While I was on sabbatical – and especially after I returned to work – I started saying no a lot. No to excessive service commitments, no to a stack of research ideas, no to projects that eat into time when I’m not under contract. I wanted to set up patterns that were different that the ones I had prior to tenure. The pre-tenure blitz can be overwhelming. You’re trying to do all you can in order to build a record for tenure. You worry that if you say no to something, it might hurt your chances.
After you get to the place where you can pretty much only be fired if the institution is going under or for “moral turpitude” (I love that phrase), there’s an opportunity to focus. In my case, I’m most interested in issues of discernment, diversity and helping students develop sophisticated research habits of mind. Whenever I’m asked to take on a new commitment, I evaluate it in terms of my priorities and then decide whether or not to pursue it.
I did this a little bit before tenure, but I’m doing it more now. I’m also evaluating my obligations in terms of time. I didn’t do this very well before tenure. I kept adding things – in part because I was interested in them and also in part because I wanted to make sure I had as strong a case as possible for tenure. I was never particularly honest with myself about how much time various commitments would take, so I’d end up frazzled and tired.
I now have practices and priorities in place for deciding when to say no. I also have a sense of how much is enough for me to do at this stage in my career and in light of my contractual obligations. I am not interested in shorting my institution or “getting away” with doing less work. But why am I saying no?
I say no in order to say yes. I say yes for the sake of my mental, emotional and physical health. I say yes so I have a more flexible schedule that can adapt better to changes (like accommodating occasional sick kid days or extra swim lessons). I say yes so I have more time to reflect on life. And let’s be honest – I say no so I can say yes to my writing. As often and as much as possible.
My very wise friend Sara wrote a line in an email that has stuck with me. We’ve been talking about careers and choices and vocation a lot. She wrote that at this stage in her life, she knows the kind of life she wants and it’s more about the bigger picture, rather than “what am I doing to make money.” I think about her words every day – the bigger picture is what’s important to me, too. I have a good job that I like. I have a writing career that I love. I say no in order to say yes to a life I enjoy.