In adult development, what you learn in one phase of life does not disappear as you mature but stays with you, ready to be deployed in future struggles. In college you learn how to learn, and learning does not stop when you graduate. Once a student, always a student: the world is simply a wider, more capacious school. If the university is a microcosm, the world is a cosmos, so much richer, wilder, more challenging, and–it must be said–more deadly. The standard model of an academic career does resemble college to some degree: you begin green and ignorant, survive the upper division sophomore and junior courses, and achieve a seniority that brings seminars, leadership, prizes, and honors. By then you are on top of the heap and on top of your game. But the end is already in sight, and black anxiety lurks behind every cheerfully uplifted beer.
Things may not always have worked out as planned. But surviving each encounter or episode gives you more resource to deal with the next. Nietzsche said that whatever did not kill him made him stronger. True, but only if you are in a learning mode. There is no point in surviving if you just do the same thing all over again. That’s a good recipe for quiet desperation. Einstein said that you can’t solve problems using the same mindset that created them. Santayana advised that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Freud observed that the neurotic repeats instead of remembering. All these self-defeating habits are bound up with our sense of identity, with ego and its reptilian drive for self-preservation. The past is addictive—or rather, our stories about the past are addicting. We cling to them and to the self-image they reinforce.
Part of the flexibility that a warrior needs is keeping a light hold on one’s sense of identity. It’s one thing to say, “I am a professor.” It’s another to say, “I have a teaching vocation.” A job is not a calling; it’s merely one segment of that path along which you respond to that call. The important thing is not to secure this or that position, but to keep to your path.
I sometimes think that a career is like climbing a mountain. You begin with the route description in the guidebook and a view of the peak from the base. You start up and sooner or later have to make an unexpected move. By the time you’re halfway up, these moves have multiplied, and the climb has begun to morph from a game plan into a story. By the time you’re done, it’s all story, and the guidebook description no longer matters: it’s obsolete, the road not taken. Possibility has changed into history. Success can, but does not have to mean reaching the summit. Even more important is coming back with a good story.