Thanks to Marginal Revolution, I discovered this wonderful article about coping with tenure. Well, that’s not exactly true – I think the article is actually about life in general. About not worrying the rules and instead creating your own rules. Learning to say no. Not being concerned with the game and being the game.
To me, the story is nicely wrapped around three important messages:
1. Follow Your Passion
Academia is cutthroat. I stopped short of tenure track – I got my PhD and moved on to private sector even though my initial goal was to stay in academia, teach and do research. This was partly because I started to understand what Radhika Nagpal explained very well in her article when I was a grad student. I really liked academia but probably not enough to have another six or seven stressful years. I wanted to write about what I truly enjoy and not necessarily what would bring me closer to tenure. Technically, the two should be the same and working on your own ideas is a good strategy, but that is probably true in the long run and not necessarily in the short run. The short run requires playing the game, networking, getting out there and sacrificing work-life balance. Or so I thought.
I truly admire Radhika for what she has done. Her message is an important one. She shows us that one can enjoy life even as a tenure-track assistant professor. That one can follow his/her own research agenda and not somebody else’s. That one can work not more then 45-50 hours a week and still get a lot done. That people can follow their passion, not worry about following the herd, and instead form their own path.
2. Be Oblique
Independently, I have read about Obliquity by John Kay earlier this week, and when I read Radhika’s article, I remembered the concept. I have not read the book and looks like it has gotten mixed reviews. Not sure why that is, but I think there is something to be said about not leading a one-sided life and focusing on just one thing. Driven, yes. Confident, absolutely. Wanting something a lot and making sacrifices along the way, for sure. But we can’t really take it too seriously, and can’t lose sight of the fact that whatever it is, not getting it is not the end of the world. While I am all about passion, I also recognize that it may be true that you may more easily reach your destination not by charging at it at 100 miles/hr, but by trying different things, picking up different pieces and discover yourself. Doing what you want, within reason, is really good advice, and you may simply realize that all the things you have done were parts of the whole that you always wanted but never knew how to get there. Basically, you can only connect the dots backwards,
3. Lean In
Finally, there is yet another message here. Radhika has leaned in. Yes – I am referring to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the concept she has popularized in her book – Lean In. Radhika has shown the world that she wants to lead and she has not given up on her dreams. Yet, she has not given up on her family either. She has focused on being good as a whole as opposed do single-mindedly following a goal. She has not assumed that her husband would be the breadwinner and she would be the homemaker. She wanted the best of both worlds, and looks like she got it by being smart, efficient, and ambitious, in a good, balanced way.
Is this Just Survivor Bias Though?
These type of stories always bring out the cynical. The counterargument goes something like this. “She has done it but she is a superwoman. I’m not.” or ”She just happened to be lucky. It may have not worked out.” or “It is easier to make the argument after the fact”.
True – it may have not worked out. Even Radhika acknowledges this and stresses that this is a not a recipe for success. For every Radhika out there, there are quite a few unhappy academics that fell off the tenure wagon. They probably realized it may not be optimal to switch to the private sector at that point either, so maybe they trickled down to a lower-tier school where they have even a lower chance of breaking out now because they are kind of out of the circle now. As Radhika mentioned, it worked for her. It may not work for everyone. You have to be smart, efficient, still play the game a little bit, and yes, also have some luck.
But what does that prove? That we need to channel all our energy into one thing and ignore everything else? What proof do we have that this approach works? Chances are it has not even led to the achievement of that one-sided goal, let alone finding balance and happiness in life.
And yes, you can argue that we would have never heard about Radhika if this tenure thing didn’t work out for her. You may say that she would have not been happy and she would not run around and say that this 7-year postdoc thing is the best thing she has done. We don’t read too many stories about good plans that did not end heroically. Maybe she would have been a bitter woman who kept asking “what if?”
But maybe not. Maybe she would have been equally happy, or happier. Maybe she would have moved on and done something else with her life. The ultimate test is being comfortable with your decision no matter what happened. To be able to look back and say “I’m glad I have done this – it just didn’t work out”. We don’t know whether Radhika would be comfortable with her approach, because the counterfactual has never happened for her, but neither do we have any indication that she wouldn’t.
Either way, I have no doubts that she has done the right thing. That would be true even if she would have not necessarily felt that way had things not worked out for her. Life is simply too short to not go after your passion, keep a balance, cherish your family and in Radhika’s words, be the best whole person you can be. This is the only way I know how I, or anyone else should live. Let’s respect and celebrate all the people who try, regardless of where they end up.