The first few months (okay, maybe a year or so) after deciding leaving academia, I felt romantic nostalgia for what I’d left behind. I reminisced about classmates, my research, writing in my pajamas, and having institutional library access. (Confession: I still wish I had institutional library access.) With some time and distance from academia, I now see it in a different, perhaps more realistic way, complete with adjunct exploitation, corporatization, and structural inequalities. Now I’m finally to the point in my post-PhD journey in which I’m looking forward more than looking back at what I left behind.

So I’ve decided to run towards the awesome. I’m much more interested now in finding and creating a life that works for me, rather than one the requires fitting myself into impossible boxes. I want to create the best life that I can, one that I’m absolutely thrilled to be living. I want a life that’s meaningful and filled with engaged and creative work. I am not interested at all in living a life that seems like second best or a sorry consolation prize for not getting an academic job. I want work that draws on all of my unique talents and skills, work that is a natural extension of who I am and what I value, like the kind of work that only I could possibly be doing.

I recently read some goal setting and getting books. I decided to try my hand at applying their wisdom to the post-PhD.  I learned that envisioning and creating something new and exciting in the post-PhD has two steps:

1. Defining and creating new goals
2. Attaching the goals to a structure

I like goals. Point me towards one and I’ll work like hell to get it, provided that I want it badly enough. Getting a PhD was a perfect goal for me, as it had a defined end point and clearly marked milestones. Left to my own devices, I realized that creating new goals is hard. After finishing the PhD, I didn’t feel like I had any goals. The next logical step would have been book publication, but without an academic job, academic publication didn’t feel very compelling as a goal. I also wasn’t sure that academic goals matched my personal goals anymore. I decided that any new goals had to conform to my values and the things that I love in life.

Without some kind of school or external goals, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. So I got very serious about figuring out some new goals and did some daydreaming. I thought about what I wanted more of in my life and what I wanted less of. I thought hard about personal values. They included creativity, place, community, curiosity, and perseverance. I also thought about the ideas that thrilled me the most and prioritized those.  

Turns out, I have lots of different goals.

  • Being a writer
  • Writing and publishing a novel
  • Hosting a writing retreat three times a year
  • Giving writing workshops
  • Creating a group for therapeutic writing for trauma survivors
  • Living in Mexico
  • Publishing freelance articles
  • Creating and giving a walking tour
  • Creating a study abroad program
  • Giving a TED talk
  • Teaching history again
  • Creating some kind of collective writing project

Some of the things on this list are short term goals and some are long term. Some of the goals aren’t really goals, but rather dreams. Being a writer, for example, is a lifestyle dream rather than a concrete goal. Writing and publishing a novel, on the other hand, is an actual concrete and real thing that I can work towards. But it still seemed huge and unmanageable. (I also had to make a concerted effort to not to listen to the negative voices in my head who helpfully asked who the hell I thought I was to be even thinking about pursuing dreams.) I broke novel writing down into smaller, more manageable steps. The steps include brainstorming an idea for a novel, writing an outline, completing a certain number of chapters,  finishing a complete rough draft, revising, finding an agent, getting the book to a publisher, etc etc etc. Given enough time, I could break down any of these things into little concrete tasks that are actually doable. I could, for example, brainstorm an idea for my novel. Like today. Like now.

So even though I now had a neat list of manageable steps, I still couldn’t quite figure out how I was going to get from here to there. I needed a structure that moved me logically from one step to the next. I never thought about structure when I was in graduate school, largely because it just surrounded me. (Fish don’t know they’re wet.) The structure was external and predefined by my professors, department, graduate college, and university. I created the structure for the classes I taught, but even that was defined by the sixteen week semester.

Creating my own structure felt a little scary. When I’ve tried to reach goals on my own in the past, I’ve often approached them using the strategy created by the Underpants Gnomes of South Park in their famous three phase business plan:

1. Collect underpants
2. ????
3. Profit

(Plot spoiler: the Gnomes’ plan did not work and they did not profit. Sorry.)

Working on goals this way literally never works for me because I have no commitment and no end date. I have vague ideas that I’ll keep working until “someday” I’ll reach a goal and then some other things will happen. Mostly I end up losing interest because I can’t seem to get anywhere.

Working backwards to avoid the Underpants Gnomes fallacy, I took all of my concrete goals and set dates to reach them. I tried to make the dates reasonable, but also not give myself time to NOT do them. I don’t particularly like to work under pressure, but I do find that I need to create a bit of a sense of urgency so that I get things done. In a truly terrifying moment, I then wrote the dates on my calendar in pen. Working backwards, I figured out when I’d need to do all of the little tasks in order to meet the goals on their target dates.

The big milestones that I identified are now plotted on a multi-year monthly calendar. The little goals are now scheduled in my planner. I literally have a list of little things to do every single day to get to my big goals. Even though I created the structure and could abandon or change it at any time, it feels concrete and doable enough to compel me along towards the finish line.

I’m still doing a lot of experimenting about how, exactly, I’m going to achieve anything on my goal list (how would I could I possibly give a TED talk?), but I think I’m on my way. More on goals to come.

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