Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.
- I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
- I stopped taking advice.
- I created a "feelgood" email folder.
- I work in fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
- I try to be the best "whole" person I can.
- I found real friends.
- I have fun "now."
I wholeheartedly agree with just about all of Nagpal's points. I more or less adopted all of the same strategies and perspectives in my non-TT job, with similar results: specifically, happiness and balance. In fact, I cannot over-emphasize how transformative of a gestalt shift this was for me. I literally went from being worn out and miserable to feeling inspired overnight. Let me say a little bit about how it happened.
I think Helen de Cruz over at NewAPPS does a really great job of picking out a deep shift in perspective that underlies Nagpal's experience. De Cruz writes:
I read the same heuristic in a short autobiographical account by fiction author Susan Howatch, who reflects on her calling as an author:
Let me stress at once that my job is not to be a second Shakespeare or Tolstoy but to be the best possible Susan Howatch — whatever that involves, and from the point of view of literary society it may involve nothing worthy of note. My task is merely to write the books, not to worry about who will read them and how they will be judged.
I came to roughly the same realization a few years ago. I was struggling -- miserably -- trying to be the kind of philosopher our discipline implies I'm "supposed" to be. Our discipline, I think, holds up for us all a kind of blueprint for what we are supposed to be like -- that is, what it is to do good philosophy. We are supposed to write narrowly targeted articles that rigorously defend one single, relatively small "important point." See, for example, Thom Brooks' article, "Publishing Advice for Graduate Students", as well as most journal articles. Here, though, was the problem I faced. Although I found Brooks' article helpful in many regards, and have certainly benefitted as a philosopher from my graduate training (which emphasized similar lessons), I have always felt somewhat like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I have just never found "small, targeted arguments" inspiring, and I don't think I've ever had a gift for doing that sort of thing (I can do it -- but it's not where I think my interests or talents lie). I've always found "big, messy" philosophy -- the kind that people like Kant did -- a lot more fun and, above all, a lot more philosophically interesting. Now, of course, few, if any, of us can be a "Kant." I certainly don't mean to compare myself to him. My point is simply that, although some people may feel comfortable trying to conform to our discipline's dominant "blueprint" of good philosophy -- writing small, targeted articles -- I've always found doing this sort of thing myself absolutely deadening.
Anyway, trying to follow "the blueprint", I found myself doing work that failed to inspire me "for the sake of my career." I didn't have a tenure-track job, after all, so I figured the way to go was to try to do what others do to get one: namely, write articles like THAT. The thing is: it wasn't going all that well. I was miserable, not publishing much, and what I did publish I found uninspiring. So, I asked myself: "what in the world am I doing?" It suddenly occurred to me that, if I'm going to fail at this -- which of course is always a possibility for a non-TT person -- I want to go down being the best, most authentic "me" that I can be. So I started just doing philosophy in a way that feels natural to me. Instead of writing small, targeted papers responsing to existing literature, I started writing papers on "big" ideas of my own. And, although I tried to put my graduate training to work, making my papers as clear and rigorous as possible, I stopped worrying about being "too ambitious."
I had no idea whether any of this would work for me, professionally speaking. In fact, given that I don't have a TT job, I still don't know whether it will work! But, as I saw it -- and my experience here seems to match up very well with Nagpal's -- none of this really mattered/matters to me. I had been miserable. I had been doing philosophy that didn't inspire me. But now I was enjoying philosophy, finding it inspiring, feeling happy to wake up in the morning and get to work. The way I saw it -- and the way I still see it -- "professional success" isn't worth misery. What's the point of being successful if you despise the work you're doing? So -- like Nagpal -- I just said "to hell with it." I started doing work I believed in, stopped asking people for so much advice, set strict work hours for myself, set aside time to spend with my wife, set aside time to take walks and get exercise, etc.
While I still have no idea where any of this will lead me professionally, I know where it has led: to a much happier, well-balanced life, and work that I find inspiring. Of course, if other people find my work interesting, I'll be very happy. But, should I fail, at least I'll be able to look myself in the mirror and think to myself, "I did the kind of philosophy I believe in. I stayed true to myself, both as a person and as a professional." And while this sort of thing might seem small comfort to me should I wash out of the profession, I feel confident that it would be a much greater comfort than its opposite: thinking to myself that I washed out trying to be something I'm not.
Anyway, if you're struggling -- if you've lost your love for philosophy, as I once did -- trying Nagpal's advice on for size can't hurt. Maybe, just maybe, you'll find your love for philosophy again. I know I did.