I must admit, it has not turned out the way I had hoped. It is not even close. When I first entered a classroom to begin my journey to be a higher education professional it was the summer of 1995. I had just arrived on the campus of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale and I was sitting in Dr. James Wallace’s class. He asked us the same question I have asked countless students – what do you want to be one day? What kind of position do you desire to find yourself in at some point? Of course, I wanted to be a Vice-President of Student Affairs. I think everyone in the class did. It felt right. Aspirational. Powerful. Inspirational. Well-Paid. It was all the things you dream of. This week, I canceled that dream once and for all. I accepted who I am as a higher ed professional and it ain’t that.
But this is not the first time. I once had dreams I was going to quarterback the Miami Dolphins but then I realized I cannot throw. I was going to be the next Tom Brokaw. But then I saw what TV news was like through a job I had in North Carolina and I did not want to do that either. So., I went into student affairs. If we are being honest, a VPSA would have been plan D for my career already so I am not so sure why I sulked about it. The fact is, almost all of us never become what we dreamed to be.
And that should be OK.
When I was a kid in Mrs. Jefferson’s fourth grade class at George Washing Carver Elementary School in Pinetops, NC in 1983 she would often say, “America is the place where you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough.” And I ate that up. I had so many dreams. But, at some point you must realize that adulthood is not built that way and your life journey takes you on a different path. In some cases, the dream dies because you do not have the skill to play QB in the NFL, sometimes you do not have the patience to learn to play guitar and be the next Eddie Van Halen, sometimes you just don’t have the drive to be a TV News anchor. But that is part of adulting. You find out along the way that is not who you are anyway. As I write this, I am watching the Aerosmith video for Dude Looks Like a Lady. And while I may have dreamed of being Steven Tyler, I do not think I would have liked being him if I were.
As I turn 48, I have had to confront that what I wanted to be is not who I am going to be. While my longtime dreams to be a great athlete faded long ago there was still this idea, I could be VP. Now, do not get me wrong, just because I am not going to be a VPSA does not mean I am not ambitious or want to be something great, I absolutely want to do that. But the direction has shifted and with it what I value and how I feel best utilized by my employer, my career and family.
So, what does it mean? Am I settling? Am I a failure? I do not think so. But there is a process in acceptance I have figured out.
I had to get over the sense of loss and denial I had. As I realized I was not going to be a VP I still had some folks, with good hearts, who kept telling me that I should not give up on this pursuit. And it took some time for me to accept because in my heart I knew I could do the work. I would get angry that I was somehow giving up, I would find faults in others who were getting these jobs and wonder why are they so great? I can dare say, I felt sorry for myself. But what I was not doing is accurately and authentically assessing why I was not being considered and often it included I simply had not collected the skills and experiences that made me right for the job.
To lead the life, we were meant to lead I had to create a vision for what I felt I was best at and how that can be useful. First, I am a good researcher. I like the art of looking at and interpreting data to help others in strategic decision making. I like writing and doing reports and I find delight in going away in solitude and creating. I like teaching and training and leading project teams. All these things are not what you really do as a VPSA. And here is the most important part. I just do not really like dealing with conduct, I like my time off, and I am not an administrator. I could be good at it, but I just do not really like it. Seems to me, to be something that I would not really enjoy just to realize a goal does not really seem like a reason to do it.
And therefore, I have accepted where I am at. This week I delivered a proposal for a $1.25 million dollar grant, I got three University Presidents to agree to a program path, I wrote several reports based on data that I worked to collect, I edited a dissertation, and worked with some friends on a conference presentation. It was a good week. I also had a VP tell me that my work was impressive and its clear I know how to get people from one side of an issue to another. I have influence and respect from my peers and that is great. Sure, I do not get paid as much but I live a solid middle-class life and enjoy a cold beer on the patio after work. That is livin’.
Sometimes its not that life did not work out. Its that I have found my path and it was the one Robert Frost told me was less traveled by. You know what, I am wondering if I am finally understanding what Carol Dweck calls “A Growth Mindset”. That as I have aged, I have grown up. As I googled on this subject, I came across some work by Eric Greitens. He has a piece called Resilience. In his work he recounts his own life experiences, and he convinces us that we need to stop feeling like life is something that happens to us and become people who learn from what happens and it is how you adapt and react that makes a difference.
Look. I am not going to be a VPSA, but I am a great SA Pro. My life of dreaming has become a life of trial and error and success and it has led me to have one of the most unique jobs in higher education. When the Florida Consortium ED job came open one of my references said that he felt the role of coordinating projects between three mega-universities is an impossible task but if anyone can do it I can. That was six years ago, and I am still here, coordinating projects between three mega-universities. And that is pretty cool.