though I don’t have to be a part of things because I will be leaving. It is just hard to know when . . . hopefully, no more than two more months. I’m not sleeping through the night, and my mind is going a mile a minute with work-related tasks and decisions. I am feeling anxious about anticipated changes. God, help me to know what things to put in motion, and when to let go and give up control.
Finally, I tested each new job possibility against my list of job criteria. The engineering school scored a “yes” on all criteria, except one. The opportunity for travel was a “not sure.” It is ironic that subsequently in that job, I traveled to meetings and workshops in more than thirty countries for more than fifteen years!
Two months later . . .
I feel my life changing so rapidly now. I have to find a whole new pattern, a new approach, and new routines. I have been thinking of condos: too expensive in the city and too much like apartments. I had thought I would look farther out, but maybe I need to shift my thinking to rentals. I have been very happy in the past as a renter. Maybe I need to explore what’s important to me about my home.
Well, the honeymoon is over . . . high expectations . . .short timelines. It’s a little difficult to tell just what my role is on the many projects everyone is involved in. I am glad I can say “no” to some of the tasks. Will I have a new title? It doesn’t quite matter. I thought I might work on the train, but without a table, it’s too difficult. Payday! Thank you, God, for the reminder of why I accepted this job. Well, one of the reasons, anyway. Today is also a signal to me to stop worrying about a place to live. I would like to put this in your hands, God. You have led me this far. I know you’ll tell me what to do next. Meanwhile, help me to find joy in the commute.