Some of my colleagues have remarked that I have seemed like I’m struggling lately. I have been. By every metric, I have had the most successful two years of my life. I got tenure, two R01-sized grants, several smaller grants, won the Mentor of the Year award, and was elected as a fellow of my academic society and chair of one of their sections. I’m on the leadership committee to set the agenda for their next scientific meeting. My career has taken off.
So, why have I been so fucking miserable?
I love my home. I have put an incredible amount of work into building relationships in my blended family. I love the people in my department. I don’t work with anyone I don’t like. My colleagues are, as the great Adore Delano would say, highly cool. But, when I got here the ceiling of my lab started to leak. It literally leaked. It leaked again and they extended my clock. I had a child come into my family. They extended my clock. COVID happened and they extended my clock. I felt like I kept having to scramble to get tenure. I am doing work that has been important to patients. My husband Strange opened his lab to me and my students and we ended up combining our labs. I learned that I love working with him and I love all of our staff and students. By every definition, I am doing exceptional work.
So, why have I been so fucking miserable?
I am not doing the work came here to do. I am not doing the work that fully utilizes my expertise. I am working harder and harder and feeling less and less fulfilled. The bar has been the same for me, but I had to work harder to reach it. I want to do the work I want to do. Not the work I can do. It has made me feel angry and resentful. Just typing that made me need to take a moment and have a good cry. I have been angry.
On Friday, an emeritus professor from my department came back to give a talk. I have stayed in touch with her and occasionally send her a book I love because I know she’s a voracious reader. She slipped me a card as she walked to the podium. At the end of her note, she wrote (abbreviated) “I am so glad you persisted despite too much bullshit.”
I’ve been on the job market and got an incredible offer from another university. I got a great offer from a company. I’ve been wrestling with what to do because I thought getting back to the things I want to do means giving up some things I love.
Something solidified for me last week while I was talking to a graduate student. She asked me why I became a professor. I told her, “No one tells me I can’t do an experiment. No one tells me when to come and go.” I realized at that moment, I don’t want another boss. I want to be the boss.
Last January I was selected to participate in an entrepreneurship course through the National Science Foundation and I loved it. I’ve had some intellectual property rattling around in my head that I’ve wanted to develop. Every business coach I met told me it was a great fucking idea. I know it’s a great fucking idea. My heart is in this idea. I realized at the moment talking to that student that I could stay true to all of my values and get back to the work that I love. So, I started a company and I hired Strange as my first employee. I did a lot to reach a certain level of achievement that was supposed to be the goal and it left me feeling burnt out and feckless. Now, I’m going to let go of the bullshit and die on the hill of this idea. I’m in charge of my own destiny and I always have been. I’m going to stay at my university and do my job and work with the students and colleagues that I love, but I’m going to pour my heart into an idea that I know will help people. I’m not going to ask for my university’s approval anymore. I know I’m exceptional., even if they might not. I’m going to do this work with my best friend and favorite partner in crime.
The moment I founded this new venture, I felt the weight of a thousand worlds lifted from my shoulders. I felt like I could be a good colleague again. Not just the angry woman in the group. I felt all of the guilt of “what am I not doing that I should be doing” evaporate. I’m going to participate in an entrepreneur incubator and I am terrified and exhilarated at the same time. My idea is a gamble, but so was getting tenure. My whole damned life has been a gamble, but investments in me have always paid dividends. I know that these are the feelings that make me thrive and give me satisfaction.
I finally feel free.