On new year resolutions and transcending my academic identity
I don’t do new year’s resolutions. I don’t make unreasonable goals that I’ll inevitably fail at by February.
Instead, I focus on something new each year. Something that I hope will contribute to my overall well-being in the long term. I began doing this regularly in 2019. To give you an idea, here’s what I focused on each year, and the outcomes that have resulted:
2019 – focus on being more disciplined – which led to a substantial increase in my reading and a new workout habit.
2020 – focus on getting out of my comfort zone – which led to being less rigid, and ditching stale routines that held me back from trying new things.
2021 – focus on taking better care of myself – which led to a great skin-care routine (hello 30!) and a more holistic approach to my health and well-being.
The benefit to approaching the new year like this, rather than with resolutions, is that these are flexible, broad aims that I can adjust throughout the year and apply to various domains of my life. By the end of each year, I have built new habits that I can carry over into the next year.
My focus this past year of taking better care of myself afforded me a renewed sense of focus on my holistic well-being and life status. What is most important? What is serving me well? What is not?
Shortly after the year began, I quickly realized that I had taken on too much work. Along with my full-time job, I have two part-time jobs that combined take up about 10 hours a week. I also write regularly on this Substack or my new one (subscribe for all things books!), make time for fun leisure activities on the weekends, and aim to read and work out each day. Add it up, and it’s a lot to fit in.
By February, I was already tired. By July, after being put on an impromptu virtual conference hosting committee for months, I was exhausted. By August I was completely burnt out.
Not even in grad school had I worked myself to this point. Unable to take a break from any of my commitments, I had to struggle through the burn out and limp my way through the next few months, until I was finally able to focus on a work task for more than 10 minutes at a time without feeling overwhelmed and wanting to rage quit life.
These experiences quickly led to me identifying what my 2022 focus would be: doing less.
But why had I taken on so much in the first place?
I have always liked to keep myself busy, and there’s something to the idea of having lots of interesting things to do that has made me feel like I was doing something important with my work. It wasn’t until I read Paul Bloom’s The Sweet Spot last month that I realized why I was addicted to the struggle of overworking and taking on too much: it gave me purpose, a sense of meaning, and generally contributed to my life satisfaction.
This revelation I had in my car while listening to this book got me reflecting on the culture of overworking, which is especially prevalent in academia. When I was a grad student, I regularly worked 50+ hour weeks, was in my office every Saturday and even on many holidays (cringe). And I know many academics who do these things because they “have to” in today’s ultra-competitive academic culture where you’re not worthy of success unless you’re constantly sacrificing for that $60k a year assistant professorship.
There is also the common idea in academia that your work is your identity, or most of it at least. It’s what gives you purpose. It’s what gives you your personality. And it provides you with a community of others who have and will continue to make all the sacrifices necessary to be a modern academic.
I’ve been “out” of academia – and the pursuit of the tenure-track – for two years now. The first year I spent reckoning with my own lost academic identity. If I am no longer an “academic,” what am I? (I think that’s why, in part, I retained an adjunct teaching position – in addition to my genuine love for being in the classroom – and remained on the executive board of my home academic society.) The second year – 2021 – has consisted of several existential crises about where my career is going (I now know – more on this soon!) given that being outside the tenure-track can make one feel as if they are stranded in the middle of the desert without a compass.
Most importantly, however, I’ve been forced to think carefully about what I am doing professionally and semi-professionally that will get me to where I want to be and contribute to the life I want to live. It’s taken me a while to get here, as I presume many PhDs have or will experience while trying to find their footing outside the professoriate (which is why I write often about my experiences).
Going into 2022, I know I want to have a job doing something I like and am good at, at a company that values me. But I also want to enjoy my life. No longer is “life” synonomous with “academic”. Instead, my life is now defined by reading what I want when I want, writing at my leisure, and going on adventures to see the coolest geological and rock formations I can find.
I feel like I have finally shed my academic identity. I no longer feel the need to work myself into the ground and take on all the things. (Remember: “No” is a full sentence.) I want to work my agreed upon 40 hours and spend the rest of my time doing what is good for me.
Probably the biggest benefit to leaving the tenure-track pursuit is that my personal self is no longer intertwined with my profession. And I imagine this is what many who have already left and rave about it feel to some extent, too. I’m not saying that this is impossible for those who remain in academia and the tenure-track, but it is certainly no secret that in academia overwork is rampant, mental health is suffering, and basic employment benefits (salary, etc) are generally crap for the average person compared to what they could get in almost any other career.
I no longer envy the academic track, mindset, or culture. I value my vacation time, work flexibility, and benefits in my current career. My focus to do less in 2022 will require me to let go of my part-time work commitments giving me back ample time spend on the hobbies that bring me joy and to which I am accountable to no one, only my own happiness.
What are you going to focus on in the new year?
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Great post. I follow your instagram and between all the books you read, your adventures, your teaching and your Substack posts, I figured you were super busy but assumed that was just your natural state. Interesting to get a peak inside your life and hear that it really was super busy and became overwhelming. Also, great reflections on identity and work -- sounds like you're headed in a much more sustainable and enjoyable direction.
This resonates with me. Decoupling identity and self worth from your work, workouts and all things pertaining to performance had a bearing on my mental health. If I didn’t run 5 miles at 4 AM even if I was injured, meant I was a lazy person. This year I plan to be more mindful of my training.