Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

On Balance: A Refresher

In the Staying Alive workshops that Mark and I offer at campuses and conferences, we use yoga postures as emblems for the phases of an academic career.  Balance works at the heart of yoga, which tones the whole body, cleanses the internal organs, and promotes both serenity and mindfulness.  In Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, every session includes balancing postures as well as the familiar sun salutations, standing poses (such as the Warrior sequence discussed in earlier blogs), bending poses, and seated poses along with twists and stretches.  When we talk about leading a balanced life over the course of  an academic career, we find that the yoga conception of balance helps people understand how to cope with the competing demands of person, profession, and institution without going nuts.

When I started, the balance poses really threw me for a loop.  The teacher looked so calm and graceful when she stretched up into the Tree Pose or lengthened horizontally into Dancer.  I have good natural balance, so I thought nothing of it, but when I tried, my legs began wobbling uncontrollably and I almost fell over.   I thought it was simply a matter of locking in to the right position.  But balance turned out to be a process rather than a state; it was something dynamic, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It turned out to be a matter of core strength as well as focused attention.  Image

I soon learned that every balancing pose begins with a preparatory step, followed by a series of entry moves that culminate in the full pose, which is maintained for a period of time, generally at least five breaths, after which you must exit the pose through another series of moves that return you to a relaxed, standing position.  If you try to rush or short-circuit this process, you are likely to fall out and may even injure yourself.  It’s important to go step by step, feeling your way and maintaining a sense of control.

Take for example the Dancer Pose, which serves as our emblem for the Citizen Phase.  Remember how, in the Warrior poses, we discerned a four-way movement of energy along both vertical and horizontal axes.  Here the same geometry applies, but with a shift in configuration appropriate to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship.  The vertical leg supports everything else, representing your foundational skills and values.  The forward arm extends outward, projecting energy into the community.  The rear leg, rather than being extended backward for support, reaches up to be grasped by the other arm, forming a circle that captures the heavenly light of creativity, passion, and aspiration and then amplifies it in a generative feedback loop that provides the energy to the forward arm.

To get into Dancer you must assume a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.  Choose your supporting leg, then roll forward onto the ball of the foot, spreading your toes and grounding the foot.  Flex your leg, feeling the muscles, and  begin to breathe evenly.  After two breaths, raise your opposite foot and bring it up behind your buttocks, grasping it with your hand.  Steady yourself for a moment, then touch finger to thumb of your opposite hand and, as you breathe in, raise your arm straight up above your head.  Now choose something in front of you that’s not going to move and focus on it as you begin to tilt forward from the waist, stretching forward as you push out and back with your opposite leg, still grasped by your opposite hand.  Maintain steady, even breathing as you open the circle formed by your leg, arm, and back.  After five or more breaths, begin to exit the pose by tilting backward into an upright position.  Release your opposite hand and lower your leg to the floor. As you breathe out, lower your extended arm,  Release your finger and thumb and come back into a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.

It is important to recognize that during the whole process you continue to breathe, ideally in a calm and measured way.  Breathing connects inner and outer, and yoga recognizes many different kinds of breath.  So, during the entry, holding, and exit from the pose, you are not only dealing with the circulation of energy within your body but also interacting with the environment. Maintaining this vital flow is an ecological and spiritual necessity. As you can see from the photo, Dancer is lovely to look at, and if you try it, you’ll realize that it also feels wonderful.  When you are holding the pose, you feel strong and radiant.  In life, as in yoga, balance manifests externally as grace and internally as health and happiness.  Balance may be thought of as a process of dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy, harmony, and beauty.  A person in balance appears to lead a convincing life.

As I practiced the Dancer pose, I soon came to realize that my body was always moving, even when stationary.  My muscles were always working; they were never at rest.  As I went through the entry, holding, and exit moves, I could sense my muscles communicate with each other, as if they were dancing.  I could feel the energy flowing and shifting at need. I could feel my breathing as a nourishing conversation between myself and the larger world that sustained me.  Balance, I realized, was not a state but a system, a process, a dance, a constant and ever changing improvisation.  And the key was managing energy flows.  That’s what Mark and I mean in these workshops by tools for balance: they are techniques for managing your resources and energies.  We derive them from stories of people who seem to be leading convincing lives.  Balance, therefore, is not something you attain once and then you’re done.  It’s a matter of attentive learning and lifelong practice.

(image source: http://thesoniashow.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/dancers-pose.jpg )

Entering the Citizen Phase

It’s fall, the season when everyone starts thinking about tenure.  Energetic new hires jostle for position, third years nervously scrutinize their vitae, sixth years gird for the gauntlet of class visits and the grind of dossier preparation.  Meanwhile, senior members of the department reluctantly trade their rumpled collegial garb for the sterner robes of judgment or advocacy, sometimes both together.  It’s a bewildering time for everyone.  But come spring, it’ll all be over.  We’ll know who’s in, who’s out, and where to go or not to go from here.

For those following the Standard Model, the tenure review looms as a Great Divide.  Make it across this absolute watershed, and you’re set for life.  You get to go on; you get to follow your calling; you get to stay in the game, assured of a comfortable, respectable future and an institutional home.  But fail to make it, and you fall back into bleak uncertainty with no clear path, no security, and every likelihood that you’ll be forced to leave the profession.  You’ll become one of the Disappeared.  No wonder the tenure review provokes fear and loathing even while it’s viewed with incredulity from the outside.  Ordinary mortals can barely conceive of lifetime job security.  What’s more, to face an up-or-out decision after investing ten to fifteen years on education and probation seems like cruel and unusual punishment.  What kind of culture demands that sort of thing from its faithful?  Tenure begins to look like a system of human sacrifice.

Nevertheless, pace Marx, our purpose here is to understand the world, not to change it.  Balance requires that we focus on changing ourselves.   Not present at the creation, we had no chance to give helpful hints for the better ordering of the universe. Perhaps in the next incarnation.  Meanwhile,  time presses, life goes on, and, somehow or other we have to deal.

As a first step, let’s not forget that entering the citizen phase of work life doesn’t just mean getting tenure.  Sooner or later, we have to find a place in the world, and there are so many possible niches for those with academic training.  It’s just that graduate school, with its intellectual hazing and organizing fictions, brainwashes us into thinking that the Standard Model must be the only acceptable path.  But take a look around and notice all the smart, accomplished, prosperous, intellectually vibrant, learned, curious, and creative people who aren’t academics.  Think about those who actually  left the academy for greener fields in industry, government, foundation work, consulting, journalism, the clergy,  or the arts?  Admit that more than once you may have gazed down their road wistfully, may have felt, perhaps, a slight touch of envy. But when you have put your shoulder to the wheel, straining mightily to make the grade, it’s hard to entertain other possibilities.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be blogging about entering the citizen phase, writing from both sides of the divide and considering how tenure looks to the person, the profession, and the institution. We’ll also share stories about stepping off the standard path. Please respond with thoughts, comments, or stories of your own.

Warrior Lessons

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.

Four-Way Vision and the Warrior

In yoga the warrior poses are the most resolute postures, combining strength, flexibility, and balance.  Body and mind are integrated and aligned.  Energy flows into you, through you, and out of you toward what is coming.  At this time of year, when career decisions come down, we all need warrior skills to meet the challenges offered by desperate situations.  One essential principle might be called “Four-Way Vision.”

Consider the Warrior II Pose, also called viribhadrasana or Warrior B.  You stand with both feet firmly grounded, one pointing ahead and the other rooted behind; you spread your arms into a T and sink forward, looking straight ahead over the middle finger of your forward hand.  You can feel energy rising up through your feet and legs and shooting along your arms.  Your back and torso stand straight up, as if a steel lightning rod ran from the crown of your head down your spine and into the ground.

Warrior II Pose

Now think about what this posture betokens.  Your feet connect you to the earth; they are your foundation, grounded on your wisdom and skills, the fruits of your experience, education, and character.  You draw strength upward from these sources, which can never be taken away.

Your head, spine, and torso connect you with the sky, with heaven.  This is where your hopes and aspirations, your best values, and your creativity all come from. The heavenly energy and the earth energy meet in your eyes and shoot out through the arm along which you gaze. This arm reaches out to meet the challenge.  It focuses and directs all your energy forward, but it also touches and learns.  It does not shrink from contact.  It lights up and ignites whatever it meets.

Your other arm reaches back to draw strength from those behind you, that multitude of comrades and supporters who have a stake in your struggle.  These are your parents, friends, teachers and mentors.  They all care; they all want you to flourish and succeed. They back you up and push you forward.

A warrior needs to remember and practice four-way vision in order to stay balanced and meet the challenge.  Can you turn what comes at you into what comes to you?  That is the question.

Why the Warrior?

Recently I visited an old friend from graduate school who has just retired after a long and distinguished career.  He had been a pacifist during the Viet Nam war and had taught at a small liberal arts college, inspiring generations of students to love poetry and protect the environment.  He was excited about our work with the Staying Alive Project but disturbed by our use of the Warrior as a key metaphor.  Why had we chosen a figure that evoked violence, aggression, and the crushing of one’s opponents?  Wasn’t there already enough conflict in academia?  After three decades of trying to make things work in his own department, where many of  the old guard had been hostile to new theory and felt threatened by dynamic younger faculty, he had concluded that peace was much better than war, compassion more honorable than judgment, and reconciliation preferable to outright victory.

As we traded stories, it became clear that he had actually fought in many battles, from which he still bore scars.  He had nurtured junior colleagues only to see them denied tenure; his scholarship had been publicly attacked by ideologues; he had arm-wrestled with deans for the resources needed to sustain a nascent environmental studies program that is now regarded as one of the best in the nation; he had been tempted by offers of high-ranking administrative positions that would have given him power at the expense of family, community, and teaching.  How had he managed to survive with both soul and career intact?

Our conversation rvealed that warrior skills are not just for war, but for life, and for peace as well.  In order to prevail in these conflicts, he had had to keep his balance, cleaving to his core values while listening to others and trying, always, to turn the conversation down a creative path.  I remember him saying how much he valued the moral support of his wife and friends in the community, and how he had drawn strength from poetry, nature writing, and religious practices such as Quaker meeting and Zen meditation.  Throughout it all he had clung to his faith in the best possibilities of human nature, forgiving as best he could those who had crossed or attacked him, recognizing their own suffering, inviting dialogue while standing his ground.  He never lost hope or aspiration.  He never became embittered or indifferent.  But it was not easy.  He suffered, and he sometimes lost.

My friend is a remarkable man, but his situation and skills are not.  He is a man of peace who had to become a warrior. For conflict is inescapable in human life, because we are different, and whenever we get close to one another, the differences rub and chafe.  Friction causes warmth at first, then a spark, and finally an explosion.  All that energy!  How can we use it for creativity, growth, or healing instead of blowing up the house or wounding each other?  Every conflict with others is also a struggle with ourselves, with our own ideas, identity, and limitations.  It’s always easier to push the other away than to entertain a threatening idea or listen without anxiety. And if attacked, we first react defensively, striking out or running away.  To stand our ground and listen takes a lot of work.  In the end, peace is not only nobler, but more challenging than war.  It takes more strength, balance, will power, and imagination.

Think about it.  Which is harder, overcoming the other, or overcoming yourself?

Tasks and Strengths of the Warrior

In the second stage of an academic career, which we call the Warrior Phase, the main task is to establish yourself in the world.  Training is over; combat and struggle begin.  In school, you relate mostly with people your own age.  But in the real world you must deal with people of every age, level of experience, or variety of character.  Doors open on situations of breathtaking complexity or slam shut without warning on simple, sincere expectations.  Challenges lurk and opportunities abound.

Erik Erikson calls this phase “Young Adulthood” and defines its tasks as intimacy and belonging vs. isolation, to which we bring the strengths of affiliation and love.  It is enacted in the realm of community, where one learns how to make a living, and in the realm of personal relationships where one finds a mate, establishes a home, and starts a family.   Erikson locates this phase between ages 18 and 35, but in academic life, with its extended adolescence, it more commonly occurs between 26 and 40  – or, in the standard model, between grad school and tenure.

Warrior Pose B. (Liberty Bell, North Cascades)

The image of a warrior suggests fighting and aggression, but we like to think of it more in terms of engagement.  This phase often feels like a wrestling match with life.  To prevail, you must bring to all the skills of a warrior, primarily strength, flexibility, and centeredness.

Yoga embodies these virtues in classic Warrior Poses,  where core strength holds the body in position as energy radiates down through the legs to ground you firmly in the earth, and outward through the arms to engage with the world.  In order to maintain a firm horizontal and vertical alignment, your core muscles have to engage resolutely and consistently.  Without centeredness, your arms flag or droop, your knees wobble, and you can fall out of the pose.   Without flexibility, you can’t enter or exit the pose, nor move from one pose to another, without hurting yourself.

For academic people, staying alive through the Warrior Phase means practicing strength, flexibility, and centeredness in all three dimensions of life: the personal, the professional, and the institutional.  Stay tuned.

Image: NC Mountain Guides

Entering the Warrior Phase

As I write on this snowy winter day, hundreds of athletes are competing for gold in Vancouver BC at the Winter Olympics.  Trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched, they hurl themselves down mountains, onto the ice, or into the air at heart-stopping speeds.  It’s thrilling to see them win; it’s agony when they crash. The full gamut of extreme emotions ripples like firelight across the faces of parents, coaches, and loved ones in the crowd.

I love to watch the downhill racers and figure skaters.  You can see how wonderfully strong and fit they are, and when they fall, as some always do, it’s amazing to watch them get up and go on.  How can they stand those tremendous crashes and joint-wrenching falls?  If they weren’t in top shape, they’d be seriously, perhaps even fatally injured.  The strength and control that allow them to ski or skate right up to the edge also protect them when they slip over. Resilience, courage, and stamina radiate from the bodies and faces of these young warriors, who fight to overcome not just world records and treacherous snow conditions, but also their own fears and limitations.

Of the dozens who race or perform, only three will get to stand on the medal podium.  And for every one who makes it to the Olympics, hundreds more have fallen by the wayside in qualifying trials.  I cannot help thinking about all these other ones, about their hours of training, their hopes and fears, and the hundredths of a second that can make the difference between moving up and being eliminated.  In the winner-take-all world of big-time sport, there is no place for the also-rans.  They must look within themselves to find satisfaction, affirmation, and the courage to go on.

Nor, at this time of year, can I help thinking of all the highly-trained people struggling to find or maintain a place in the academic world.  It’s the season of job hunting, on-campus interviews, and tenure decisions.  You smell the tension in the air, acrid as burnt wiring.  The race is on, and at the end, some will advance and some will not.  Those who do will have new challenges, about which we’ll be writing later; those who don’t will be challenged in a different way.  And all the while, close behind, the next year’s competitors crowd toward the starting gates.

In the warrior phase of life and career, everyone struggles to find a place in the world.  Training is past, school is past, and now we have to deal.  The world is big and strong, and it asks us to do many things at once.  How can we find the strength and balance to rise to the task and survive the bruising we are bound to take on the course, no matter what the outcome?

Our next series examines the phase of the warrior.  As you read, think of people you know who seemed to lead a convincing life at this stage.  What were their secrets of balance?  Feel free to share a comment or, better yet, a story.

Rethinking Success 4

I admit, recent posts have been pretty hard on success.  No doubt some of you will be asking, why should we not aspire?  Are we to shun ambition and go live in the sun?  Everyone admires the discipline, effort, and drive that push the limits of human thought and performance.  Why shouldn’t we take inspiration from the Michael Phelpses, Lance Armstrongs, or Reinhold Messners of this world? If, as Blake said, exuberance is beauty, how much more beautiful it is when someone throws their whole soul into some endeavor.   Why begrudge an Olympic gold medal or Nobel prize under the guise of a more exalted philosophy?  Even the I-Ching says that perseverance furthers.

Fair enough.  But what’s really at issue is not success per se, but rather the worship of success, which D.H. Lawrence famously called “the bitch goddess.”   We all need some success in order to maintain self-esteem, stay in the game, and put food on the table.  A moderate level of success can nourish both body and soul.  Beyond that, three serious problems arise.

First, consider the how the world rewards endeavor.  Success means you get to do more of the same.  If you teach well, they give you tenure.  If your book sells, your publisher wants another.  If you do well at your job, you get promoted.  You become known for what you are good at.  Opportunities come your way, and the more you take advantage of them, the more come knocking at the door.  Success feeds on itself; that’s why we say that “nothing succeeds like success.”  Because everyone loves a winner.

With the world’s rewards coming thick and fast, and even faster as time goes on, it becomes very difficult to step aside.  But that is often what your growth requires.  Growth, by definition, means change, development, new things, new ventures, stretching yourself, taking risks, discovery, maturation, uncertainty, even anxiety, perhaps even pain.  But it also means vitality, health, and a sense of unfolding.  We feel most alive when we are learning and growing; we feel happy and young.  From this point of view, success can appear as a hindrance.  Too much can limit our vision and even our desire for growth.  We can settle into the comfort of our competencies.  But, as the wise person said, if you are sitting on your laurels, it means you are wearing them in the wrong place.

Second, consider how many of your most memorable experiences, the ones from which you learned the most, did not come by choice but by chance, or from your enemies, or through some catastrophe in the outside world.  Do you really think you are the best judge of what’s good for you?  What does your life tell you in this regard? Has it always been good for you to write your own ticket?  Certainly, that’s one way the world rewards success, and we commonly think of it as a good thing.  But is it?  Getting one’s way may feel affirming at first, but a well-worn path soon deepens into a rut, and thence into a ravine from which it becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond the rim.

How much worse, then, when we internalize ambition and achievement so that they become bound up with our own sense of self.  Not only institutions, but people become addicted to success.  “How,” asked Thoreau, “can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge?”  As academicians, how admiringly we regard those who are “disciplined” and “productive”, forgetting that these are also characteristic of machines.

And this brings us to the third problem with success, which is that it’s not inevitable.  It depends on luck and circumstances as well as on ability, effort, or qualifications.  We all want to feel in control of our lives, as so we study hard, work hard, and try to do all the right things.  And still we may not get the job, we may be denied tenure, our true love may fall for someone else, our book deal may blow up, our institution may implode, our prudent investment may evaporate overnight.  Because, as medieval sages knew, Fortune will turn her wheel.  The Black Swan will appear.  Shit happens.

To loosen the hold of success on your imagination, always do what brings you joy, feeds your spirit, and feels worth doing for its own sake.  Learn from everything, no matter how painful, for if you are in a learning mode, you can’t lose.

And with that, we turn to the Warrior Phase.