Monday, September 12, 2011

On Regrets and My Ideal Life

Just a quick post today, with a link to a guest post by Amanda Krauss from Worst Professor Ever at The Professor Is In. I don't have much to add to it, but it felt like something that folks reading this blog might find interesting. I'm sure a lot of you find yourself second-guessing the decision to leave out of some idea that the workload and the pressure and the stress you're experiencing will get better ... if not soon, then definitely after tenure. Amanda is a former professor at Vanderbilt, so she knows of what she speaks. Namely, that the pressure never truly stops and that happiness after tenure is not guaranteed ... or is even *likely,* if you're someone who enjoys a well-balanced life.

Primarily, though, I'd like to highlight something she mentions in that post that I've thought about many times since making the decision to leave. I'll write a few posts in the next couple of weeks about how I contend with the mental second-guessing I do from time to time about specific little issues that trip me up, since I think these might be useful to readers.

But right now, I'd like to pass along a tip about something that has helped me stop stressing about what my advisors and colleagues and my academic mindset tells me that I *should* be doing, and to refocus on why I'm leaving. What I do is take a few minutes to think about what I want my life to look like when I'm reflecting back on it at the end. Yep, I think about how I'll feel at the very end of my life, looking back at how it's all played out.

Morbid? Sure, a little. But doing this from time to time has helped me feel more at peace with my decision. Every time I start second-guessing my desire to leave (usually in response to pushback from an active academic who questions my decision), I bring myself back to how I would feel if I were on my deathbed. What would I be proudest of, and what would I regret?

I can guarantee that if I were to find myself dying today, I would never regret spending more time with my friends/family/partner/dog than with my academic work. I would never be dying and find myself being proudest of my second-authored paper in a mid-tier journal. If I found out tomorrow that I was dying, I would certainly not wish that I'd spent the last six months adjuncting at a university three hours away rather than spending extra time with my partner and friends while deciding what to do next after leaving academia.

While it may seem a bit morbid, I've found this exercise to be useful. When the doubts creep in, I try to focus on what I want my life to look like in the end rather than what other people think I should be doing right now or next semester. And in the end, I know that I won't care for a single second how many articles I've published or classes I've taught or how impressed other academics have been with my work. I'll only care that I've lived a good life surrounded by people I love. I doubt I'd even care what kind of job I'd been working.

And for me, the good life is only going to come to pass if I leave the academic rat race. I just can't sustain a full, well-rounded life while working in the all-encompassing institution that is academia. And I need that well-rounded life to be happy. So.....I'm leaving.


  1. Thanks for the ping. And really, you shouldn't feel morbid; thinking about death is a part of many spiritual traditions. I talk about this all the time with my good friend who left: even if we get hit by a bus tomorrow, we'll die knowing we've already had more happy moments in the last year than we did in five years of academia. So worth it.

  2. Thanks for stopping by! And yes, I know I shouldn't *really* feel morbid ... but I felt a little odd writing, basically "you know how to make sure that this life changing, anxiety-producing transition is the right one for you? Think about when you're going to DIE."

    But I agree with you. It's only been six months since I quit and I haven't even moved on to the next "real" job yet, but I truly believe that if I was hit by a bus tomorrow, I would be so grateful that I'd spent these last six months out of academia and happy rather than sitting inside working on pointless research that I hate. It's already worth it. Happiness matters.

  3. This is exactly what I do, too. Last fall, I lost a number of people in close succession and it forced me to realize that I was going to die too one day. And that when that day comes I want to feel good about the choices I've made. It especially helps me let go of the fear of what others will think, or of letting people down. When I make myself come to terms with how short life is, and how I only get one, suddenly what other people (especially people who barely know me) think I should be doing means very little in comparison to what I know is right for me.

  4. JC, I feel like we are the same person! Or, at least, that we could be good friends (probably that is weird for you). I have so many of the same thoughts about academia that you do, and this "deathbed exercise" is one that I've done all the time for years.