Climbing the Mountain

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. When I take a week off, I always have a tough time selecting a post from the archives to rerun. I decided on this post from August 2019. I chose this one because I have some colleagues who will be receiving their promotion decisions in a few weeks. In addition to that, I feel like I needed to remind myself to channel my inner “Sherpa guide” in the weeks and months ahead. Enjoy.

This post has been in development for a while. I’ve been reflecting on my thoughts and emotions over the last few months and working through how to capture these reflections in some sort of coherent way. So, here goes. Hopefully this actually makes sense and doesn’t come off sounding self-absorbed or anything.

Last fall, I applied for promotion at my institution. Getting promoted to a higher rank is a challenging process at every university and I prepared myself for the potential let down. I even used this blog as a way of writing a letter of encouragement to myself in case I received bad news. But here’s the real challenge, I didn’t prepare myself for the success.

Two months ago, I received notification that I was promoted to full professor. In academia, this means that I’ve reached the highest rank of professoriate based on my service, scholarship and teaching accomplishments. This notification also means that it is the last academic promotion that I’ll work towards in my career. While I’m tremendously excited about this achievement, I’m experiencing an odd mix of emotions, including ones that I didn’t expect. First, I’m tremendously proud of this accomplishment and extremely grateful for all of the support and guidance I’ve received over my career. I know that any professional success I’ve achieved is due in no small part to the mentors, colleagues, co-authors, co-researchers, friends, and family that have helped me along the way. To me, my promotion embodied all of that support and sparked a wave of gratitude that manifested itself in a host “Thank-you” cards, texts, and emails.

After the initial excitement and joy, however, my promotion also ushered in a mixture of emotions that I didn’t expect. While I anticipated the relief, I didn’t expect to feel a sense of existential confusion or loss. I’ve been working and striving towards this huge accomplishment and, after achieving it, I felt a tremendous loss of purpose. Not that I ever really did any work specifically to get promoted, but now that I am fully promoted, what do I do now? After achieving this huge, lifetime goal, what does the next face of my career look like?

After talking with some of my friends, I guess these emotions are not unique. Once someone achieves a long-term goal, it’s hard to replace that focus and dedication. I would imagine that people who prepare for marathons or climbing expeditions feel this same odd mixture of relief, pride and loss. When someone works for months or years to accomplish a goal, that goal becomes a regular fixture in their life. The goal acts as a beacon. A motivator. A North Star.

And then suddenly, the goal is gone.

So, I’ve spent a few months this summer working through this odd amalgam of joy, loss, pride, gratitude, excitement and relief. I’ve thought a lot about where I am in my career and where I want to go. Weirdly, I received comfort unexpectedly from Maureen Dowd and John Oliver. Let me explain.

In mid-July, Maureen Dowd wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining a fight between four junior congresswomen and the Speaker of the House. Midway through the article, Dowd included a quote from Alex Toussaint, a Peloton instructor, that gave me pause.

You climb the mountain to see the world. You don’t climb the mountain so the world can see you.

I’m sure Maureen Dowd didn’t include this quote to force some mid-career professor to reflect on his life and accomplishments, but that’s what it did. The quote made me question why I climbed “the mountain” of promotion and what I was seeking with that goal. I certainly didn’t seek promotion so the world could see me. My close friends know that I’m uncomfortable with public recognition. But I also didn’t seek promotion to achieve any sort of divine or professional clarity. In reflecting on the Toussaint quote, I marked myself in the “neither of the above” category for climbing mountains.

While I was in this “mountain climbing” headspace, I tried to distract myself by binge-watched some old episodes of This Week Tonight, which is hosted by John Oliver. If you’ve never watched the show, John Oliver often takes a meandering and critical look at different topics that he feels deserves more wide-spread attention. Surprisingly, one episode I watched discussed the challenges of climbing Mount Everest.

As John Oliver describes it, climbing Mount Everest is one of the most difficult and dangerous pursuits in the world. While over 4500 people have summited the mountain, almost 300 people have died trying. Because it’s so challenging, Sherpa guides often help climbers ascend the mountain. The Sherpa guides carry supplies, set up camp, cook food and fix ropes and supports to keep climbers safe. Over the course of their career, a Sherpa guide can summit Mount Everest a dozen or more times in service to others. And they usually accomplish this without public recognition or fanfare.

The concept of the “Sherpa guide” really resonates with me and gives me a different perspective on my career.  Maybe, I need to channel my inner “Sherpa guide” and write a better rationale for goal setting and achievement, one that is more in line with my cherished roles as a teacher, mentor, and parent.

You climb the mountain to help others climb it, too.

With this new perspective, I think it’s time to get back to work.

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