I’m assessing 2016: the good, the bad, and the apocalyptic (you know. When He-Who-Tweets-Recklessly was elected).
Probably the biggest thing of my year—besides loving my husband and son more every day and treating every new thing my son does as the most amazing thing that anyone in the world has ever done, ever—was writing my book. If I think about how this happened from a practical perspective, this is what I come up with: I dropped out of my English PhD program-->failed to land a job outside of the home in the few months that I looked-->decided that I might as well see if I could write a book since I had the time, interest, and motivation-->wrote and self-published a book.
Your path to creative and/or professional fulfillment may not look like mine. (And you might think that my path looks relatively privileged and/or easy. More on that topic below).
I’m not advising that everyone reading this post immediately quit whatever it is that’s sucking up so much of your time, but I am asking you to think about chasing something that makes you happy, even if you only chase it for an hour or less a day.
I’ve been lucky enough to know women and men who have re-invented themselves professionally and found great happiness and satisfaction as a result. One of my best friends, Mary Catherine Starr, quit her 9-5 job in order to professionally embrace her yoga and artistic pursuits. Perhaps my biggest example is my mom, Jane, who tried on various jobs for size throughout my adolescence and adulthood. She never did this frivolously; she was slowly making her way to her true calling: nursing.
For a long time I was quietly envious of these two and others like them, but I thought that they could not be me. I would eventually figure out what made me happiest, I thought. I would stumble upon my ideal career. I would decide one day what I should be doing, and in the meantime, I would keep plodding along.
That’s exactly what I was doing in my English Literature PhD program, and before that, in my English Literature Master’s program. I was a good student. I made As in my classes and I got mostly positive feedback on my papers and presentations. I got mostly positive feedback on my student evaluations, too, except for the occasional “she was the worst teacher who has ever existed” and “her class was boring and I learned nothing in it” responses.
I got an article published and I did a couple of conference presentations.
In other words, I don’t think that I was a failure in the world of academia. But my heart wasn’t in it.
After all, it’s one thing to love reading books, talking about books, and performing historical and cultural research. It’s quite another to love writing conference papers and journal articles. By the same token, it’s one thing to enjoy teaching students at various moments and another to feel the bone-deep certainty that you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing.
It’s hard to explain to others how bad it can feel when you’re doing something that you’re not failing at, but that does not make you happy. It was particularly difficult to explain this to my husband, who is my biggest supporter and who worried, not unreasonably, that I would regret dropping out of my program and not completing my PhD.
But this is what I knew:
I don’t mind stress or responsibility. In fact, I’m probably busier (or just as busy) now as a work-from-home mom reading, blogging, and writing than I was before. But I minded the specific stresses and responsibilities associated with the world of academia. It was like trying to force my foot into the wrong-size shoe.
So this spring I made the huge decision to drop out of the English PhD program that I was part of and look for other employment. While I’m sorry that I essentially took another person’s spot in the program and perhaps wasted someone’s time, this was the best professional decision that I’ve ever made.
I recognize that I’m not the best writer (of romance, or anything) who has ever lived. But the thing is, that matters less to me now than the fact that this feels like me. I feel creatively and professionally fulfilled in ways that I did not expect. I have a lot that I'm trying to do, but I am having so much fun. I’m 32 years old and this is the first time that I’ve ever felt this way.
I realize that not everyone has the luxury to single-mindedly pursue the interests that are most fulfilling to them. And make no mistake, while I encourage everyone to find something which professionally and/or creatively fulfills them, I also recognize that the ability to do that is not something we should take for granted. There are a lot of people who wish that they had a job, even if it was one that they hated or disliked. There are probably a lot of people who wish that they were paid to discuss books, to teach college students, and to do research (although the graduate student/teacher job was certainly not as cushy as some people think it is).
Let’s also talk practically about my specific factors which might have made my transition less challenging. I was not exactly making a lot of money or working a lot of hours as a graduate student, so perhaps it was a smaller professional leap. My family also did not rely solely on my income, a fact which I think definitely made it so much easier for me to quit.
In addition, I have an extremely supportive partner, who is feeding our son breakfast right now so that I can finish this post. And it’s pretty much a fact that the time you spend pursuing something that you love/something that fulfills you is time taken away from something else. Blogging means less time writing a second book. Writing means less time for reading (which I often blog about), and vice versa. Writing and/or reading at night often means less time with my husband and/or son.
But I also don’t want to discount that I think my decision took at least some measure of bravery and faith in myself. And I also don’t want to discount that there is something wonderfully special about doing something for yourself. Investing your time in what makes you happy. I don’t think that you have to quit your job to get that feeling. But if there’s something that you’re doing that you think that you could cut out, or ways that you think that you could re-direct any of your free time to pursue something that you’re really invested in, do it.
Give me that HEA, please.