A Career in a Life

In addition to a lot of time to meditate, my last year of serious illness has given me a lot of time to think, including about my job and career. I seem to be of the age where people start considering what they’ve done with their life so far, and evaluating whether it was worth doing and whether they were successful at it. What does it mean to have a successful career? The question can’t really be answered until the end of a career, since even thriving careers can end badly, but there are at least two ways to evaluate success before the end: inner-directed and outer-directed. (One can think of these perspectives as based on authenticity or conformity, but those terms are much more loaded.) I have adopted the inner-directed approach where success depends partly on how you interpret your own career, on the story you can tell about your career within the story of your life.

The outer-directed evaluation is the most common and the hardest to escape given that we’re individuals within a profession and professionals within a broader society of professionals. Both of those social contexts can provide criteria for evaluation. How do we rank compared to other academic librarians, especially ones of our own age/experience cohort? And how do we as academic librarians compare to other professions, especially those to which we might have aspired?

Like many people who become academic librarians, I started out on a more traditional path to academia. Had I not decided during my graduate study in English that the chances of getting a tenure-track job I would want were extremely small, and if I had continued on the track I was on, and if I had despite the odds been successful, I would have become an English professor, probably of early modern British literature. Would I have been happy in that career? Probably as happy as I am now. But I decided my chances of gainful employment were too slim to make it worth the effort, so I left grad school after my M.A., and the world lost the opportunity of getting another Shakespeare scholar. I’d already decided in college that my chances in English were better than in my other love philosophy, so the world had already lost the opportunity of getting another philosophy professor. The world doesn’t seem any worse off.

Would my career have been more successful as a professor than as an academic librarian? Certainly professors are higher in the academic hierarchy than librarians (I’m skipping the faculty librarian debate). They generally make more money and have more social prestige. However, as a professor I would still have had others with which to compare myself, since professors are far from equal. Had I ended up at a small state university, I could still have thought, “if only I were a professor at Harvard or Princeton, then I would really be successful!” Or I could have been a moderately paid English professor looking at my colleagues in the business school and irritated that I wasn’t paid as much as them. And, possibly, I just wouldn’t have been very good at it.

However, an honest comparison of my prospects might not be between English professor and academic librarian, but between academic librarian and adjunct writing instructor. Here the story changes considerably. I understand the motivation of people who would rather teach for low pay without benefits or job security, who would rather identify as a professor than anything else despite their tenuous employment. I love teaching, even the academic grunt work of teaching writing, and most of my years as a librarian I’ve also taught either in a writing program or in a library school. Discussing difficult texts with interested undergraduates is a great pleasure, but I would rather be an academic librarian with a full time job and benefits than an adjunct writing instructor with neither, and those were probably the best options within the competing careers I was likely to achieve while remaining in academia. So am I more successful or less than I might have been?

The other outer-directed evaluation is with other academic librarians. A frequently used criterion is moving up, where “up” always means into administration. It’s an objective fact that in any library there can be only one library director, and at best only a handful of high level middle managers even in a large organization, and those librarians are at or near the top of their profession in an easily measured way. So attractive is this model that librarians often uproot their lives and move every few years to advance in their careers. By this standard, my career so far hasn’t been too successful. I’ve spent my 18 professional years doing variations on the same kind of work, and 16 of those years doing it at the same library, because I like what I do and better opportunities haven’t come along.

There are other ways to measure the success of academic librarians in an outer-directed fashion, ways in which I’m not such a loser I guess. I could compare institutional prestige, for example. I moved up in a sense when I moved from Gettysburg to Princeton, but like a lot of liberal arts colleges in small towns Gettysburg has its attractions, and had I not been locked in a professional battle to the death with my then supervisor, I might have stayed a lot longer than I did. And my first few years at Princeton weren’t much easier than my fraught time at Gettysburg, so I learned early on there’s no library workplace utopia. Besides, the institution doesn’t confer value on the individual; the individual creates value for the institution.

Academic librarians also have the opportunity to compare themselves via their scholarship, reputation, professional service, etc. Here I fair moderately at best. I’ve published some, and I’m pleased with what I’ve published, but it’s out of the mainstream of library science publications and my impact has been minor. I’ve presented some, but not much compared to more prominent academic librarians. I’ve been active in professional organizations, but I’m unlikely ever to be president of ACRL, so how successful could I really be? Within my own institution, I’ve earned two rank promotions, but what difference does that really make? I’m surrounded by smart, capable people on the same route. By these standards, I’m more successful than some other librarians, but much less successful than a lot of others. And yet, I’m very satisfied with my career, so whence comes my professional satisfaction?

I have tried never to evaluate my life or career by the standards or accomplishments of other people. Jobs always have outer-directed aspects to them. Part of living peacefully in society is conforming to at least some social conventions, and part of being employed in a capitalist society is pleasing other people. My library has rules and procedures for advancement as do most libraries, and I’ve tried to comply with those rules. I try to fulfill the expectations others have for my work without falling into bad faith, without “playing at being a librarian” in a Sartrean sense, but I conform to those expectations as much as I need to. In other words, I’m not a rebellious outsider chafing against the rules, mostly because I chose a profession where I agree with the rules. Professional longevity, if not success, is inevitably judged by some conformity. You can’t have a career if you can’t get or keep a job.

However, most of the time I conform to the expectations by chance rather than by design. To the extent that I’m successful in my work, I’m successful because I believe the work I do has value and because it fits into a larger life project, and it’s that larger life project from which I derive much of my meaning, purpose, satisfaction, ikigai, or whatever one might want to call it. I’m good at what I do because I like and value what I do and it exploits skills that I would have developed regardless of my job.

The overarching life project that has motivated most of my professional decisions over the years could be described as self-cultivation through the study of humanity, an engagement with Culture as Matthew Arnold defined it, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” Academic libraries and the access to scholarship they provide are important for that life project. I want to be able to research any subject that I fancy in any depth I desire.

Furthermore, because I believe in the life-enhancing importance and value of such research, I want to help others to achieve that goal. Hence, building research collections and helping people use them–a significant goal of research libraries and a big part of my work–is satisfying to me. Being a part of a larger enterprise that has given my life such meaning gives my career meaning as well, at least based on my own standards. In an address on the idea of the university, the rhetorician Wayne Booth said that “the academy attracts those who aspire to omniscience.” I’m one of those people. To paraphrase Aristotle, Wayne by nature desires to know, and the academy attracted me like a moth to a warm, bright light.

Thus, it didn’t matter that much for my own career satisfaction whether I became an English professor, a philosophy professor, an adjunct writing instructor, or an academic librarian, although being outside of academia might have been less satisfying. I am not my job. My life isn’t my career. My life doesn’t become meaningful because I’m a librarian; I work as a librarian because it fits well into the larger project that does provide meaning for my life. When I was an adjunct writing instructor prior to library school, I wasn’t dissatisfied with my work. Gladly would I learn and gladly teach. I made considerably less money, and there’s a sense in which I sold out to become a librarian (just as I sold out to go to grad school in English instead of philosophy), but money for me has always been what Stoics call a preferred indifferent. I probably make more in a few years than my parents made in their working lives combined, but I was still pretty happy pursuing my studious life course when I was an impoverished grad student.

This happiness isn’t about the subjective well being that positive psychologists study. It comes from interpreting my life in a eudaimonic sense. Eudaimonia is usually translated as “happiness.” One article on positive psychology I read recently went so far as to claim that for Aristotle, eudaimonia was just the word he used for happiness, but it’s the other way around. I do like a definition formulated by another psychologist, Carol Ryff, who wrote that “the essence of eudaimonia” is “the idea of striving toward excellence based on one’s unique potential,” in Nietzsche’s phrasing, “becoming who you are.” Although I’ve written about the calm and joy when dealing with adversity that Stoic Zen stuff brings, I’ve long understood my life and my career in existentialist terms and interpret eudaimonia within them: facticity and transcendence, authenticity and Bad Faith, anxiety and guilt, freedom and responsibility. Our potential transcendence is always circumscribed by the world we’ve been thrown into, our facticity. Eudaimonia comes, possibly, from making the most of that to shape our lives within values we choose. We might have anxiety facing our possible choices, and experience existential guilt that we didn’t choose other than the way we did, but ultimately we’re free to choose and live better lives when we take responsibility for those choices, even though we had to make them within more or less narrow circumstances.

Regardless of my subjective well being at any given time, or how much of a success or failure I might be by various outer-directed criteria, if I interpret my career in the sense of striving towards excellence based upon my unique potential, I can be happy with it both in itself and in how it fits into my life as a whole. I made most of my major life and career choices not because they made sense by someone else’s standards, but because I understood them at the time either to enhance, or at least not interfere with, the projects  and roles I chose to give meaning to my life. Even now, I feel confident I could use my library experience and my rhetorical skills to work in sales and make a lot more money. By the world’s standards, that would make me more successful, but the work wouldn’t align as well with my life projects and so would at best be a distraction. More money, or a bigger house, or a more expensive car, wouldn’t make me significantly happier. I could afford a bigger house or more expensive car than I have now, but the only reason to buy them would be to impress other people whose values I don’t respect precisely because they’re the sort of people who are impressed by big houses and expensive cars. Even if they made me happier in a hedonic sense in the short term, I would probably get used to them eventually and lose that happiness. Such is the hedonic treadmill.

Moving up in libraries would be just fine as long as the work still supported the research mission, but the last job opportunity I explored for that left me so disgusted with the person I would have reported to that I deliberately but subtly sabotaged my interview so that I wouldn’t even be offered the job. If I’m happy, in both a hedonic and eudaimonic sense, with my work, there’s no reason for me to leave just to move up. However, I like it when people I respect and value move up, and I’m glad when they find meaning in their work. I don’t think they’re more successful than others because they’re further up the hierarchy; I think they’re more successful than others because they find meaning and satisfaction in work worth doing. I judge their success by the same subjective standards by which I judge my own. For those of us who find meaning and satisfaction in our work, what objective standards make sense for judging relative success? I do question the motivation of people who move up because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do, to conform with the expectations of what Heidegger calls Das Man, “the They,” or the ones who want to move up because they want to control everyone. They’re the ones who’ll be the most unhappy with their work, and probably make others unhappy in the process.

You can successfully engage in life projects of your own choosing, even within your natural and social limits, and be successful and happy without feeling good all the time, maybe even most of the time, and without achieving what others think you should have achieved. As the Buddha said, “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” What matters is how you interpret your career. Think of life as a narrative. In the story we can tell about our lives, a story for all of us not yet finished, does the story make sense? Does it have meaning? Does the main character develop? Do the plans and choices ultimately come together in a satisfying form, regardless of how random or chaotic they might seem at the time? Does the main character learn from mistakes or keep making the same ones? Does it look like the story will end well? And how does the career fit into the larger story? Whether I have a successful career depends partly on the story I tell myself, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

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