Pull, Don’t Push

I didn’t mean to drop the mic. I really didn’t. But during today’s #sachat on “moving up or moving out” in student affairs, we were posed the following question:

I said my brief piece (my standard brief piece on the matter) on how I don’t think attrition is a numbers issue, but rather an issue of how we represent the field. But as I scrambled to hit “Tweet” on a response before I left for a meeting, an additional element surfaced that we sometimes leave out when we’re emotionally invested in this conversation.

Given my recent tilt toward likening comedy to our work, consider the following anecdotes. Bill Cosby is a doctorate-holding educator who, according to Buzzfeed, didn’t mean to go into comedy. In an interview at the American Comedy Awards, he said:

It doesn’t happen, the one moment. I had no intention, no dream to be a stand-up comedian playing nightclubs, nothing. My goal was to become a schoolteacher […] I’ve always been first and foremost the person who writes what he sees, but not for it to be funny. I want people to feel and see what I saw. And then comes tagging on the humor.

Similarly, Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Community) wasn’t always a comedian. He was a doctor of internal medicine. Comedy started as a hobby, a way to decompress after a hard work day, and gradually became a bigger part of his life until he took on comedy full-time.

Parks and Recreation‘s hilarious and continental Donna Meagle is played by actress and comedian Retta Sirleaf, who was a contract chemist for GlaxoSmithKline after graduating pre-med from Duke. Yup, sista is smart.

Now, in all of these instances, could it be argued that these talented individuals left their former roles and associated interests? Sure. But there’s something missing in this conversation, something that finally crystalized during this afternoon’s chat, and I expressed that point before leaving abruptly:

There are those who leave the field because the pressures of their role have caused them to seek other options, or because their belief in the field is inconsistent with their reality. I completely understand that this can happen. However, this post is not for or about those people.

A brilliant article by Elizabeth Keenan in Chronicle Vitae (one I’ve read several times over the past few weeks) encapsulates part of that decision, as well as how professionals around us tend to react:

[…] in academia, you hear those things all the time. As soon as you tell someone, “I’m thinking of leaving,” they’ll come back at you with a list of reasons you should stay, give it another year, try harder, and maybe a job will open up. People who try to keep you in academia mean well: Either they have succeeded and don’t understand why you haven’t, or they’re in the same position as you and they’re terrified of leaving. But that doesn’t make talking to them any easier.

One of the elements of our profession that I struggle with most is our propensity to shame or look down upon those who elect to leave the field in favor of other pursuits. Being a field of personable people, we take offense at this decision, concerned that its our fault or that we have some duty to keep them “within our ranks.” But, as Chris Conzen illuminated in one of my favorite posts of his, this may have nothing to do with us. We’re typically offended, concerned, or hurt by what we’re seeing as a push. I want us, as a profession, to look at this another way.

IMAGE CREDIT: manythings.org

Think about Bill, Ken, or Retta. They weren’t feeling pushed out of education, medicine, or pharmaceutical work. They were being pulled toward careers in comedy- something they loved, were good at, and that fulfilled them. That same calling in light of other factors is, as cheesy as it can sound, what drew many of us to the work of student affairs in the first place. But sometimes, circumstances or experiences create a calling in a different direction. Following that calling once you’re already seeing the merit in a new one can be hard. Ken Jeong, in particular, has been vocal about what it took for him to make that decision. Colleagues and friends can be appropriately curious, but it does little to add to that person’s stress and conflict with uninformed judgment.

We spend our day assisting students in doing precisely this, yet struggle to give the same patience and understanding to our colleagues when they decide to pursue other interests, no matter how good they are at them or how much they feel fulfilled by this new journey. Does that seem right to you? It doesn’t to me.

A lot of time, energy, and bandwidth is consumed on discussions ensuring that we have good professionals doing this work. In my mind (as well as many others, I’m sure), part of that good work comes from being fulfilled. This is not the same as saying you must be fulfilled by your work, mind you. Rather, the nature of work needs to fit within a framework that allows for fulfillment. When we’re talking about a fit in interviews and work between the person and the institution, “fit” should also consider the relationship between the person and the work itself. And when the former outgrows the latter, a shopping trip and some new duds may be in order. Be the supportive friend, colleague, spouse, or force that makes that emotional trip a little easier.