Sunday, February 19, 2012
The 15-Year Helix
Now that I'm outside the perpetual hurry of the daily commute to the cubicle farm, I'm amazed at how time has seemed to dilate. I have been at this for about a month and a half, but last December seems to be in the far distant past. On the other hand, I can start the day with the best of intentions for tackling my many projects, and then get lost in a sudoku puzzle or some other distraction and look up to find it's the middle of the afternoon. Where did the day go? I'm rather enjoying it, but a little voice in the back of my head keeps asking if it's bad to be having so much fun goofing off. Will I get used to this and spend most of my year off procrastinating, only to face a frantic rush to get things accomplished in the last few weeks before I have to return to the workforce? Will I get bored? Will I lose all my time management skills? Or will I gradually start venturing out, better off for not having succumbed to the compulsion to be "useful"?
This isn't the first time I have been in an in-between place, plotting my next move. Looking back, I realize that this seems to happen every 15 years or so. Just before I turned 25, I left a stable job as a lab tech (in the middle of the 1980 recession, but I was oblivious to that at the time) and I moved from Florida to Arizona to begin graduate school. My bachelor's degree in chemistry had gotten me a technician's job, but not much else. Over the course of a couple of years, I realized that doing the same old thing day in and day out was going to make me start climbing the walls. No matter what I did in my spare time, if my work wasn't challenging and full of novelty, then I wasn't going to be happy. If another diploma was what I needed to land a research job, then I would go get another diploma. And I did.
I loved the research, loved the friends I made, and even enjoyed the two postdoc positions I had to take before I landed a "real" job in industry. But the glory days of big corporate research had ended before I arrived. The focus had shifted to "what can we do to maximize this quarter's profits?" Too often, the answer seemed to be "cut the R&D staff". I celebrated my 40th birthday during a between-jobs period that was to last almost 2 years. It was 15 years since I had embarked on the journey to become a research scientist, and I knew that I was going to have to leave that career, with its boom and bust cycles, and find something else to do.
At the end of 1996, I landed a full-time job as a science writer/editor for the EPA. I followed that with a stint as a magazine and web editor for the American Chemical Society. I definitely felt that I was heading in the right direction. Then the dot-com bubble burst. Suddenly, people realized that it wasn't easy to make money on internet publications, but they couldn't go back to all print either. (They still haven't solved that conundrum.) So I made a slight shift and went into public affairs for the Office of Naval Research. That was (mostly) enjoyable work, and it paid much better than working for a not-for-profit. Leadership changed, the job became less enjoyable, and I found another job for a small science-oriented IT consulting company. Again, the focus of the company changed, the job became more technician-like, and I remembered all the reasons I hated doing technician work.
So here I am again, having completed another 15-year cycle. I left my job voluntarily, like I did when I was 25. (And once again, the economy is in a mess, only this time it's worse.) I have savings that will carry me for a while, like when I was 40. But I'm not focusing on the free fall like I did when I was 40. I have a sense of optimism that feels more like when I was 25.
Someone told me once that life is kind of like walking along a road that spirals around a mountain. You keep coming around to the same side of the mountain, but you're a little higher every time. The view is familiar, but it's never exactly the same. I don't know where the road leads, really. I know quite a bit about where I hope it will lead. Maybe there's another mountain, with a whole new helical road. Fifteen years from now, I'm going to be entering my 70s. When I look back at my current self, will I once again marvel at how far I've come? Will I be in this strange yet familiar in-between place once again? I suppose that all I can do right now is put one foot in front of the other.