When Moving Forward Requires Letting Go

I recently came to the conclusion that if something sounds exciting but scares the daylights out of me, it’s probably the right thing to do.

I thought this week about the scariest, most exciting, and biggest possible risk I could take right now in my life. The answer didn’t come immediately, but when it did, it came to me slowly, as if rising up through the water from the murky bottom of a lake, blurry at first and then taking clearer form near the surface. When I saw the answer in full daylight right in front of me, it scared me so much I couldn’t even let myself think about it for a while. I slammed the lid on the box that contained the thought with such force that I surprised even me, checking the hasp and lock to make sure that it was locked. I sat on the box for good measure, just to make sure that the thought didn’t escape. But I knew it was in there.

The thought was this: what might become possible if I loosened my grip and let go of academia for good, completely and entirely?

I’d thought I’d let go of academia when I decided that I absolutely would not ever go on the academic job market ever again. I refused to participate in the yearly soul-crushing ritual of submitting a huge pile of job materials, scraping together money to go to my annual meeting, interviewing, getting my hopes up, and then having the whole house of cards come crashing down when I checked the academic job wiki. I was exhausted from the rage of watching talented scholars leave academia for other careers while other well-connected but mediocre scholars, assisted by structural inequalities, ended up in tenure track jobs that could have gone to a zillion other deserving people.  Unmoored from any academic institution, I thought I’d freed myself from the oppressive and exploitative nature of the academic machine. I pictured myself casually walking away without looking back at the explosions I’d caused when I’d tossed the matches over my shoulder.

In truth, I’d done nothing of the sort. I’d started editing for academics after I’d finished my PhD because I wasn’t sure what else I could possibly do and I desperately wanted to still have one foot in work that I still loved. Instead of directly participating in oppressive and exploitative academic systems, I found that as an alt-ac person whose work still relied on academic research production, I’d simply continued participating from the sidelines. Academia-lite.

[If you’re working in academia or are adjacent to academia or somewhere in between, none of this is directed at you. People have their own reasons for staying tied to academia. You do you.]

This week I’ve been reading and thinking about The Big Leap. The author argues that a lot of people reach a certain level of excellence in their lives and work but then find that they can’t seem to turn the corner to really reach their true potential or they engage in creative self-sabotage to make sure they don’t, a phenomenon he dubs the Upper-Limit Problem. In this paradigm, most of us live and work in our comfort Zones of Excellence, instead of stretching, reaching, risking, and growing into our Zones of Genius.

I was (am?) an excellent historian. In graduate school, I did excellent research and excellent writing. I taught excellent classes in which I taught excellent material to excellent students. I felt very comfortable surrounded by evidence of my excellence everywhere.  Now that I own an excellent small business, I’m an excellent academic editor. 

Nevertheless, I’d been hanging on to my pseudo-academic lifestyle, not because I’d been holding out any hope that I’d someday have an academic job (that ship sailed a long time ago), but because I enjoy a lot of things about it. On the other hand, in my now pseudo-academic life, I find myself trying too hard to still prove that I’m a smart person who deserved the career for which I’d invested a huge chunk of my life and a lot of money. 

And here’s where things start feeling scary and risky for me. Although I’m excellent at my present work, I’m starting to think that academic work is not my Zone of Genius. Nevertheless, the idea of moving entirely out of my pseudo-academic position positively terrifies me. What will be left if I do? If I let go of academia completely, who am I? Who am I without this thing that has defined me for a decade? More terrifyingly, what interesting thing might have space to develop? What if that space were filled with something even more awesome?

Cautiously, I thought about what my new, academia-free life might entail. Faster this time, like a lightning strike, an idea came to me: I design creative cultural and critical thinking experiences for curious people.

What? I didn’t understand what the idea actually meant, but it wouldn’t leave me, no matter how much I tried to push it away. Like a dog, it kept returning to beg for my attention. The idea fixed me with longing eyes. I glared at it. I tried to ignore it. I walked away from it. It got up and followed me. I finally gave it my full attention. I whirled around and looked the idea dead in the eyes. “What do you want?” I hollered at it, spoiling for a fight.

The idea, as it turns out, wanted to whisper in my ear again. I cringed, but let it. I design creative cultural and critical thinking experiences for curious people.

“Bah!”I shoved the idea away and yelled at it. “I’m already doing what I’m supposed to be doing! I’ve figured out everything! I’m excellent at what I’m doing! I’m very comfortable being excellent!” The idea gave me a knowing look and a shrug and slowly ambled down the road. It looked back over its shoulder to see if I was following. I hadn’t taken a step towards the idea, but we both knew that I was still watching it.

I had to admit that the idea gave me a little thrill. It seemed a little scary and risky. And probably like something I should do.

And here’s what I’m learning: saying yes to new possibilities, especially ones that seem risky and thrilling and exciting and make me feel dizzy and like I’m going to throw up often involves letting go of that which is no longer serving me. And letting go, even when necessary, still provokes strong feelings of loss on top of the huge amount of loss and heartache I already feel with the loss of my academic life. But sometimes letting go is a necessary part of moving forward.

I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to let go entirely of academia yet or what that might look like. But what’s starting to occur to me is that the next and best most powerful version of myself and my life likely depends on my willingness to risk letting go of the me of the last ten years and truly moving out of my comfortable Zone of Excellence and into the absolute and terrifying unknown of something I can’t even really define yet.

What are you letting go of that’s no longer serving you? What’s keeping you tied to it? What might happen if you let go completely?