OK, I’ve been a lot quiet this summer. I could try to explain why, but it would take about 3 hours and I’m not sure most it would make sense at the end. The short version is this: On May 12, I lost an old and very dear friend. We grew away from each other slightly in recent years, in part because of geography, in part because we both were focused (in our own ways) on “growing up” and building our careers as educators rather than nourishing our friendship with each other.
Those ebbs and flows in friendships are the way of the world, I’m well aware, but that loss made me re-evaluate a lot of things (as well as reconnect closely with my two other “besties” from that early 20s social circle). Over the ensuing summer I have been rethinking a lot of things about my goals, ambition, and the need for more compassion and silliness in my life to balance out my quest for wisdom and significance. Oh, and while grappling with that I completed a 5K walk, took 9 hours over the summer, 6 plus a research project this semester, and started my new position as Associate Director on July 1. (How am I not dead?)
I’ve tried to write a few things for this site this summer, like a piece on “Why Math Education Sucks” (which I’m still noodling on here and there), but most of my Infoliterate thoughts have been on what David Allen might call the 50,000 foot level: specifically, what does it mean to make a difference as an instruction librarian, library administrator, Ph.D student, etc.? Those thoughts have been so squishy in my head that it’s really only now that they’re firm enough to commit to a published form.
The longer I live, the more it seems that most of us as individuals have very little control over which achievements or actions will “make an impact” in our lives, or in the lives of those we hope to reach. Most of us can think of personal or professional projects we care about deeply that wound up flopping, and offhanded comments we tossed off that made a profound effect on someone else’s life, for good or ill. Everything we do makes ripples, which combine and interact with other ripples, and we can never control (and only rarely understand) their full impact.
I can set goals to earn my Ph.D, become a LIS Professor or library director, teach library students how to engage effectively with the new information landscape, perform research to identify and highlight the blind spots in information literacy theory and practice, but I HAVE LITTLE TO NO POWER over what actually takes hold in the minds of others. It’s like doing a one-shot instruction session. Some days all the students will be glazed over, checking Facebook when they think nobody’s looking, no matter how charismatic and insightful the librarian is at the front of the room. Other times students are exploding with excellent questions and insights.
At least when viewed through the “lens” of this summer, this fact leads to one inescapable conclusion: Tying your self-worth into achieving a goal (or even a series of goals) is a fool’s errand. That’s not to say I don’t want to achieve big things with my life anymore—I’m just accepting that most of the variables that could lead me to publishing that seminal book that revolutionizes academic librarianship are out of my control. That’s scary to a person whose self-worth has long been tangled up in the need to “make a difference”, but it’s kind of freeing too.
That realization has also led me to look at what a “post-goal” mindset and career might look like. It seems to come back down to some sort of daily practice, where I simultaneously stay open to opportunities presented by the world while building the skills needed to seize those opportunities, whatever they may be. I’ll share some of those thoughts on a success-oriented daily practice next time, but for now I’ll just sit back and shake my head ruefully at the elegant chaos inherent in the way that one event, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Florida, has unexpectedly influenced change in so many other areas of my life and the lives of others.