I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer. These things are my passion, but they are not my job. In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research. I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems. It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule. I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate. How I got here deserves some explanation
A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University. That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate. With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.
Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart. Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing. Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family. No thank you. I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none. I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply. I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.
I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects). Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.
“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”
Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense. I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her. However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused. Does that make me a bad academic? Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term. Does it make me a happy person? Absolutely it does.
“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”
I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting. But I get his point. Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1. It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there. I don’t know if that makes me a flake.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.” For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago. I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary. O.K., what do I give up to get those things? Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter? Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money? The answer is usually no.
This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism. I am doing no such thing. In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent. I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.
“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
And indeed I am.