It turns out that the year 2022 will be a year of anniversaries for me. Every year is in some way of course, but this year is going to be one with a series of landmark anniversaries, you know those with a 0 in them. At NASPA this past week, I realized that I attended my first NASPA in 1982, cough, cough, 40 years ago. Now it’s a bit of a stretch to say I attended NASPA since I was there only for the placement center, but it was memorable all the same. I decided to go late and ended up in a hotel that I could barely afford. I flew to Boston, MA from Lubbock, TX and I’m not embarrassed to sound like ‘country come to town’ when I tell you I was amazed to find a telephone in the bathroom! I’d never heard of, let alone seen, such a thing. And then there was the surprise snowstorm that shut down the eastern seaboard. Memorable in may ways.
2022 will also be the forty-year anniversary of my graduation from law school (May) starting my first professional job (June) and taking the bar exam (July). A lot happened for me in 1982. (Just to take you back, or introduce you, to that year: Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney had a hit with “Ebony and Ivory” and Willie Nelson hit #1 with “Always on My Mind”. The country charts were important when you lived in Lubbock. “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” was released in June and “An Officer and a Gentleman” in July.) It’s all so ‘last century.’
There are many ways to evaluate a career. There are new jobs that result from our growth in skills, our changing interests in the work that we do, and opportunities grasped. There are new titles written on business cards, organizational charts, and new physical environments that are visible clues to the movement along a sometimes winding, often inexplicable, path. But most important of all are the elements that aren’t so obvious. We can see programs that work, events that turned out well, even changes in policies that make a difference for students in the here and now. There are resumés that grow in length. (The resumé I took with me to that first NASPA was one page long and it had been typeset and printed, so each one was precious and expensive.)
Being at NASPA this past week showed me other ways to mark the passage of time and I have to say they were wonderful. The conference chair of this enormous national conference was a student in my class the first time I ever taught Higher Education Law at UT Austin. The winner of a national award as a mid-level professional sat in my office twenty-five years ago to ask, ‘how can I get your job?’ Juggling items to self-tag my luggage in the airport, someone called my name to remind me that he was an attendee at the New Professionals Institute when I was Director 15 years ago, and he still uses something he learned from me. Someone I mentored in another program told me she remembered something I said and put it into action when she became interim Vice President for Student Affairs this year.
In other words, I was reminded over and over this past week that careers, like so many elements of life, are often best understood in reverse. That longer resumé marks not simply what I have done, but illustrates all that I have learned over my career. It shows all the forward steps and additional responsibilities, but when I look at it I can also see places where I made mis-steps or missed opportunities. Not obvious to anyone else, are the jobs I didn’t get or the challenges represented by the fact that it took me eight years to complete my doctorate. That little fact doesn’t matter in my career, but it tells me something about my persistence.
At that first NASPA I had eight interviews. From that I got one follow-up. I ended up taking a job at a campus in my backyard, a campus that couldn’t have afforded conducting a national search. And it was a wonderful first job, but there is no one, least of all me, who could have guessed what would come next. And I certainly wouldn’t have expected being stopped in an airport by someone who wanted to say in effect, ‘I learned something useful from you.’
In my mind, good work is by definition hard work. Working with people in any capacity is challenging. Working in complex institutions, both large and small, is always difficult. But when life is tough, when the career seems stalled, when the next opportunity isn’t yet on the horizon, it might be worth taking a moment to look back. Give yourself the chance to remember what you’ve learned and where you’ve come from. A career is decades in the making and when you’re in the middle of it, there’s no way to see the truly good, deep down benefit that your work is bringing to yourself and to others. What makes a career? A thousand moments across a lifetime of work. Whether you’re at the start of your career or, like me, a few decades into it, know that you are building something of value and where it will lead can’t be predicted. What makes a career? Only time will tell.