The Laboratory of Your Life

discernment purpose stuff my coach taught me Apr 20, 2021
Petri dish held by gloved hands

Not surprisingly, a good percentage of my clients are academics. I came up through academia and my day job is in academic administration. Higher education has been good for me and good to me, and I marvel every day at the kind of work my colleagues do—the topics they take on and the unique ways they approach them, the creative ways that they share that knowledge, and the passion with which the teach it to others. Higher ed is a centuries old system that has held space for knowledge creation and acquisition, and when I step back and think about that, I feel nothing but gratitude and awe.

But this system of learning, proving, teaching, and challenging also has some unintended negative consequences for those of us who want to live lives of purpose, and who see that purpose as an evolving sense of calling. Academia cares about expertise, and to be an expert takes a kind of single-minded focus, and the discipline to double-down on that focus even when you become curious and interested in something beyond the scope of your expertise.

But in my experience, the purposes that my academic colleagues articulate often do not require or even conceptually include expertise. My academic colleagues want to be of service (to their students, their communities, and their disciplines) and they want to explore all sorts of territory, especially as it relates to and bumps-up against the narrow niche that they carved out for themselves in graduate school. Some universities make more room for that exploration than others. But all universities want to be able to sum you and your academic contributions up in a tidy and specific bio statement for the webpage.

“Professor Kiener is an accomplished director who specializes in community-based theatre.”

Well, yes, but she also has a resume full of film and television acting credits, led a team that taught elementary school teachers how to use drama activities to increase reading comprehension, and is obsessed with avant garde theatre that challenges all of our assumptions about what theatre even is. She also wrote about theatre as a site of Christian hospitality, and about the role of teacher interest in community-based research. And while she was an “accomplished director” in many genres, the shows that she loved directing most were for children. But then she stopped doing all of that, so that she could resolve academic grievances and lead a series of research projects on the topic of student persistence in higher education. Then she became a life coach.

The second description is more interesting, to be sure, but it definitely reveals a “jack of all trades, master of none” approach. And in the world of academia this is more than a marketing problem; it’s a direct affront to the entire notion of expertise.

To be sure, my non-academic clients experience a version of “wandering career eye” too. They consider leadership roles that would take them further from the core of the work that first attracted them to that career. Or they consider leaving the industry they grew up in and learning the culture of an entirely different sector so that they can apply their skills in a new way. Or they decide they want to work for themselves, and launch their own business as a consultant or free-lance professional.

One way to explain all of this wandering is to say that human beings are never satisfied, and that the grass is always greener on the other side. In fact that is exactly how I explained myself to my coach. She looked genuinely surprised when I told her I was flighty, and that starting a coaching business would be more evidence that I can’t commit to anything. Investigating where that belief came from revealed a handful of things that people had said to me that I had internalized as being about me, and that my inner critic had latched onto and turned into a tape that it would play—loudly—whenever I felt curiosity about something that wasn’t already within the scope of things I was charged with.

My coach then walked me through a series of questions that helped me see a through-line in all of my work, an over-arching purpose that neatly held all of the experiments I had run in the laboratory of my life. This new laboratory metaphor has served me so much better than my previous belief that I just couldn’t commit to anything, that I was always looking to what’s next, and that once I had something I didn’t want it any more. The new metaphor acknowledged my natural curiosity as a strength, and my eagerness to grow as a value. It also helped me think about the impact that my life’s work has made, and how I might increase that impact.

We’ll be putting this metaphor to work in “Reigniting Your Purpose” this summer. My dear colleague and friend, Dr. Renee Cramer, Political Science Professor and incoming Deputy Provost at Drake University, and I are designing this virtual retreat for academics who are stuck in the post-tenure slump, disconnected from the fiery purpose that used to motivate them, and confused about what they want to/should do next.

But if you aren’t a post-tenure academic, and you want to try this metaphor on for size, here are a couple of journaling questions and activities to get you started:

1. Make a list of activities or roles that you have whole heartedly committed to in your life.
2. Describe each of those activities as though it was an experiment—what was the hypothesis, the methodology, the data that was collected, and the finding from the data?
3. What trends and patterns do you find across all the experiments?
4. What has your life been a laboratory for, so far? And what is this laboratory contributing to the world? What is the impact of its work?

I’d love to hear more about the work that is happening in your laboratory, and to help you find ways to increase your impact. Drop me a line or reach out via email. Let’s grow together.


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