We all need to go off the beaten track from time to time. You may have discovered that you need something other than what your plan is providing. Now you have identified a new alternative that may work better. Before you begin striding down your new path, though, you probably have some preparations to make. Lurching into a new direction before getting permission is likely to be painful.
What exactly do I mean by permission? There are probably as many possible meanings as we have relationships! For example, if I were attending college at the expense of my parents, I would probably need their acquiescence before dropping out mid-semester (approval would be too much to ask, I think). If I were quitting my job with no immediate path to another, I would want to enlist the agreement of adults in my family who depended upon that income. These are cases where financial accountability is at stake. For this post, though, I want to discuss the idea of permission as a matter of social acceptability.
One of the lessons I absorbed as I was growing up was that I should work within the system. Being part of a church community, for example, was valuable not only as a home for spirituality but also as a place to build relationships with other like-minded people. For my life in Nashville, that has brought me in contact with many from the First Unitarian Universalist Church and the Nashville in Harmony Community Chorus. In the academic environment, this emphasis has meant that I try to attend faculty meetings and social gatherings frequently and support others in my department when they give seminars. My local “system,” then, covers some rather different priorities and roles.
The groups with whom I have chosen to associate reflect my priorities in life, and so their opinions about my future plans matter to me. As I have developed my plans for what comes next, I have talked with many people across each of these networks. The response has been very encouraging. The UU church, for example, places great emphasis on its seven principles. The first and sixth principles, endorsing “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” have encouraged me in applying my skills to address a public health problem afflicting the poor and marginalized population most. Nashville in Harmony commits itself to “using music to build community and create social change.” South Africa has a rich tradition of music (in fact, political parties frequently dance at major events). The mission of Nashville in Harmony is particularly in line with that of the Libertas Choir, which tries to embody the “Rainbow Nation in Harmony.” I have found considerable support for my move in both groups, despite the pain of moving away from so many beloved friends.
I was considerably more worried about the reception of my plans among my colleagues at my current university and in my extended network from conferences in mass spectrometry. Would they feel I was turning my back on my university? Would they feel I was shooting my career in the foot? Again, the response has been better than I had hoped. My department has reaffirmed that I will be missed and thanked me for the role I have played here. Many of my university colleagues have acknowledged that they feel similar stress and frustration at the direction academic science has taken in recent years. My fear that I was the only one melting after receiving unappreciative comments from grant study sections was baseless, after all. I was surprised that some members of my professional network have voiced something akin to envy at my move!
Of course, there’s no social network more personal than family. This may be the hardest permission of them all. I am the only member of my immediate family with a passport, and this move will make time together even more precious. The crime rate in South Africa is a legitimate matter of concern, and my family needs to know that I’m doing all that I can to mitigate that risk. I feel strongly that my new life in South Africa will be a renewal, and this conviction seems to be the one that reassures them. I will not win an endorsement of this move from my family. Instead, my goal is to win acceptance.
Ultimately, I’m an adult, and I am the one who must live with the outcomes from the decisions I make. None of us should think, though, that the networks into which we have woven ourselves are indifferent to our major life decisions. When you discover it is time to make a course correction, I hope that your network will provide as many insights as mine has!