The “final” day: On writing, tenure and living

If you have been following, no doubt you have realized that I did not deliver on my “write every day” commitment. It appears that I write more frequently when I am not writing. Mumbling, many call it.

It turns out that the university (well, people, but the institution of people…) decided to give me tenure, for which I am eternally grateful. What does it mean? Although it sounds like “ten years,” tenure actually happens after about 5 years of university employment and, once awarded, implies academic freedom with a job for life – depending on how you want to define your life and assuming you don’t do anything supremely stupid. (No tenure not only means no job for life, but also no job at all…).

I did not jump for joy upon hearing the news. I was more confused than anything else. Coming from industry, I had never considered the idea of a job for life; I simply assumed that I would have one (both a job and a life), in some way shape or form, and that I would deal with employment (and life) as events unfolded.

The tenure process was painful – a five year probation period, where I felt that my work was being scrutinized from one minute to the next (and actually was). I asked myself daily, “Am I working on the right stuff? Is the quality of my work at the expected standard, or is it surpassing that standard? What IS the standard??” And when I wasn’t working on anything school related, I still searched for meaning in what I was doing, and how I could translate it into some sort of academic output.

Five years on, wherever I turn, I see a potential research project and a genuine desire to pursue it. I think in terms of dependent and independent variables,  moderating and mediating factors, boundary conditions, relevance, theoretical domains… My brain is now partitioned into sections: introduction, lit review, theoretical arguments, methods, data gathering, analysis, discussion, conclusion and, oh yes, references. When telling a funny story, I include citations, to be sure that nobody thinks I am taking credit for the jokes of others.

Upon reflection, I doubt, however, that I have changed all that much. There were many instances while at Nortel where I stood on my desk shouting, “It’s systemic! We must change the system!” I looked at every business problem as one that could be solved, in some sort of fashion, by playing with variables and outcomes. To me, issues were rarely caused by individuals specifically, but stemmed from poorly designed systems. Fix the system, fix the problem. I have always felt that people genuinely want to do a good job. Do some wake up saying, “Today, I will sabotage my work, my job, my employer”? I doubt it. And if they do, there is likely a set of variables that can explain how such an intention came to be.

Naive? Maybe. But the way I see it, we all go through life trying to navigate the systems in which we participate. From education, to family life, to social activities and, of course, work, we twist and turn through rules and processes – a mess of variables – and during that time, we live – we experience life for whatever it is, making choices or dealing with the choices of others – and we all seem to keep on going, putting one foot in front of the other.

I had my doubts about academia but tenure seemed worth pursuing, if for nothing else, to prevent an uncomfortable discussion with hubby that would no doubt have started with, “You mean you did a PhD for nothing?!” But now that I am here and have the luxury to look back on my life, I am reminded of the time when I sat in a Nortel management training session, pondering the meaning of life. At the break, I told the instructor (an org behaviour expert) that I didn’t really feel at home, to which she replied, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I now realize that feeling at home comes from within, as does living a good and meaningful life.