Transform, Grow, Progress: Why it took me Fifteen Years to Figure Out The Purpose of My Life

For a very long time, I was very sure of exactly what I wanted to do: Be a college professor. I graduated from a prestigious social science Phd program, got a couple of very nice postdoctoral positions, was publishing regularly, and was working steadily on turning my dissertation into an academic book. As recently as March of 2012, I was publishing self-satisfied posts about how grad school had been a great decision.

But by September of that year, I started to have serious misgivings about my academic career. I was 33 then, at what you could argue is about the worst point to consider a career change – not yet stable and successful enough in one thing to make a cushioned transition into something else, and maybe not quite young enough to make the sacrifices that starting all over again required.

As it turns out, I’ve done pretty okay over the past year, picking up copywriting and corporate communications jobs that helped me learn a ton about the world outside academia while keeping body and soul together. I’ve learned, first and foremost, that there are a lot of needs and opportunities out there in the business world for people with solid writing skills, and I’ve also learned a good bit about how to get myself out there as someone providing those services.

I was also able, through a mix of luck and what I sometimes fear was the last burst of youthful vigor I’ve got left in me, to build a significant freelance writing stream. I landed my first major feature just about two months ago (it’ll be out at Aeon, hopefully fairly soon). And while gaining an understanding of the more business-y side of writing has been great, it’s the freelancing world where I’ve finally figured out the practical reality of what I really need to be doing, and become genuinely confident that I can pull it off. I’ve now made the leap into full-time freelancing, and I’m starting the search for a more permanent, sustainable role in writing, editing, and publishing (I still have a lot of interest in the world of high-level consulting, private research firms, and thinktanks, but I know almost nothing about them).

It’s still hard for me to know what to make of the long, strange trip that got me here. And of course, I know my new confidence and direction could be just as likely to last ten years before I find something else. But I don’t think that’ll happen – I always knew I wanted to be ‘a writer,’ but I never really understood what that meant or how to do it. I grapple daily with the feeling that my academic career was wasted time, though I’m realizing that what I learned helps give my freelance work interesting, meaningful angles.

So why did I go to grad school at all? Well, first and foremost, because I was and still am fascinated by the absolute depths of philosophy and inquiry. In the long run, it prepares me to tackle big subjects that 95% of writers – even successful, professional ones – can’t. And on a day to day level, I think I would have been much less happy spending those years on a more conventional writer’s route through, say, a newspaper, because I’ve seen enough to know that there’s a lot of low-level drudgery there.

But I also now realize that I went to grad school, like many people, because it felt like a safe path, at least in the short term. I tried freelancing for a very brief period after I left my first steady writing gig (I left to take a cross-country trip, about which I have exactly zero regrets), and had very little success. I had no sense, back then, that most writers struggle for years at dead-end jobs while they build their writing careers.

My image of the career that awaited me in academia was also at least somewhat illusory. I imagined being able to both produce deep-thinking academic work, and regularly devote the time to pursuing my own creative work. That ground has shifted rather violently over the decade-plus since I started grad school, with many tenure-track jobs disappearing and those remaining becoming much more demanding. Part of the reason that I left academia was that I began to suspect that it would be another decade, if even then, before I would be in a position to balance the demands of the tenure track with creative freedom.

But maybe most of all, and most misguidedly, I went to grad school because I desperately needed to belong to something, to have a sense of identity and purpose. If you’ve got a certain kind of talent, grad school is full of regular rewards and reassurances, set goals, structures, guidance. I needed all of those, and as a deeply socially alienated young adult, I didn’t know how to get them for myself – how to seek out other writers, learn from the experienced ones and build a community with other beginners. I wasn’t even that great at connecting with real friends. I was, I now recognize, simply too socially and personally fragile for the uncertainty of a young writer’s life.

Academia slowed my progress in overcoming those failings – it rewards the self-importance, radical individualism, and combativeness that were at the root of my alienation. The past two or three years, during which I finally got really involved in non-academic activities, and then worked professionally outside of academia for the first time in more than a decade, have opened me up in ways that I don’t yet fully understand. Most importantly, I’ve actually become emotionally available after being really shut down for a long, long time.

At the same time, I’ve become much stronger on a practical level. I now know with certainty that I can do many different things, and do them well, and get paid for it. That doesn’t mean that I’m not scared about this new thing I’m trying to do – the honest truth is that I’m absolutely terrified. But I’m trying to focus on the other thing that goes along with that – a growing sense of elation, of excitement, of the limitless possibility of actually focusing on the thing I want to be doing.

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