The last 25 years of my life have been spent as a Dean in three different higher education institutions. This career followed my first one as a geologist working for a large oil company, a job that left me feeling as if I was living with sand paper on my soul. I vowed that I would never stay in a situation that was so very spiritually costly again. So what do I do now that I find myself soul tired, emotionally exhausted, and facing the reality that I am no longer any type of fit with my current institution? In fact, I might no longer be in alignment with the world of higher education.
To be completely honest, being a Dean was never my life goal. In fact, when I finally earned my PhD I was not even sure that I wanted anything to do with the university world. My experiences in graduate school ranged from delightful to exhausting to disillusioning and heartbreaking. The world of ideas can be, and should be intoxicating. But in some places, not all, the world of academic politics is much like a B movie, short on money, time and a decent plot. Or perhaps I am just tired of a world focused on measurement, assessment, pages of policy, and battles over budgets that shrink like Alice in Wonderland, and meetings that resemble a Mad Hatter’s tea party.
I feel as if I have reached the end of an incredible long book, something the size of War and Peace, and I just want to finish the last few pages. But what comes next? Do I pick up one of the books I started to read years ago but put down when the story seemed hopeless? What happens when my fear is louder than my courage, when creativity and innovation desert me, and yet are my only hope? While I can embrace the notion of reinvention, the process feels overwhelming and, I must admit, my ego is interfering with my transformation.
It is one thing to leave a leadership position for another one at a higher or similar level in another institution. It is another to walk away from a position and face those who value prestige and office size, while sailing into the unknown without any navigational devices, a title, an office, or even a guaranteed paycheck. How curious that career accolades are based on such inconsequential measures that no one who loves me really cares about. How “curiouser” that I am struggling with walking away from those assessments that I do not use as a personal measure of success.
Contrary to urban mythology, change is not that frightening. Change would mean a new job in my field, and while that might be temporarily confusing and disconcerting, it would not evoke fear. It is reinvention however that takes courage. It takes true audacity to mirror the caterpillar turning into a liquid in order to become a butterfly. I know that reinvention is the only way to release my spirit from the bondage of external judgments and measures based on my ability to disguise my round self in a square peg world. But knowledge does not make the process less terrifying.
There is no one way to proceed. According to Joseph Campbell if I follow someone else’s path through this new landscape, then I am already lost, which is often how I feel. But there is comfort in knowing that grief and loss and the feeling of being lost are just part of rediscovering myself. And that is the greatest gift of this transformation. I am not becoming someone new; like the caterpillar I am simply becoming and embracing who I was always meant to be.