Sunday, July 13, 2014

Transitions

Surprising Truth: We spend a significant portion of our lives in transition. Many of our early transitions concern new learning environments; from ages 4-22, many of us experience five or more different school buildings (and associated sets of interpersonal dynamics) even before we make it to college. We make it through, though that's pretty impressive when you think about it. Throw in your family moving to a new town, and it's a wonder that we ever know what it's like to be "settled."

For those of us who pursue advanced degrees, it seems that the transitions never end. College, graduate school (which may include different institutions for a Masters and PhD), postdoctoral fellowship (sometimes two), and finally, the first "real" job. You're in your 30s before you feel comfortable unpacking all of the boxes you've trucked from tiny apartment to tiny apartment - why bother with the boxes of items you rarely use, as it will be time to move before you look at them again? My academic colleagues bemoan the situation from time to time, and those outside of academia (whose first post-college jobs at the age of 22 were more than my current salary) have no idea what to make of us. 

I'm fortunate to be the type that gets a bit restless, and eager for a new challenge, every few years. So even though my upcoming move will be to my fourth city (and 10th residence) in a decade, it's never caused too much distress. But like my colleagues, I find it strange that I lived out of at least a few boxes for the past two years, because I knew that my situation was temporary. This state of "unsettled" is tough, and I can see why it's not for everyone. 

Yet one of the best aspects of a transition is the accompanying opportunity for a unique brand of reflection. As sad as it can be to leave a situation that you've only just gotten used to, both the winding down process and the initial months in a new situation provide helpful psychological distance from recent experiences. *For the sake of this post, I'll assume that "work" accounts for a meaningful amount of variance in your identity - your professional self, your goals and development, the quality of your work, etc. all are extremely important to you. (Believe me, I'm with you!) 

When I'm not in (or looking toward) a transition, I am engrossed in the daily operations, hassles, and seemingly all-consuming projects with the highest of high stakes. Everything my bosses/mentors and supervisees do (or don't do) is meaningful. When I'm unhappy with the specifics of such a situation, it is incredibly difficult - if not impossible - to see the forest. I focus on the few trees that represent my worst experiences and lose sight of the rest. (Same goes for when I'm happy, but that tends to be far less problematic.) 

These trees are important, of course. But a transition puts them into perspective. That distance I get allows me to see the full context, to make connections between events that I haven't made before, and to take a more balanced view of the overall experience. It also gives me the opportunity to do some tough self-reflection and to decide what I need to improve for the next experience. There is a relief that comes with looking "at" an experience, rather than looking "through" it (for you ACT folks).

With luck and some hard work, my next location could be permanent. That's exciting and disconcerting at the same time - will I have the same opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow? Semester and summer breaks, a sabbatical (I hope!), and earning tenure (I really hope!) will be my new transitions, and I commit to using them in the same way that I've used moving around the northeast. Growing older and wiser in the meantime can't hurt, either.

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