Tomorrow I retire from Cornell; it will be two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after that day. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and even them maybe only transitioning to half-time until they befuddle us by changing the lock on our office.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling for academia, you don’t feel any different the day after you retire. I just had my retirement party last month and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a nice, cherry wood captain’s chair with the Cornell logo on the front and a thoughtful personalized little metal plaque on the back of it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t just seem like was another birthday party for the person who was retiring but who was going to be at work again tomorrow at they exact same time they always are. But seeing this one retirement party had a striking effect on me. It happened about 15 years ago, and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee; it was also doubling as a retirement party for an amazing man.
He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and even his economist colleagues spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and up through the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the dark and quiet chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Then he eventually said, "I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way." After another long pause he then recanted a bit and said something like this:
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see your big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.”
After 45 years of research, here was a great man who was retiring with one needless regret. Yet, what he let get in his way was how he would be rewarded or whether a colleague might think he was simplifying his research for the amateurs. It seemed to me that writing a book would have been a potentially transforming project.
The metaphor that is relevant for us is not the metaphor of writing a book. The appropriate metaphor is for any project that might ratchet up our level of impact. It is any project that may not be rewarded with the respect of the “professor next door,” but it is that which we think is critically important. In fact, it might be even be actively derided. That’s what happened to a number of metaphorical books. It happened to Carl Sagan’s award-winning Cosmos series on PBS, to Gary Becker’s famous Business Week columns, to Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” to Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns, to Richard Posner’s Federal Judge appointment, and to Stephen Ambrose’s National World War II Museum.
The notion of an "unwritten book" can be a powerful and useful metaphor for us. For many of us, there is at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas to a new level of influence. It might be starting a website and blog, presenting research in front of a House subcommittee in order to propose a law, making class modules for science teachers, writing a review article in a related field, starting a company, or starting a new class and turning the notes into a book. What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t have to wait. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our self-limiting barriers.
I remember another topic that I discussed with that eminent economics professor on the long ride back home. It was how quickly he said that his research years had passed.
He said that after he graduated with his PhD, he blinked and had tenure; he blinked again and he had an endowed chair; he blinked again and he was riding with me on what he called “his retirement bus.” The idea of starting a career of activism research when “the time is right” could disappear in a blink of an eye.
Time to start the next chapter.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most prolific, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
As academics, we have great, productive days and we have bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what – other than an “Accept Without Revision” letter – leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time a colleague told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like a paper getting accepted, a grant getting submitted, a great class, or a gracious letter from a former student. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive writing day, they finished a paper, or they had a breakthrough idea.
External successes are easy to celebrate with these colleagues. Internal successes are more ephemeral, so it’s interesting to explore what was the trigger that made today a great day and what was it that sabotaged yesterday.
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I had this idea last night, and I just got up and started writing,” or “I started on this revision right when I got up and had it half done by breakfast time.”
One of the most productive Grand Ole Dads in my field told me that he got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with this hypothesis: "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this hypothesis.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems paper writing, editing, exercise, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days. One’s where you can channel your best Clint Eastwood impression and say, “The day’s not over.”
A week ago a writer for the Atlantic asked me if I had any advice for young scholars. I have lots and lots of advice, but here’s an expansion on three quick points I shared.
1) Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. It is totally enriching, and you can't let some of the bumpy times that you see me going through dissuade you from a great career.
2) No paper’s perfect, and you need to find the right balance between perfection and completion -- between perfecting something versus completing it. There's tons of "perfect" dissertations that have never been completed. There's tons of "perfect" papers that have never been submitted. You want to balance off polishing the perfect paper for 20 years with trying to make sure that if there were any errors they probably wouldn't change the basic conclusion.
3) You can do research to impress other academics, or you can do research to solve problems. Doing it for academics is more prestigious, but doing it to solve real problems in the real world is very gratifying — very enriching. Having someone say, “I do something differently because of your research, and it works for me” takes away some of the the sting of embarrassing mistakes.
For 30 years I have hoped my research would make people healthier and happier. That's been my specific mission, and it's very motivating. If your research is pointed at a mission that's important to you, it can be incredibly motivating , , , even in bumpy times.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.