By Ronin Research Scholar Emily Lankau. This first appeared in July 2020 on LinkedIn.
City Slickers was one of my favorite movies as a kid. It was released during 1991 when I was just on the brink of adolescence. For some odd reason, the story resonated with me then and still does today.
The movie tells the story of Mitch Robbins, a burned-out businessman who gets dragged along on a cattle drive through the southwestern US. At the start of the film, Mitch is going through a premature mid-life crisis at 38 years old.
Mitch manages to befriend the crotchety old cowpoke, Curly, who is leading the sorry expedition of “city slickers”. Riding along on horseback, Curly and Mitch have a deep conversation about the individual choices we make as we try to make sense of our lives.
Curly holds up his index finger and says to Mitch “The secret of life is this. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
“What’s the one thing?” asks Mitch.
“That’s what you gotta figure out.” Curly replies.
Mitch spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what that one thing is. He eventually becomes a pretty decent cowboy and certainly a better man.
A few months ago, I was considering leaving a traditional job with benefits to return to full-time consulting – possibly as a long-term career decision or maybe as a shorter-term place to land to sort some things out. Either way, there were some really good reasons to go; there were also some good reasons to stay.
While contemplating this decision, this scene from City Slickers got stuck in my head. Ruminating on this scene then led me back to another favorite, a book that I read in a freshman literature class during college – Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.
It all seemed a little random, but the subconscious makes interesting connections sometimes. How is a 90’s Billy Crystal comedy related to an early 20th century philosophical novel? It’s like the set up to a bad joke.
But it turns out that the connection is simple – both offer lessons about how we find and define meaning in life. Both meant something to me as I navigated previous transitions in my life and now were converging as I navigated the current one.
The meaning of life is a common theme in art for good reason – it is the central thing we all grapple with from cradle to grave.
What is my purpose? How can I leave something of value behind in the world?
Work, what we do to earn a living, can be central to answering these questions.
Steeped in careerism throughout my academic education, work and career success had become a load-bearing beam of my self-worth. So much so, that I became paralyzed in a work situation that was not healthy for me or for my family.
For the longest time, I couldn’t make the decision to leave because the job and the mission I served in that role had become central to my identity in a way that made it impossible to walk away unscathed.
I stayed too long in a situation that, for reasons that were beyond my control, simply wasn’t for me. I had worked so hard to get there, and I could not accept that it was not what I wanted it to be, that it was damaging me.
My career has been decidedly non-linear because I am the spouse of a tenure-track professor. Like the tail of a comet, I have trailed behind my partner, simultaneously propelled forward and constrained by the trajectory and momentum of his success. I have watched opportunities pass by – green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach due to the orbital velocity that takes me near, but never quite to, a destination that I would choose if I were free to chart my own course.
I am highly trained in a relatively specialized field where job openings are rare and competitive. Even under the best of circumstances, not everyone finds a stable place at the table. Without geographic mobility, the odds of successfully landing one of these prized opportunities are negligible.
I have had to learn to translate and transfer my skills and training into areas far outside of my original career goals for the sake of my family. I have turned myself into a pretzel, time and time again, to fit the available jobs that happen to coincide with our physical location. I have learned to serve and to love the missions that are available to me, to embrace them as my own, even as I mourn the missions I cannot access.
It has been uncomfortable and frustrating, but these contortions have also taught me a remarkable agility and open-mindedness that makes me an asset to clients who are looking for new insights on their systems. I bring a rather unique, outsider’s perspective to nearly everything I do.
Measuring and managing performance is one of the services I offer as a consultant. Because I am the daughter of my remarkably efficient mother, I am innately good at making processes work more smoothly and defining how to measure those improvements. I have had some formal training in program evaluation and performance management to compliment this aptitude. It is a powerful skill to have.
And despite this talent for helping others fix problems and document successes, I have failed to find a satisfying way to steer and mark my own career progress as a trailing spouse. I have walked a Seussean path, all the while celebrating my partner and friends as they make clear, measurable strides forward in their own careers. Perpetually unable to see beyond the next bend in the road, I have often wondered if I am going anywhere at all.
During March, my career had hit an impasse. Nothing was working. I felt stuck. So, I did what I would recommend to a client whose program was not having the effects that they intended. I stood at a white board and drew a massive logic model of my life.
Then I stepped back and stared at it for a while, hoping a pattern would emerge that would point the way forward. I squinted and blinked, trying to find the right plane of focus where the magic eye picture suddenly emerges from the noisy cacophony of colors and shapes.
If a client hired me to do a program evaluation of me, how would we measure success?
What are the right performance metrics for measuring the meaning in one’s life and career?
What’s the one thing?
“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.
In To the Lighthouse, Lily Brisco is a painter who struggles with fear of failure and procrastination. She has great aspirations, yet doubts her abilities. She sees painting as a way to create a bulwark against the chaos of passing time and the detachment of the human experience.
Lily seeks to capture reality on her canvas to “make of the moment something permanent”. She wants to create something tangible to leave in the world. Lily finds meaning in producing something of value, in the identity of being a painter.
Lily spends the whole book trying to find the just-right way to start a painting. Lily is afraid to begin because a wrong decision at the start could spell disaster: “At what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions… Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”
I read To the Lighthouse for the first time on the brink of adulthood. I identified with Lily. Not knowing where to begin, I chased what others ordained as markers of a productive scientific life: publications, presentations, book chapters, reports, awards, job titles.
Young scientists are generally taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that their publication counts, journal impact factors, citation indices, and academic titles are concrete measures of their worth. All you have to do to be successful is jump over the bar; publish enough, get tenure.
Young scientists are rarely told that the publish-enough bar is comparative; success in academia is graded on an ever-rising curve and only a small percentage of doctoral-degree holders achieve tenure. Clearing the perpetually-moving bar is an unattainable goal for many scientists and there is no shame in that. The deck is stacked.
Now, nearing 40, staring at the bizarre logic model of my life, I noticed that the concrete products of my scientific efforts were notably absent. The missions I had served and the values that brought me to those missions were there, but the papers, presentations, and job titles held were not. That I had forgotten to list them seemed to mean something.
I realized that this white board was my version of going on a cattle drive. I was having an early mid-life crisis. That realization made me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes.
“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.
Mrs. Ramsey, another central character in the novel, offers a very different solution to finding meaning in a world of impermanence. “Life stand still here,” she said, knowing the whole time that the stockings would always be too short and the children always growing older. Mrs. Ramsay finds meaning in the moments that pass between people, in relationships.
When Mrs. Ramsey throws a dinner party, she looks around and sees that human connection does not happen spontaneously. It takes effort. Someone has to begin. “Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her… for if she did not do it nobody would do it.”
Mrs. Ramsey knew how to make of the moment something permanent. All it takes is the courage to risk all happiness on the success of a single small interaction. Like a painter facing a blank canvas, Mrs. Ramsey looks at her dinner party gathering and then makes a sweeping brush stroke, a beginning, an attempt. She encourages others to be open, to connect, and to find meaning in the smallest things, like having a meal together.
When I was 18, I dismissed Mrs. Ramsey’s answer. Finding meaning in relationships felt too domestic, too stereotypically feminine to be the right way to navigate in a world that was and is still quite dominated by male standards of success. There is no resume section for documenting how nice you are*. Kindness does not get you a tenure-track or executive-level job. Those, I had been taught, were decided on cut-throat productivity.
But nearing 40, I realized that I would be solidly identified as a “Mrs. Ramsey” if Buzzfeed ever did a “Which character from To the Lighthouse are you?” quiz. I felt so daft when I finally figured out something that should have been so obvious.
Every career decision I have ever made was about my family, the people I work with, and the missions I serve. I have never made a decision based on salary, productivity, or clout.
Some of my career choices have involved sacrificing all three of the latter at the same time to make space for the former. To have the security to be able to consistently choose based on these values has been a privilege afforded to me by my partner’s success – the thing that holds me back has also, in some ways, liberated me.
Trailing along on my partner’s orbit, I have struggled to feel like I have fully “arrived” in my career for years. We decided together, for very practical reasons, to prioritize his job. I am innately more flexible in my ambitions, so it seemed like the right choice when we made it. I fully own the decisions that have made my career challenging – they are not his to feel guilty about, although he does some days.
I wish I never had to make a choice between a fulfilling job in my area of expertise or my family. I do not, however, regret putting them first.
Staring at the white board, lightning struck, and I realized that I did not feel out of sync because I was making bad decisions, but rather because I was measuring my performance with the wrong metrics. Then I wrote a list down the left side of the diagram – the name of every person who I have ever taught, mentored, supported, opened doors for, or defended against injustice during my career. Often, none of this was in my actual job description at the time. Sometimes, I have even stepped out in front of others with little regard to my own safety and I have borne the consequence of those choices willingly. For if I did not do it, it was possible that nobody would.
Being available to my family and giving other people a leg up on their own journeys – these are things that I have always prioritized over publishing papers or making my own next big career move. Those decisions have shaped my life in so many ways that I failed to take note of because they were not on the list of performance metrics that I was taught to value.
Because their successes are their own, not mine, I had not thought to include all of these people on my own logic model. Yet, I was there to cheer them on, witness their tears and frustration, or protect them when they needed a shield. As they each ran their own races, I was one of the people manning a water table along their marathon routes.
Passing out proverbial cups of water isn’t a contribution that can be quantified or listed on a resume, yet each person on this list is a living measure of my career success.
Trapped by an unfair choice in the tail of a comet, I have found small ways to use the stability and privilege of my partner’s orbit as traction for pushing others towards those green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach. And I am so proud of each of them and their successes, especially the ones who now work in the jobs I dreamed about during graduate school.
It was only then, with that list of names added to the messy diagram of my life, that I could see the pattern in the noise. Only then, did I fully realize how I should always have been measuring success in my own career all along.
This is the one thing. My one thing. The thing that has always been there as the measure of meaning in my life, even when I failed to see it.
*Note that this sentence is not strictly true. There is actually one line on my resume that is entirely about being nice. It is the scientific equivalent of being awarded the title of Miss Congeniality and I cherish that award more than anything else.