May 31, 2013

Uncertainty and Justification

After an adrift few weeks post unplugged sabbatical, I feel more centered and focused. My creative energy is spent on a happy task: the baccalaureate address I was asked to give during commencement weekend (thank you class of 2013!). I'm enjoying the celebratory end-of-year events, which also celebrate my own last weeks at Lawrence.

My decision to leave academics, tenure, and my PhD training is still mysterious, surprising, and perhaps refreshing to many. Even as the news sinks in, there's always the question: what will you do next? It's natural for people to be curious. I understand and in fact anticipate the question. But people seem uncomfortable with my answer: I don't know. 

Often, the conversation goes like this...
Curious Person: What will you do next?
Me: I don't know.
[Blank stare from curious person.]
Me: I'm purposefully making space to not know. First I must feel what it's like not to be an academic, so my horizons expand and I get in touch with what I really want to do next.
Curious person: But you must have some idea? Some inkling?
Me: No. 
Curious person: Well, what do you like to do?
Me: Okay, I enjoy writing and I'll give that some time and energy, but who knows what will happen. That's not necessarily what I'm "going to do next" for my profession.
[This is often when the person inserts what she thinks I'd be good at: life coach, pilates teacher, world traveler, etc.]
Me: What's great about my situation is I still get a paycheck through the end of August. So I have paid space to make choices authentic to me.

I don't mind having this conversation. People are curious; humans have difficulty with uncertainty. I understand all the underlying mechanisms, and I'm happy to talk through my personal process. But here's the unnecessary justification: I'm still paid through the end of August. When those words escape my mouth, I know my true self has left the building; I'm justifying my existence via my paycheck. Money = worthiness. (Ugh.) 

I'm working hard to hear my authentic voice over the persistent yelling of ego. Yet it's not only about listening; it's also about speaking my truth. Right now my truth is I don't know. I want to pursue activities that bring me creative joy; I want to work hard on creative projects; I want to stay open to opportunities. And at the same time I really want to not know. This is very unsettling to ego--ego wants me to know (right this moment) how I'll earn money in September. Interestingly, the negative reaction from ego means I'm on exactly the right path: not knowing, staying creative, connecting with people, centering myself, exploring new territory. Often times knowing-something-for-sure separates us from creativity, authenticity, and freedom. 

So dear blog readers, here's something I know for sure: I don't know.


  1. It's good not to know. It seems that Society so much wants to know why: why did you quit? why do you not know why? We demand an explanation when sometimes the best answer IS "I don't know". Continue staying brave, Joy, the answer will come.

  2. Thank you for sharing Joy! The advantage of not knowing is that there is still so much possible: the world is waiting for you with so many opportunities to choose from and you are the blessed one who gets the chance to open new doors. Enjoy this stage: I am with you on this path as I am seeking as well, not knowing what I'll be doing when my health conditions will be better. I have never been as creative, enthusiastic and motivated before :) Have an awesome weekend!

  3. PS: especially love the smallest photos: they speak to me because of their size and because of the play with focus and light.

  4. katie and elke: thanks for your support and understanding. your words are a lovely balm.

  5. People are curious because the life you're leaving had so much influenced young minds. Not all professors are created equally. You were among the best partly because of that searching quality of yours. You're a special voice.

    Joy, not knowing is one thing and something many people relate to. However, "not wanting to know" is something completely different (even if only for a time). Those are words of privilege. Your safety net allows you to savor the journey.

    For most people, "searching" has to find it's moments, in between the demands of a more traditional path and from their perspective your choice is curious in deed.

    1. thanks for this honest comment, wendy. i agree: my safety net allows me to savor the journey. although i'm not sure "savor" is always the word (sometimes it's "struggle" :)). the point of my post wasn't a criticism of others--i completely understand the curiosity. it was more about my own internal journey (which is much more judgmental than anyone else could be).

  6. "Whereas science and creative mathematics are essentially and necessarily tentative, uncertain and open-ended, the traditions of elementary school teaching in many instances are authoritative, definite, absolute, and certain.

    "Such a view is incompatible with science, with mathematics -- or, for that matter, with nearly any serious body of thought. In fact many questions have no answer, some questions have many (equally good) answers, and some questions have approximate answers but no perfect answers. The "tolerance of ambiguity" that is required of anyone who would see the world realistically is a severe demand for some teachers.

    "It should be emphasized that the difficulty here is with some teachers, not with children. Children know that they live with incompleteness and uncertainty; scientists know that no other state is available to living human beings. Unfortunately, teachers have all too often been taught that every question has exactly one right answer, and that the child is entitled to know what it is -- or, perhaps, should even be required to know what it is."

    Robert B. Davis

    1. Thanks for sharing these important, insightful words. Yes, yes, yes!