My life as an undergraduate student conjures up a wide array of memories and emotions, largely entangled with the struggles and joys of navigating both the university and young adulthood worlds. During my undergraduate degree, like a rite of Canadian passage, I saw what would be my first of many concerts by The Tragically Hip, the Canadian iconic band from Kingston, Ontario. At the time, the shaggy-haired and quirky Gord Downie, The Hip’s charismatic frontman, captivated the university audience crammed into the local watering hole, with exaggerated body moves and poet-like commentary on life. Like many other young Canadians in the crowded room, I related to the band’s songs that captured living in a small town, denim jackets, long hair, and getting kicked when they were down.
Fast forward 30 years – I’m not so young anymore, but much to my younger self’s chagrin, I am still trying to navigate adulthood; and yes, still trying to navigate the university world, although this time as a recently tenured associate professor. Still a Tragically Hip fan, I continue to relate to the band’s more “grown-up” lyrics where they write about being tired as f***, the fleeting nature of life, and intentions to make that call.
Just over a year ago, the announcement of Downie’s inoperable and terminal brain cancer, launched outcries from saddened fans, cancer fundraising campaigns, and a Canadian farewell tour where the band could connect with each other, their music, and their fans one last time. Walking home from one of the band’s final Toronto shows, prompted by the host of emotions unearthed by the show and by Downie, I reflected heavily on the past decade of my life. The beloved and compelling poet and singer, only a little older than me, thrust me into facing my own mortality and the choices I made while on the path to tenure. The Hip’s music was always in the backdrop of my life in academia, like a soundtrack; and the fact that the soundtrack would change, made me realize (as cliché as it sounds) that life is short.
Why this piece?
As I watched the band quietly exit the stage, leaving the lone frontman with head raised strong, staring into the crowd of cheering and adoring fans, something tugged at my core. It appeared that Downie was truly savouring the moment, as he made his way to all sides of the stage, quietly acknowledging the loud love cast his way.
For days, I couldn’t shake the image of Downie fully engaged, embracing that special moment with head raised high, juxtaposed against the unsolicited advice I received shortly after I obtained my doctorate and secured a tenure-track position as an assistant professor. I also considered the advice I wish I would have received early in my career in higher education, spurring me to write this piece. For academics on both sides of the coveted tenure title, I simply offer my own single piece of unsolicited advice:
Dare to raise your head
After congratulating me on my new assistant professorship, a senior university administrator I met at a conference emphatically declared:
“Don’t stop. Keep going. Too many junior faculty take too much time getting their research trajectories moving. Keep your head down and keep going at the doctorate pace. Don’t slow down. Keep your head down and in six years, you’ll be tenured and then you can relax.”
I worked hard, with my head down. Like many individuals reading this, I devoted a large portion of my life to research, teaching, and service, all while sacrificing moments I might have embraced if I raised my head a little more often than I did over the years to “pay attention on purpose.”
The pressure of academia – either self or externally imposed – made me choose work over other non-work moments. I based my happiness on achieving work-related goals by convincing myself I would be happy when I: finish my doctorate; obtain a prestigious grant; secure a tenure track position; get tenure; take a sabbatical; and the list goes on in the endless fill-in-the-blank-to-happiness journey. While I did engage in some mindfulness practices, looking back, I realize I did not fully embrace the spirit of mindfulness and continued to work in ways that countered personal happiness. It seemed to never be a good enough time to train for that half-marathon, commit to personal relationships, visit my aging aunt, or just take the weekend off fully, with good friends while leaving my phone and laptop turned off in my bag.
After submitting my tome of evidence to support my tenure application, I lifted my head a little, and began to see the proverbial light at the end of the tenure tunnel. By the time I finally raised my head more fully, however, I realized that I made many choices that were not always conducive to the elusive and pervasive quest for life/work balance, and to my overall well-being. My personal relationships suffered, my level of physical fitness declined, and my biological window for having children slammed shut.
I don’t regret the choices I made entirely, but I do regret not taking “that” weekend off from finding the “perfect” course readings in preparation for my class so that I could watch my niece score her first soccer goal. I do regret spending hours beating myself up after reading an accepted-with-minor-revisions manuscript marked with comments that were borderline offensive and made me feel terrible, rather than attending yoga class or going for a run. I do regret not devoting more time and energy to building deeper personal relationships.
I am not suggesting that individuals become rogue faculty members and ignore fellow colleagues and students, drop all commitments, and jeopardize tenure. Rather, I only suggest that we consider what might happen if we take even five minutes to simply sit in quiet for a few minutes each day inhaling and exhaling deeply, moving away from our thoughts, or take time away from the pile of work that will never go away, and focus simply on eating lunch.
No dress rehearsal
After witnessing Downie savour his lone moment on stage surrounded by loving fans, I wondered what I would feel or do if I suddenly learned that I had limited time left in my life. Would I have waited so long to finally give myself a break, practice self-compassion, and savour more moments in everyday life? Or would I have tirelessly pushed forward striving for excellence in teaching, research, and service, while sacrificing the moments?
Walking home in the melancholy afterglow of my last Hip concert, I vowed to raise my head more frequently and more courageously. After a long and stressful road to getting to this tenured place, I would have welcomed more urgent reminders and reasons to pay attention on purpose to my own well-being, practice more compassion, breathe, and raise my head to simply be more mindful and contemplative — more present — in everyday life.
In the wise words of The Tragically Hip, this is “no dress rehearsal. This is our life.”
Diana Petrarca is an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.