So, What Now?

I just came off sabbatical.  It’s nice to be teaching again.  It’s also the cause for a moment of reflection.

This post isn’t about the strategic calculus of real-world politics. Rather, it’s (sort of) about the strategic career calculus of political science.

There are several milestones in the typical academic career. A key question at each is, “what next?”  This question gets harder and harder to answer precisely because, in general, the set of acceptable answers enlarges each time. In my current case, the question boils down to, what do I want to produce?

I just turned 40, which provokes the panoply of trite musings about what one has left, and will leave, behind.[1] Should I write another book?  Should I continue the fun but/and frustrating struggle to publish journal articles?  Should I pursue administrative tasks? Should I get a real hobby?

These are tough questions, and I don’t know what the ultimate answer will “be,” but I think they represent an important reality of being a professor.  In the end, if you’re lucky, you truly become your own boss (within certain bounds).  That’s a good but/and scary thing.

Writing and publishing is, at least to me, a lot like the “typical” picture of drug addiction: the first couple of successes are so awesome. I mean, the first time you’re published, the first time you’re cited, the first time one of your articles gets a second cite, the first time more than one of your articles is cited in the same paper… these moments seriously rock.  (If these things don’t rock your boat, then I predict you wouldn’t pursue publishing in the first place.)[2]

But “the buzz” dulls—not in a “woe is me” way, mind you—and the quest for the next step gradually emerges.

Perhaps coincidentally, I spent the past 36 hours or so pursuing an active “twitter life.”  That is, I thought it would be fun to see how much I could chum the twitters by being really “active.”  After finally remembering to delink my twitter and facebook accounts (sorry it took me so long, FB friends), I have now realized (unsurprisingly) that “the buzz” there is the same.  Tweet favorited? Hells yeah.  Get a reply from someone you know?  That’s right…the conversation IS STARTING.  Get a reply from someone you don’t know?  Yeah, that’s what social networking is all about. Get an RT from someone with a bunch of followers? BOOYAH.  Watch the followers gather, people!

But, in the end, you even more quickly run into the same question: what next?

If you’ve been reading, you’ll realize that this isn’t a diss on twitter.  It’s life.

The scary part of all of this is a simple reality: if you like attention,[3] the game never ends, regardless of its format.[4]  But, before one says “well, seeking attention is unseemly,” I’ll note that the same is true from those who seek prestige/authority/influence as well.  The realities differ in details, but the maxim “what have you (for me) done lately?” still holds in most cases.  Memories fade fast, competitors and distractions emerge even more quickly….you’re only as good as your last outing.

Why say this? Well, its my blog, and it’s what I’m thinking about.  But, more universally, it’s at the heart of the (generally unsolicited) advice I offer to graduate students:

Before anything else, figure out what you care about. Divine what you won’t mind being bullied about. And definitely rule out the things you can’t stand thinking about.  Best case scenario, you’re going to be doing this, essentially alone and sailing into a mixture of indiscriminate indifference and poorly-disguised disdain, for years to come.

I’ve found that it’s worth it.  But the world isn’t black-and-white: there’s always a “what’s next?” right around the corner.  Maybe my point is that, these moments of reflection—seemingly inevitably tinged with a genteel bouillabaisse of self-doubt and fatalism—are what’s next. They are the detritus of self-renewal, the requisite weigh stations of producing.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] I was told by a close friend that this is a very “male” worry, but whether that is true in general is irrelevant, as that description is vacuously true in this case.

[2] Everything I describe here can be mapped into performing/creating in general. It’s all about taking the risk and seeing, nay feeling, it “pay off.” By pay off, I mean simply “get noticed.”

[3] And, I do.

[4] Okay, I’ll take notice of what I’ll call the J.D. Salinger category, which is the rarest of beast: the creator who arguably gets more attention by doing nothing.

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