Creating a Colorful Career: GRADE talk on 7. May 2014

Post in: German

What can you do to make sure your career fits your ideal? There are no guarantees or formulas to follow precisely, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to guide the decisions and options you have along the way. That’s the message I told a group of graduate students at the GRADE Career Talk on May 7, 2014 in the GRADE Bockenheim conference room overlooking the skyline. A rainbow over the city punctuated the talk, and questions kept coming til well after 8 PM, followed by informal questions and conversations about how to move from here, the graduate experience, to there, a fulfilling career doing what each loves to do.
I asked the group to start with writing down the answers to a few questions (academics tend to be head people for whom good thinking is done on paper first!).
First, what is my question tonight? Each day we have a question, a project, a topic that’s on our minds. On this night, something compelled them to spend a lovely spring evening with me indoors instead of anywhere else on the planet. What’s that question?
Second, What kind of person do I want to be? What are the characteristics of my personality, my personhood, that are especially important for me to cultivate?
A related question: What kind of old person do I want to be? I ask myself this question often. It shapes my decisions in this way: will this (thought, activity, opportunity, skill) help me become an interesting, compassionate, lively, curious person when I am 80? Will I be the kind of person former students want to come visit? Will I be the kind of person who wants to hear about the adventures and plans of those former students? I choose “students” as my target population because their likelihood of visiting a former “professor” is shaped in no way by obligation, as family visits might be, only by interest. Am I interesting to them, would they take the time to stop by? “My” students are going to range in age from 25 to 75 by the time I am 80. Some of my former students are only 5 years younger than I am, and others will have been in classes that I’m likely to have taught when I am in my early 70s. So that’s a good swath of the population and generates a lot of creative possibilities for the stories and topics we can chat about. Keeping the mind and body active are ways to stay nimble and engaged in life. And I want that for myself. So what can I do now to bring it about that I am that person at age 80? I do that thing. Today it is yoga class, some artwork, and letters to friends.
Third, What kind of life do I want to live? Does that involve a lot of excitement, changing scenery, or some stability? Deep long-term relationships with a few, or with many? Many contacts, or few? A strong internal life, or an external one? Rural, urban? Animals? Music? Sports? Time that “belongs” to me separated strictly from time that “belongs” to my employer? Or a melding and merging of the boundaries between my time and my obligations to paid work? Early retirement so I can “do something else” or a lifelong career that engages me, something I would do even without being paid? How public, how private is my life? How many phases does it have? What are they?
A fourth question: What kind of experiences do I want to have? Some call this the “Bucket List.” Must I absolutely spend a period of time on the sea, in the mountains, climbing a mountain, raising a child, canoeing the headwaters, sleeping in an igloo or ice hotel? Do I want to speak in front of 1000 people or a million on TV? Do I want to write something that goes down for all of posterity in paper print, or is sent around the world as a tweet? Do I want to alleviate suffering? On what scale? Change mindsets? Bring about peace? How? What are the experiences that are part of these desires? At a more tangible level, experiences like learning a specific skill, finishing a certain project, or witnessing a piece of art in person could all belong to the category of experience.
Finally, I asked my group and myself, What kind of contribution do I want to make? This can be a work-related contribution, but it does not have to be.
The questions are related. Answers should bring some redundancy. Experiences and contributions, The type of life and type of person, will be similar. When a person knows the answers here, or works actively to engage with these questions, the person is in a better position to answer the more mundane questions around specific jobs and career choices. I’ll give examples of these questions below. I want to emphasize, the answers to these questions will keep coming, deepening, and changing over the lifetime! That’s normal. That’s how we know we are alive and growing. What we thought we wanted at age 25 may be different at age 45. We kind of hope so, actually – it means we moved somewhere within ourselves in those years in between, through those experiences.
Questions that the graduates asked me:
What are the ups and downs of a biography lived in a foreign country? The question behind this question is, are these ups and downs ones that fit my own life concept, does that sound good to me, or horrible? Thus the importance of knowing, “What kind of life do I want to live, experiences I want to have, contribution I want to make, what kind of person do I want to become.” Only with the self-knowledge can we assess whether the ups and downs of certain kinds of lives suit our concepts for ourselves.
How do you know where do draw the balances and compromises between professional and personal interests, especially when they conflict? First of all, only YOU know. You are weighing “What kind of life do I want to live” with the options before you, and you see which ones fit the total concept you have for yourself. Look a little beyond the immediate. Sometimes short-term discomfort gets us long-term wishes. This question has something of the point, do I take a lower-paying job in something I love versus a higher-paying job doing something I don’t care as much about. Again, what are the life goals? If interesting work and making a contribution in a specific area is the goal, go there. If not, and rather money for free time pursuits is important, then the decision is clearer. Sometimes one doesn’t have to compromise if one is clear enough and the options present themselves. Eyes open!
How do I decide whether to stay in academia or not? What comes with each decision? Ask those in each in your field or area! Follow them around in their workday and if possible some of their non-work day (“shadowing” is what this is called). No ones life will look like yours, so you can try it yourself – take a leave, try the other way. Talk to people in DIFFERENT settings. You may discover that something you thought was crucial is not at all important, and something you didn’t realize matters is the deciding factor. For example, business travel looks and sounds glamourous to some, and some find it that after years. Others learn fast that there’s no place like home.
How do I know what I want to do, what to be passionate about regarding my work? Reflect on those questions. Find role models outside your immediate circle. Talk to them about where their passion comes from.

In sum, planning and doing a life is a massive project. When we take inventory of our wishes, and stay in touch with ourselves on these values and priorities, it’s more likely they can come into full expression in the lives we live. Asking the questions brings the possibility of answers.

Students also asked me about handling discrimination in foreign countries. My best advice here is to focus on the positive situations one encounters in the new situation and attribute any discriminating situations to the people issuing the discrimination, not to oneself. Be the alternative example, the teacher in these situations. That takes a lot of mindfulness and self-protection, but it pays off in leaving the attribution of whatever negatives others are placing on oneself with those others, not taking it on. Someone else’s definition of us only becomes our definition with our permission. That’s a very human process, taking on the other’s assessment as our own, but it can be examined and countered.
In sum, planning and doing a life is a massive project. When we take inventory of our wishes, and stay in touch with ourselves on these values and priorities, it’s more likely they can come into full expression in the lives we live. Asking the questions brings the possibility of answers.

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