Image: The Third Man (1949)
Last week, I shared an Uber through South Delhi with another American, an ex-marine from the state of Washington who had just landed his dream job working with a start-up company here. He was getting paid to do the work he used to spend his free time on, and — in our dark cab, gliding through the smoky night — his joy was palpable. I listened to him with a mixture of envy and awe.
A year and a half after finishing my Ph.D.,I now find myself working as a freelance journalist, living in the capital of India, but still ambivalent and confused. I don’t like the pressures or the isolation of full-time writing. I long for colleagues — and for work that is meatier, more action-oriented. In a sigh-filled monologue, I confessed all of that to my happy cab-mate.
“I don’t know if this will encourage or discourage you,” he replied. “But it took me a long time to get here.”
In a quick, dizzying sketch, involving multiple changes of country, profession, and, at times, heart, he summarized the last couple decades of his career. I won’t relay his whole life story here, but rest assured it was remarkably circuitous. I asked him how he knew when he was on the right track. Was it “strategy” — a corporate loanword I’ve come to loathe — or some kind of special intuition? He described a line in front of him. When he stepped off it, veering to either side, he could tell. Likewise, he knew when he was following it — tip-toeing ahead, each foot still grounded, even during what seemed like lulls.
Our taxi pulled up to my apartment. I thanked him and got out, tracing now familiar steps through my building’s dusty stairwell. Was I toeing the line? Or was I off track?
In academic careers, the line that my fellow passenger described is already drawn from the moment we begin graduate school. Of course we still have important decisions to make along the way. But the architecture of a faculty career — coursework and comps, then dissertation and graduation, followed by appointments, publications, reviews, and eventually tenure — is already set in stone.
When your line leads away from that path (whether by choice or circumstance), all those familiar touchstones fall away. You go from riding on a nice, smooth road, with a few anticipated turns ahead, to hacking your way by machete through jungle brush. Even the comforting rhythm of the academic year is replaced by an uninterrupted crunch of time. Many postacademics — unnerved by the sudden chaos in their lives — strive to settle in a new field before they’ve really investigated what it is they want to explore. Job-hunting articles abound, supporting this passionless push.
In my own recent column for Vitae, I wrote about how to transition into a nonacademic career, drawing on my loopy postac path. I, too, laid out the “how” before interrogating the “what.” I received a dozen or so responses from aspiring career-changers. They relayed impressive qualifications and backgrounds, asking me point-blank what they should do. While I’m not discounting the value of mentorship, one of the toughest and most exhilarating challenges when leaving academia is adjusting to a sudden lack of authority. No one can tell you what to do — least of all me.
The only advice I can offer, then, to those beginning to stray from the “life of the mind” is to get out of your head, and back into your body.
What does that mean?
Martha Beck, the Oprah-approved life coach and best-selling author, has built a career on the idea of the body as roadmap. She teaches readers how to clue into their instincts by listening to their own internal compasses, and separating abiding passions (or “authentic selves”) from perceived external pressures (or “social selves”).
Let’s say you’ve been meaning to respond to a vacancy at a nonprofit — a respectable, research-oriented position — but keep putting it off. Then you realize: Whenever you think about actually taking that job, you end up with stomach knots and a prickle of apprehension in the heart. Intuition isn’t a mystical sixth-sense. Rather, it’s the message behind your body’s grid of alerts, from floaty contentment to leaden malaise. That sinking feeling should be your guide, Beck says, steering you away from a potential collision course.
Toeing the line feels right — but it doesn’t always feel good. In Martha Beck’s fame-making book, one of her clients relates getting laid off at 55, bills mounting and kids in college to support. He imagines himself on a narrow mountain path. “One wrong step in either direction, and I’d fall a thousand miles,” he says. “The only way I could tell where I was going was that there was a little black cat walking just ahead of me. If I listened for the sound of the cat’s feet, I’d know where to step.”
“Get too tense, analytical, or serious,” Beck writes, “and you’ll never hear your own little black cat.”
Is this starting to sound maddeningly woo woo?
Then forget the cats. In the language of entrepreneurship, you can also think of toeing the line as a process of iteration, a sequence of prototypes and course corrections that lead — not to a single, eventual “right” path — but to a multitude of possibilities. They represent a range of possible features (and futures) ready to be tweaked for improvement.
Bill Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford University, and Dave Evans, an adjunct lecturer there in product design, teach a course at the university called “Designing Your Life,” which is now the theme of a new book they published in September.They apply design thinking — a set of approaches that emphasizes play, experimentation, and improvisation, much like the strategies used by creators of Silicon Valley gadgets — to the goal of creating a meaningful life.
“My method was a blind walk,” Burnett told The New York Times last year about his own career (he once designed toys). “I didn’t have any strategies. I trusted my intuition.”
Like Beck, the Stanford professors suggest observing your feelings toward daily activities. Our hypothetical job candidate who keeps putting off applying for the nonprofit job may realize that her energy levels plummet when she sits down to write but soar when she’s organizing parties and functions. So should she charge ahead and reinvent herself as an event planner? Burnett and Evans would say: No, not just yet. Rather, she should resist pressures to present herself as a finished product at all, and instead spend more time in playful, process-oriented experimentation. Shadow an event planner, or try it out on weekends. See if she feels drained or inspired, one small step at a time. Hanging in the atrium of Stanford’s design school, an enormous banner synthesizes that philosophy into a pithy battle cry: “There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.”
Toeing the line doesn’t mean thinking that there’s only one right road ahead — one that you’re trying desperately to merge onto. It does, however, acknowledge that, no matter your path, you should have some sense of things feeling right.
As for me, I can’t yet claim the same career satisfaction as my late-night cab-mate. But I can start to recognize, in the bounds that I’ve set for myself, a professional track that at least feels true.