When Work and You Align

I had the coolest experience last week:  I realized that what I do and who I am are one and the same. I don't mean this in some creepy "I live my work, am super-glued to my inbox, and have no life" sort of way. Although maybe some would argue that's true of me! No, I mean it in the wonderful "I love what I'm doing so much that I'd be doing it in my free time even if it weren't my job" type of deal. And let me be clear about one thing:  ten years ago - heck, even five years ago - I wouldn't have even begun to believe this would ever be true. Pettengill Hall, home of the Social Sciences

I'm not telling you this to brag or show off or inspire bitter envy so strong that it makes you throw a pox incantation at my photo. I'm telling you this because I'm astonished that doing what you love is actually possible. For any of us.

Let's back up:  why did this realization suddenly hit me? I suppose it's too strong to say "suddenly;" it's been a dawning realization over the course of the past few years. I certainly wouldn't have started this blog if I hadn't already been realizing it. But I had the true "moment of insight," if you will, when I sat down to complete a work assignment last week.

The department chair at my college earmarks funds for each of the departmental faculty to buy anything that will support our teaching and/or research. With the fiscal year ending on June 1, I was up against a deadline and decided to find some good summer reading to inform my teaching.

So I hit Amazon and ordered 17 - count 'em:  17! - books. It was Christmas, my birthday, and Festivus wrapped into one.

The most incredible part, though, was that about half of those books came directly off my Amazon wish list. Yup, what I'd been longing to read was the same as what I needed to read.

In other words, who I am and what I do is, at long last, one and the same.

Now you might be thinking, "well you're lucky because you're an academic and that's what academics get to do." Valid point. I am lucky. But I didn't always feel lucky. In fact, for a long while I felt disgruntled about my teaching job and would hide what I did from people, dreading the, "wow, that must be a great job!" comment, to which I'd put on a thin smile and nod tightly.

You see, for the first five or so years of teaching, I felt like I had to pretend to be someone else when I stepped within the walls of my plush academic building. I felt like I should be someone who was on a straight path, who cared about pure research, and who believed in the immense power of empiricism above all else. In reality, I was someone who had a rebellious creative streak, who appreciated research of all types but personally wanted to engage in dissemination of others' research, and who wanted to study topics that I believed to be outside the realm of "serious psychology."


But a number of years ago, I became sick of putting on the front. At that point I left the position - intending to never return - and when I chose to come back a year later, it was as a more authentic me.

Into classes that once felt "boilerplate" and that had irked me with their rigidity - such as Intro Psych - I started to infuse ME. For instance, into 101 I put a "Psych In Action" portion in every lecture, during which we discuss direct application of psychology research and theory to students' lives, and actively engage in reflection on ourselves and our lives. And when I was offered an upper-level developmental seminar, I went out on a limb and chose to focus our study on the development of meaning and purpose across the lifespan, topics I was pretty sure I shouldn't be discussing unless I was an erudite old man in the philosophy department or some weirdo pseudoscientific self-help guru.

Since I'm not on the tenure track, there were real risks involved in these decisions; any given year I can be not asked back. In other words, in order for me to make change, the fear of losing my income had to be outweighed by the fear of living a life which wasn't authentic and passionately lived. And right around the age of 30, that tipping point arrived.

At first my students seemed caught off guard by my choices - they were different than what they were used to seeing - but what everyone says about authenticity proved to be true:  when you're your genuine self, people become attracted to you and respect you, even if they disagree with precisely what you're doing, saying or believing.

And that leads me to now:  incredibly - and certainly in no way related to my efforts! - our new college President has created an initiative to infuse purposeful work across the curriculum, co-curricular activities, and student life, and I'm a happy member of the initiative's working group. My colleagues eagerly join in when I suggest a panel on the "meandering path" of life. I teach classes that I'm excited about and fully engaged in, even when they're "tried and true" courses like 101 that don't seem to have any room for personal spin. And, of course, I get to buy books that I'd be reading even if I didn't "have" to.


All this to say:  that impossible dream of creating a life you love and having your identity be inseparable - in a good way - from your work? It actually is possible. You "just" have to start from where you are, become clear about who you are, and begin to infuse bits of you into the elements of your work over which you have some control, however small those elements may be. It won't be an overnight change, but if you craft your work around your self bit by bit by bit, one day you'll wake up and realize that you're doing exactly what you are. Which is why I named my new site (still in design phase...) Working Self - it's all about the intersection of who you are and what you do.

This has been a ten year journey for me. And I certainly still have much journeying ahead. But it feels good to stop and appreciate how far I've come. And to relay how far you can come, too, if you make a mindful effort to do so.

So how about you? Are your work and your self aligned? If not, do you feel yourself moving in that direction? Or do you believe this isn't a worthwhile goal for any of us to pursue?

That's my building. Ridiculously gorgeous, isn't it? It's the main reason why, back in 2003, I took my teaching job rather than a position working with kids with autism. Shallow, huh? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so happy to leave my teaching position that my friends threw a surprise party to celebrate (this was my chair). It's funny because looking back now, I can't see why I was so happy to leave. Just goes to show that it's not a particular job as much as your perspective on that job that actually matters.

And then I met Patrick Dempsey. Oh wait, that has nothing to do with this post. It just happened to have occurred the same month I left my teaching position so I ran across the pic while searching and figured it would pretty up the page a bit! I mean, how could he not pretty things up?