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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


How Do You Know What to Run Toward?

A follow-up to a previous attempt at advice.

October 21, 2021

I received some nice and thoughtful feedback to a recent post in which I shared the origin story to my own personal theory of a successful transition from one employment path to another: run toward, not from.

One comment, while complimentary, also offered a challenge that I don’t think I’d fully considered. This correspondent pointed out that running toward versus running from could be viewed as a matter of semantics, a distinction without a difference.

How do you truly know if you’re running toward something?

To me, this raises two questions worth rolling around in: 1. What are things you can run toward? and 2. How do you know which thing you should be running toward?

Please don’t mistake what follows as advice. I do not have a firm opinion on what any other person should do with their life. This is what I like to think of as public reflection, the thoughts of one person trying to make some sense of what’s happened in his own life.

What can you run toward?

Life-Changing Money: I have never had an opportunity with this kind of dough attached, but if an actual brass ring appears, for lots of reasons, it may be worth running toward. If you reach that destination, all kinds of other options to run toward in the future may become open to you.

Novelty/A New Challenge: While the impetus for me to leave my full-time visiting position was not getting hired into a tenure-track position for which I applied at my employing institution, I was not prepared to leave until I had an idea in place that I was interested in enough that I felt confident it would absorb my attention for an extended period of time. That idea became Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.[1] Once I started working on that book, the shape of The Writer’s Practice came to me, and suddenly I had a year’s worth of work on my hands.

Security: Following the writing of those books, I had an opportunity to join Willow Research, a market research firm. While there were a number of reasons it was attractive, a chief one was the security of a good, steady paycheck and health insurance after a couple of years of not having that. For academics in precarious positions, finding a job that affords these things, even if it seems like it is not a long-term path[2], may be worth doing. It’s like a low-grade version of life-changing money. Time away from worrying about economic security may open other possibilities in the future.

Freedom: Not quite an inverse of security, but it may require the sacrificing of security to gain your freedom. There is great pleasure to be had in being one’s own boss, as I am now. My schedule is my own. The desire for new challenges is what led me away from the security of the full-time gig, but it is the freedom that is going to keep me here, if I can manage it.

There’s probably other things I could list, but as I consider the question, just about everything fits under one of these larger umbrellas. I think one of the reasons so many people are leaving or considering leaving academia is that the security and freedom that once attached to the job (provided you’re tenured) have severely eroded. If those are gone and you also can’t find the pleasure of the novel challenge inside the institution, no matter how great the job seems, the desire to leave may become quite strong.

Now, for the second, probably harder question, particularly for academics: How do you know what you should be running toward?

One of the hallmarks of academia is that it provides clear external benchmarks to aim for and achieve. Not being a proper academic, I can’t say this for certain, but my guess is that once you get going, there is a momentum that is very hard to disrupt, no matter how difficult the journey or how rewarding a future destination may seem. If academia or teaching also seems like a calling, then everything becomes even more fraught.

But we know that newly tenured faculty are often unhappy, wondering why they did it all. The satisfaction of having achieved something truly significant does not outweigh internal concerns about whether or not it was worth it, or what one is supposed to do next.

For that, you gotta come up with your credo, the animating ethos and logic for how you want to live. The potential variety of credos is nearly infinite, and a credo need not be virtuous to be motivating and animating. I promise you that Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and Martin Luther King Jr. all operated under very specific credos, but those credos are not the same. A credo need not be virtuous to others. It only must make sense to you.

My personal credo is simple. I want to get up in the morning and look forward to what I have to do that day. This credo has often meant sacrificing opportunities for additional economic security (though I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have been reasonably economically secure), but it has served me well in orienting me toward work that allows me to occupy my time doing things I find interesting. This is not to say that every moment of every day is a joy, but by and large I like the work I’m tasked with, and it feels meaningful to me.

I wouldn’t say that I’m full-bore carpe diem -- I try to keep an eye on what future opportunities may emerge -- but my experience is that focusing on the day-to-day makes for a reasonable shot at a sustainable life, while also making that life worth living.

While I think others can inspire your personal credo, I also think it’s something you have to fashion for yourself. As an example of that process, I recommend a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast in which Klein interviews the actor Nick Offerman[3]. Most known for the character Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, Offerman has recently published a book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, that is rooted in his engagement with the work of writer/poet/philosopher/farmer Wendell Berry, as well as his experience of the outdoors and natural world, including a hiking trip with the writer George Saunders and musician Jeff Tweedy.

As a whole, the episode is the tale of someone identifying and then living by his personal credo that is perhaps best summed up by the quote that leads the episode summary -- “There are better riches than commerce.”

This is not to say one must identify with Offerman’s credo, though I do, and find it admirable and worthy of emulation.

The point is to understand and appreciate the journey he’s on as he reconciles changes brought by age and life-changing success with his credo. It’s an interesting example of managing complexity and competing demands, the kind of complexity that I think academics often live within.

I wonder how much of the present discontent one hears from academic faculty and staff is rooted in structures that increasingly don’t make sense and seem to make it harder and harder to live by a meaningful credo.

It’ll never not be a challenge.

[1] I also sold the book to a publisher before I fully committed to leaving.

[2] At the time I expected this to be a long-term path, but pandemics happen.

[3] Fellow alumnus of the University of Illinois, woo-hoo!


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