Last year, about two months after we’d moved to our new city, our Fun Friends Nick and Hillary came to visit. They’re maybe ten years younger than me—so, they’re old enough that we have things in common, but young enough that I’m pained every time they mention when they graduated from high school. I’m grateful for Nick and Hillary for many reasons: it’s because of them that I’m on Insta and that I Bitmoji. When we all lived in the same city, they were the reason my husband and I had Fourth of July BBQs to go to and Karaoke invites to decline. And when they come to visit us, they give us the energy to plan all the fun stuff we feel too tense and cranky and busy to plan on our own: We go hunting for blackberries. We take impromptu day trips. We have late dinners with tall drinks in dim lighting.
We sleep in.
In other words, our life is more balanced when they’re here, which is why, whenever they leave, I’m always a little down. “How come we’re not fun?” I ask my husband, in a voice that causes him to close his eyes with a heavy sigh. I start listing all the Fun Things we could be doing every weekend if we weren’t who we actually are. “We don’t do anything when Nick and Hillary aren’t here” I say, sprawling across the couch. “We’re boring.”
This especially happens if they visit in the middle of the semester, when life is at its most hectic. The last time they came to town, I’d been struggling to understand the overall arc of the book I’m working on, and I was obsessed with trying to figure it out. That meant I was writing even when I was doing other things, and whenever I could, I’d slip into my office to scribble down a few more thoughts. “Hey!” my husband would call from the living room at 8:00 on Saturday night. “Are you working?!” I would sometimes pretend I couldn’t hear him.
Other parts of my life lagged too. My blog posts were late. The fridge was empty. I’m not quite sure how my dog was able to hold his bladder for so long each day. There was certainly no fun being had in my home. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to work.
In truth, our Fun Friends only illuminate a pattern that happens to me pretty regularly. At the beginning of the semester, I set my writing goals and I promise myself that I’m going to give as much attention to my personal life as I give to my professional life. But I love writing, even when it’s driving me crazy. And besides, there’s that whole editor/press/deadline thing. So little by little I get caught up in all the stuff I need to get done. Then all of a sudden, I look up and realize I’m tired, I’m cranky, and I’ve reached that place where everyone else’s life seems more sparkling and meaningful than mine.
The reason this happens is because in the midst of all the demands I’m juggling, I sometimes forget my purpose. Purpose isn’t something academics talk about all that much: Like writing or (Heaven forbid) emotions, we can sometimes find the idea of having a purpose a little…I dunno, inappropriate, maybe? Distasteful? A little TMI, thank you very much. We edge up to the subject of purpose when we talk about our goals, since the assumption is you’re working this hard for a reason. But your goals and your purpose aren’t really the same thing. Your goal is what you’re shooting for. Your purpose is the reason you’re shooting for it. Sure, you want the PhD. Yes, you want tenure, and then certainly you’ll go for Full. I, of course, want to finish this book. But why? Or more precisely, what’s the life we’re trying to build, and how does this work help us build it?
When I ask other scholars this question, I often hear something about the working conditions of academia. No doubt, the autonomy and relative job security are hard to beat. But even when it’s the first thing they mention, it’s not the thing they get stuck on.
It’s not the thing they tell me the story about.
What they tell me the story about is how they were literally saved by some idea they encountered, in a novel, in a research article, or in the person of someone (not always a scholar) whose work and spirit embodied the life they wanted. They talk about the first time they encountered that thing that was somehow entirely new, but also felt like a key unlocking something they’d sensed all along, but not been previously able to access. They talk about the new world they’d been shown and how entering into it felt like a kind of coming home. So much so that they don’t just think O man. That’s what I wanna do. They think O man. That’s what I’m meant to do.
They don’t say to me, “I knew I wanted to be a Provost.” They say, “I realized I wanted to help first generation college students graduate without being smothered by debt.” They don’t say, “I wanted to be able to compellingly synthesize, in both oral and written form, the extant literature on depression among gender nonconforming students.” They say, “I want to keep kids like my cousin from committing suicide.” In other words, their purpose isn’t a skill, or job, or a promotion, or an award. It may eventually get operationalized that way, but that’s not where they start. Where they start is with this sense of who they want to be and how they want to—I know it sounds corny—change the world, in whatever way they can.
This is what I mean by purpose, and this is the thing that it’s so easy to lose track of when you’re just trying to get through the reading for class or decide how late you can afford to stay up to figure out where the damn book is going. Especially if we lose touch with the community of people that helped us form and grow our purpose, it’s easy to forget that the tasks we’re completing aren’t themselves the ultimate point. They’re just one route to getting there.
One simple way to stay on track is to take a few minutes and write down what your purpose is. If this seems a little woo-woo, think about it this way: you’ve already written a Statement of Purpose, several times. You did it when you applied to grad school, when you wrote your job letter, even when you wrote your Research Statement for your mid-probationary or tenure review. With each of these documents, you were asked to do more than list your plans and accomplishments: instead you were asked to make meaning of all that you do; to describe the point of all this work. We tend to consider this question narrowly, in reference to our research agenda. Rarely do we broaden the scope of our questioning and think how it might apply not just to our work, but also to our lives.
January’s the perfect time to try this, 'cause it’s the hardest month of the academic year. Gone are the brisk smell of falling leaves, the moving vans in front of the dorms, the hope for a brand new school year. The entire campus is tired and cranky. Now it’s just the long, hard slog toward a spring it seems will never come. Writing down your purpose helps you get and stay clear about what’s important when things get hard, when it’s cold or constantly raining, and your students’ bad attitudes are outstripped only by your state legislature’s financial stinginess. If the only thing you’re working for at that point is the next ribbon, that’s only going to take you so far. But if your push for that ribbon means something more and you’re clear on what that meaning is, it’s easier to believe that spring is actually coming. It’s also easier to allow for something else besides work to take up space in your life, even when you’ve got a to-do list that won’t quit.
I thought about my purpose after my Fun Friends’ last visit, and I was surprised to find that I wasn’t totally off base, just a little out of whack. Sure, I need to lock away my writing beast on Saturday nights and spend a couple hours binge watching Black-ish with my husband. (You see? It turns out I am boring, even when I’m not obsessed with my book). At the same time, I believe that scholars change the world, and that their writing can be their friend instead of their foe in that process, and I’m hoping my work can help other people realize that, too. So I’m doing what I most love to do. I just need to do a little less of it.
Nick and Hillary are in Delhi right now, God love ‘em, and watching them on Insta sorta makes me wish I was them. But I also just polished off a chapter; one I hope is going to someday help a whip smart but struggling graduate student figure out how to finish her dissertation without killing herself in the process. It’s a little bit boring, I admit, especially when compared to India. But it’s what I’m meant to do.
How ‘bout you?
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach