When my alarm sang this morning, I got dressed quickly and hopped on the family Peloton by 7:40 AM. I prefer to exercise at dawn as it gets my mind and body moving to start the day. At the same time, I also tackle one of the more energy-intensive tasks I have on my list first. This strategy is a great productivity tool called “ eat the frog.” It’s defined as “if you have to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first and get it out of the way.” It helps you feel like you can do anything as everything else seems easy in comparison to this hardest task. I recommend this strategy as you’ll feel full of energy and accomplishment from hour one. It makes for a better day all around.
Today, I did a 20-minute ride to Broadway show tunes that were written or performed by African Americans on stage for a celebration of Black History Month. The second song on the playlist was “Seasons of Love” from the 1993 musical Rent. That song and the play are my favorites on Broadway. I saw it in 1997 in Toronto, Canada with my mom and my siblings. I wasn’t into musicals in general back then, but Rent captivated me. I had very low expectations for the evening before I stepped foot in the theater. I somehow became even less enthusiastic about the play as I walked into the theater and saw a stage that looked like a combination of a trashed apartment and a dirty alleyway.
But as the first song began with a guitar and a rock ballad I was sucked in. I have been infatuated with the musical ever since. The story of struggle and loss struck me as I was going through the same figuring out my life. I had no money and my future was exciting but completely uncertain. I was 22 and as much as the world was wide open for me, it was also full of obstacles for a new graduate with little experience and barely enough money to pay my rent.
I was so captivated by the musical, I saw Rent again the following year in Detroit with my girlfriend and again in the theaters years later. Even today, hearing “Seasons of Love” brings back so many good memories of that era in my life causing me to be a bit weepy longing to be in 1997 again in the theater watching Rent with my family.
I felt these emotions all over again this morning while riding uphill to the cast of Rent on the bike. It wasn’t the sweat in my eyes, they were tears. Salty memories on my cheeks.
“…Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a life of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that she cried
In bridges, he burned
Or the way that she died…”
As I heard these lyrics today a question struck me. How am I measuring my life? I knew the answer immediately. I am measuring my life by my academic dossier. My curriculum vitae. Or as most call it, my resume. My life is written year-by-year with accolades in a Word document because that is what the institution told me I had to do to keep my job. They said it would bring me glory and the chance of a 2-3% raise annually. Just enough to keep up with inflation. Imagine that. I can measure my year by how many articles I published or exhibitions I was in. Or at least that’s how I’m told I need to grade my year.
In my early academic years, I bought into this concept completely. I worked day and night to write and design more. More was more. When I received tenure in 2013, I was ecstatic, exhausted, and relieved. We threw a party on our deck and invited my friends and co-workers. We had a blast with a lot of beer. In the months after, I wondered what I was to do with the rest of my life. I achieved a career milestone so many in academia strive to reach, and yet the day after I felt empty. I got to the top and looked over the summit to see that nothing was really different on the other side. I was still to be graded by the number and quality of my achievements in a Word document.
I knew tenure meant I had job security now and was in fact privileged. Despite that, I still worked hard at doing more. I didn’t want to appear lazy or unworthy. I measured my life by the page length of a Word document still. As years passed, fortunately, I have become less attached to the idea that measuring a life has to be based on what you achieved on paper. I see that for what it really is, a way to build up your institution; the institution. It is a constant supply of self-serving steroids. The institution can blast out your achievements on the internet or in alumni magazines and the result is that they look better. Look at how great our faculty are! It’s true. We are. Yes, for sure, this press can help me too. I can do more with new collaborators that reach out after they saw the Tweet or article, and indeed, after, I increase the size of my Word document.
In 2015, I took over the job of Department Chair in my area. I had no idea what I was doing but knew that to be a good leader I had to be selfless and raise up others. I also had only two faculty on staff and needed 10-11 to function. Years went by and each was full of bringing one to two new people on board. Eventually, I built the department back up to 11 faculty in 2019. It was hard hard work. I was burned out again. I was exhausted. As I look back at this five-year term, it’s clear I didn’t increase the size of my Word document. I had no time to be a scholar. I was an administrator hiring, writing annual reviews, implementing new curricula, and advising and helping students. The last part ate up a huge emotional slice of my life. Hearing stories, sometimes terribly sad, of a student’s depression, financial stress, loss of a family member, or recent sexual assault caused many sleepless nights and eventually anxiety that required me to seek medical attention.
In those five years, the only way I could see how to measure my year was by how many and whom I helped. I gave many folks a shot in academia they might not have had otherwise. I wrote countless letters of recommendation and signed bureaucratic documents that gave a student an extra credit so they could graduate. Some of these students were the first in their extended family to have a college degree. I helped students. I got students the mental health resources they needed. I gave up my lunches to have an unexpected meeting. I would talk in the hallways for thirty minutes or more with students in distress giving up working on the project I was headed to when they caught me.
All this time, I knew none of this really would ever show up in a Word document. I wasn’t getting a raise for this. I was wearing myself out by building others up. However, it felt good. My life, your life shouldn’t only be about you. Like the song says
“…How about love?
Measure in love…”
Despite this feeling of great satisfaction, I realized that as I was building others up I was wearing myself down. I was spent and despite knowing I helped so many, I came to the conclusion I needed some help for myself. I quit my position as Department Chair last year. Life has been much different since. We’re all stuck in a pandemic. We’ve been through an attempted coup. We have seen civil unrest. We have grown closer by staying further apart.
This has all been a lot to chew on, and it has increased my thirst to understand how to measure a day, month, a year. I know it’s not by upping my dossier page count nor is it only by exclusively helping others at the expense of my physical and mental health. It is something else. It is both?
Is it “In daylights,
In cups of coffee,
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?”
The little things do matter (and the big things too). The hugs, the dinners out, the wind, the sound of the ocean. Experiencing all of that in pieces or in one day makes life worth it. A good day, a good life can be measured in all of this. Did I try my best? Did I treat people with decency and compassion? Did I work hard at achieving my goals while helping others do the same? I am still ruminating on these questions and thoughts. I know however now, that only measuring my life by what others expect of me is the wrong path to travel upon. I did that. I succeeded in academia by their metrics. Those are not my methods however that I want to measure how good my life is. Too often our jobs (my job) cross over into the boundaries of our private lives. Jobs are designed to do that. It’s my personal journey to figure out what makes a good day so that I can be my best self.