Sunday, July 7, 2013

Changing course

I am halfway through so many things. Halfway through my sabbatical. Halfway through my academic career. Halfway through my life (if I am fortunate). Halfway through raising my children.

Our family has always rendered the old saying this way: Don't change horses in midstream. I don't know if that's the original or some muddle of horses and boats. But I know what it means. If you get cold feet about whether your original strategy is working out, think twice before trying to change it, lest you wind up in the drink.

But like all such bits of folksy advice, it's difficult to know when it applies. Sticking to the wrong methodology just because you fear it might be too late to make a change -- that's not a good idea either. There's wisdom in recognizing when you have made a wrong start, even if you are already halfway through the course.

There's a lot to be said for administration. A good administrator is a tremendous benefit to an organization. Administrators at their best can build structures where wonderful things happen, can reward people who do them, can obtain resources for them, can clarify procedures and expectations so that people know how to get things done, can provide evidence to demonstrate the wonderful things happening.

I know that I want to work for good administrators, and I know that I've been very fortunate to work for them and learn from them. (The bad ones have taught me some important lessons, too.)  But at least where I am now, here at the halfway point, I want to get off the administrative horse.

It's carrying me farther away from teaching, farther away from being a productive scholar. What it's carrying me towards is something that needs to be done, but it's not something I need to do. As a person who likes to be in full control of everything, whether it's any of my business of not, recognizing the difference between "a job that needs to be done well" and "my job" has always been difficult for me. Here halfway through, I have to remind myself that caring about something does not require managing or leading it.

I've received a lot of great advice about this halfway point from relative strangers and from people who know me well. Most of it is simple and obvious, but rings almost heartbreakingly true. Just because you are good at something does not mean it's what you ought to do. You can't be there for the people you care about unless you take care of yourself. Arrange your life to spend the bulk of your time on what's most important.

It's been hard to accept the conclusions that are inescapable when I follow that advice, because I've spend so much time riding this horse to the middle of the stream. But it would be more foolish to stay on this horse than to attempt a change, however risky.

When I entered academia, I wanted to help students mature in their thinking about religion. I've done less and less of that each year. It's no less needed than fifteen years ago; quite the opposite. It would be a personal failure, and a terrible shame, if I let go of that goal when I have the ability and the position to accomplish it. And focusing on what's important to me will allow me to reclaim the energy that administrative tasks tend to drain away. The thought of doing more of the latter in the future is bleak and dispiriting; the thought of teaching the subjects about which I'm passionate, of reading, researching, and writing in the field where I can contribute something unique, is exciting. The message couldn't be more clear.

That's where I stand, halfway through. Changing horses and changing courses is a process. I'm not where I was in this process of rethinking and reorienting six months ago, but if you'd asked me then where I thought I was going, I should have told you, if I were being honest, that I suspected I might end up here. I might have feared it more than anticipated it then. Now the fear is diminishing.

Maybe I've been on the other horse for awhile, and just needed to open my eyes to see which way I've been headed. Check back in a few months and see if I've picked up the reins or have been swept away.

1 comment:

Pilgrim said...

Just be aware that there might be a riderless horse going the other way in that stream, saddled up and ready to go, possibly sent for you to ride. You can switch horses without getting wet.