Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I gave notice at my job in August. Nine-months notice. If I were inclined to draw bad analogies, and I am often so inclined, I would say something about giving birth to my new self, which would make this very moment part of my self-gestation. I am creating myself anew, quitting this life for new possibilities. I am torn between viewing my decision as quitting and abandoning, on the one hand, and seizing and storming, moving and rising, and such things, on the other. What does it mean when a person gives up a secure professional life, a good salary, and a certain kind of prestige--all the result of much hard work--in order to start over from scratch? And to make that move as the economy is coming apart at the seams?

I have been trying to think about other things I've quit. I dropped Chemistry my senior year in high school at mid-year. I quit playing soccer after my first semester at college. I quit debating after my sophomore year. I quit being a wife to my first husband after three years, although it took another year to convince the Rhode Island courts I was serious about it. I quit being a Republican when I was 18. I quit smoking when I was 32. I quit ballet dancing when I was 10. I quit throwing tiny celebrations whenever I noticed that the time was 11:11 sometime last year when the time no longer moved me. Quitting has a negative ring to it, like "making excuses." Everyone knows that "losers make excuses" and that when you fall on your face, you get up and try again and again and again and again, even if you hate every minute of it, because when you finally succeed ... oh! Is Benjamin Franklin responsible for this? I can remember in recent years interviewing students for scholarships and asking them to describe their response to an instance when they'd been defeated or opposed in their goals somehow. How would I answer that question? "When I did not get promoted in my fourth year, I quit." "When I realized that 4 out of 5 my students wanted nothing more from me than a snappy performance and a good grade, I quit." "When I figured out that no matter how hard I work I am not going to be as brilliant as all that, I quit." "When I saw that working 65 hours a week would not be enough time and that people would always ask me how I like having my summers off, I quit."

It takes courage to quit this job. This profession. Quitting means more than ceasing to affiliate with an institution. I am throwing off an affiliation, an identity I've claimed for 15 years, truly, a way of life: the "life of the mind," as one of my mentors calls it. A New York Times column last year reported an MIT study in which students were asked to make choices with a mix of known and unknown outcomes. Even when it was irrational to do so, students would keep as many choices available to themselves as possible, refusing to commit to one clearly good choice because it meant giving up others that remained uncertain. The writer of the article contrasts the thinking of these students with that of a legendary Chinese general who was known for his great successes. His strategy was to burn his own ships and supplies when he landed an invading force. His troops knew that retreat was no choice; their invasion would succeed or they would perish. Just before writing and sending my resignation, I reread that article and considered myself brave. I would burn my bridges, cut off retreat. I would not quit my quitting.

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