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When in Doubt, Follow Your Passion

Posted on September 07 2010

NH New Hampshire trail

This post is going to be a bit off-topic from what I’ve been writing about of late, but it’s something that has been on my mind for awhile and I felt the need to share it. It’s not about running per se, but rather some thoughts on life and this blog that have come to the forefront after thinking about some friends and the troubles they have been having trying to figure out what to do with their futures. In some ways it’s a very personal post, and one that I hope can help in at least some small way. Here goes…

I’m a big believer in following your passion. In my professional life as a college professor, I often find myself sitting with students who are trying to plan their future, often with a great deal of uncertainty. As biology majors, most of these students enter college with the expectation that they will one day become doctors. However, once the reality of a poor transcript or the realization of the cost and time that medical school entails begins to settle in, many of them find themselves questioning whether this is a realistic or even desirable choice. Often, they ask me to tell them what to do with their lives – I can assure you that that’s quite a heavy burden to have placed on one’s shoulders. My most frequent response under these circumstances is to ask the student what they enjoy most. What’s your passion? I tell them to choose a path that they will enjoy and that will make them happy, and not to worry what others (including their parents), might think, or what the job might pay. I truly believe that the best paying job in the world isn’t worth pursuing if it’s not something you are passionate about, and this is something I have tried to practice to the best extent possible in my own life.

I arrived in my current job by taking a rather large risk. In the final year of my Ph.D. program I applied for and was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral research grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant would have provided me with funding to pursue my research on the functional and evolutionary anatomy of tadpoles (yes, people do study things like that) at a large, prestigious research institution. Though nothing is guaranteed in academia, I had a strong publication record for someone at that point in their career, and taking the postdoc would have set me on a path to be competitive for jobs at just about any large university that might be hiring an anatomist. At about the same time, I was also interviewing for teaching jobs at small colleges, and received an offer of a three year, non-tenure track position at a small college in New Hampshire. The job would require that I teach several classes that I had never taught before, and it carried with it no guarantee of permanency.

One of the things that I realized in graduate school was that although I enjoyed doing research, my true passion was being in the classroom as a TA (teaching assistant). I derived far more enjoyment from helping students learn biology than I did from publishing scientific journal articles. I also saw the life that was required in order for a faculty member to be successful at a large research institution – publish or perish is very real at such places, and grant-writing is a near full-time part of the job. Neither of these job characteristics were particularly desirable to me. A third factor that figured into my decision making process was that I had also just found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child (who is now 6 years old – hard to believe!). She being from Maine and me being from Connecticut, New Hampshire was a very attractive location for us in terms of familiarity and proximity to family.

Thus, in light of the above factors, given the choice between a prestigious postdoc and an uncertain, and sure-to-be difficult three year teaching position, I chose the latter. Many of my friends and mentors at the time thought the choice was crazy, and there were moments when I too wondered whether it was, but I had made a decision based on following my passion and doing the right thing for my family, and I was going to go with it.

It turns out the I made the right choice. After surviving my first year at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH (there really is no other way to describe your first year as a teacher), I was converted to tenure track – taking the risk had paid off. Now, seven years after making that original decision, I am a tenured associate professor in a department full of good people and I get to teach courses that I love to some great students. I have a wonderful wife, three great kids, and am living in a town that I absolutely love. Life is good, and I owe it all to my willingness to take a risk and follow my passion.

I’m now at a similar, albeit somewhat less consequential, point in life, and it has to do with running and this blog. If somebody told me five years ago that in 2010 I’d have run five marathons and would be writing a running blog with over 40,000 monthly visitors, I’d have said they were crazy. Well, here I am, and quite honestly, the success of this blog has taken me completely by surprise. I’m now struggling somewhat with how this blog should fit in with the rest of my life, particularly with regard to my professional career. The reason is this – for me, my running and this blog have become passions right alongside my passion for being a teacher. Outside of my family, being a teacher, running, and writing this blog are the three things that keep me going and that occupy my time. As I discussed above, I believe in following my passions, and therefore I’m trying to figure out how to best integrate these three parts of my life. You only live once, after all, and no sense in not doing what you enjoy most while you have the chance.

The problem I have is that blog writing is not typically viewed as a worthwhile pursuit among academics. Although I have written more prolifically in the past year than I have at any other point in my life (and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it!), none of it has been in peer reviewed academic journals, and thus from a professional standpoint, none of it counts. The question here is whether I really care. I’m tenured (though I still have one more promotion step to achieve), I’m having fun, and I feel like I’m making a difference at least in some small way.

In moments of clarity I tell myself that more people probably read what I write on this blog in a single day than have collectively read all of my scientific publications put together (I truly believe this may be the case). Scholarly publication is a necessary part of academic life, but it’s not a part that I particularly enjoy. Much of scholarly publication is esoteric (I can assure you that few people care about tadpole skulls), and most of what gets written is published in journals that can’t be accessed easily by the public (or even by faculty at small colleges like myself). This doesn’t mean that scientific research isn’t necessary – I believe that it’s essential. However, I also believe that we all have different roles, and my role is more that of an educator and communicator of science rather than a hard-core researcher.

This blog suits my self-defined role perfectly, but I still feel pangs of guilt about the amount of time I put into it. I value the ability to think out loud on the blog, to get near instant and thoughtful feedback, and to present ideas as they pop into my mind. Maybe someday blogs will carry some weight in academia, particularly as new faculty who have grown up in a blogging world begin to permeate faculty ranks, but we’re not there yet. There are some great blogs out there written by college profs, but our numbers are still small, and I suspect that I am one of the only ones on my campus who does it. Given this, I sometimes question whether this is something that I should be spending so much time on. Should I shift the time I spend writing here to more scholarly pursuits that would garner greater respect from my peers in the ivory tower, even if I would derive far less enjoyment form it?

At the end of all of this, I have to come back to passion. Writing this blog is something that I love doing. I like testing products and writing reviews with a somewhat scientific angle, for if I help one person to be able to get active and avoid getting injured, then I have accomplished one of my major goals in writing Runblogger. I love thinking and writing about running mechanics. I have fun making observations and generating hypotheses – whether or not it is I or someone else who goes out and tests them is less of a concern. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy interacting with my readers. For much the same reason that I enjoy being in the classroom with my students, it is the social interactions and friendships I have made via this blog and my other online pursuits that really make them worthwhile. Hopefully you have learned something from me, and I can assure you that I have learned an immense amount from you (just as I learn a lot from my students in the classroom). All of you who read what I write here keep me going with your comments and emails, and that is a huge part of why I have no plans of letting up anytime soon. It would be great to be able to write Runblogger without the deep-seated feeling of professional guilt, but I’m quite passionate about the value of blogs, and the only way to overcome this guilt to help further their acceptance. Thankfully, the only way to accomplish that is to keep on writing.

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