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C2C Digital Magazine Spring-Summer 2022

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Musing about work mid-career

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University

Recently, I watched a video-streamed year-end retirement celebration at my university, for the first time ever.  I was hoping to catch sight of some of my former colleagues as they went on to new adventures.  

I was touched by the graciousness of the school president and the provost, who each provided kind words to the retiring staff.  Looking on to the ceremony in the actual room were those retiring, and there were some of us Zooming in.  The small awards and the words capped years (decades for some) of investment into the university.  These school officials were respectful and light-hearted and professional.  

There were shared kudos from supervisors and peers.  There were light jokes. There were no masks apparent on the video.   

The ceremony was a culmination of a lifetime of work and contributions.  Some retirees did not show up, perhaps due to the pandemic, perhaps due to other reasons.  Indeed, many have been separating from the university voluntarily, and in other cases, involuntarily.  

The ceremony was not only signaling to the retirees appreciation for their work but also of encouragement to current ones.  During this event, I engaged in a personal reflection about work.  

Figure 1.  Thinking about Work (by Pexels on Pixabay)

The centrality of work to a satisfying life

Work has a central role in making a meaningful life for many of us.  It is core to our senses of social identity.  It affirms our senses of social value.  And for those for whom work does not feel that relevant, it does still take up a large amount of time as a percentage of a lifetime.  

What makes work satisfying for each of us likely varies.  I like having a mix of changing work projects.  I like managing projects and ensuring that they come in legal, to quality, and at or under budget.  I like constant learning, and I like “hard problems” and “tough challenges.”  I like working with people with different personalities, but I also like quiet work times when it’s just me and the research and the creating and the testing.  I like putting software programs through their paces and finding out what the tools enable, and I especially like making software do what it was not intended to do (like make art).  I like when AI gets befuddled, such as with automated alt-texting when the AI thinks one type of visual is something else altogether.  I have a strong internal locus of control. I like engaging my own decision-making.  I like learning by myself (autodidaxy), and I also like learning from others. I like chasing money and supporting grant projects.  

“Foxes” and “hedgehogs”

The debates about whether to be a “fox” with a broad knowledge of many things or a “hedgehog” with a deep knowledge of a few or even singular things has been much debated.  On the one hand, if one is building leadership expertise, hedgehog-like expertise developed over time may be the thing, according to Level 5 leader Jim Collins.  But when it comes to prediction in complex spaces, like politics, Philip Tetlock finds foxes more effective. [In prediction, controlled cynicism works more effectively than our cultural sunny optimism.]  

My sense of people is that they are a mix of both in many cases.  In a workplace, a hedgehog can become the local expert and beyond; a fox may rise in leadership because they skim the surface of various knowledge.  Indeed, some have argued that people are of one of two types over time, in a profession.  

Of the two, I am more diverse hedgehog than a single-minded fox.  I also like the quote attributed to Albert Einstein that goes: “The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”  Where the crowd goes is not that interesting to me.  

Different work in different organizations

In my personal retrospective, I have worked in public education, in corporations, in non-profits, and in family businesses.  Each different location taught me different things.  I was privileged to experience different leadership.  (My favorite one by far was my first supervisor in a nonprofit organization.  My remembering ethical, kind, humble, reasonable, rational, honest, caring, and effective supervisors makes the lesser ones—the very wretched ones—more bearable.)  I invested fully in every place where I worked.  As one of my long-time friends observed, the larger the organization, the more interesting the challenges and the less the possibility of stagnation.  Also, I know to advance my skills in every way possible, and I know to take joy where I can get it.  

Years ago, I was a tenured professor.  I left the “golden handcuffs” and walked away from guaranteed work because teaching had become overly familiar to me.  I knew the “four walls.”  I could look out into the future decades and see what the work would generally entail, and I preferred some mystery, some absence of safety.  Perhaps, too, I wanted a sense of better fit with the local politics.  So, several years after I’d earned tenure, I walked away from a job that was a “perfect” fit for my skills and interests…at the time.  Certainly, in my years as a tenured professor, I had changed.  And I also realized what the limits would be for my ambitions related to research and publishing.  

Recently, I was head-hunted for a job that I could be good at.  And the pay would have been higher than what I have currently.  But the work would not use my full skillset.  And it would mean I would have to give up some of my other dreams.  I decided not to pursue that opportunity even as it would move me out of a difficult local context.  Change is not intimidating, but evaluating a position for its potential does inform on whether there is an actual fit or not.  

Building a body of work

Each project has to succeed for the local context, but it should also include learning for future work.  Likewise, I work in the here-and-now and the short-term, but I also am looking at the long-term.  If I am only doing work that is familiar, without anything new, that would not be positive.  

When I look back at my career so far, I do regret some of the educational choices I made and some work ones as well.  But it’s one of those things where my imagination cannot project what would have happened had I made different choices.  This sort of thinking is non-productive.  

I do realize that time moves very quickly.  It can take a lifetime to achieve even small objectives.  There are costs to investing in particular directions.  

I’ve also learned that decisions that were “light” at the time they were made may well have long-term repercussions. A full skillset is built incrementally over time.

Handling work-based challenges

In general, with clear objectives, reasonable folks, sufficient technologies and information, any work can be achieved to standards.  There will likely be a lot of learning along the way.  There will be improvements.  In face-to-face presentations, there may be small to large audiences (0 to 70+).  In digital leave-behinds, there will sometimes be small audiences (25+) and then much larger ones (14,000+).  

Since my teen years, I have been publishing professionally.  I know what it feels like to receive a rejection (in form letters, in form emails).  But I also know that the rejections lessen over time, and there is an inversion point at which the rejections diminish and are replaced by acceptances.  

Where have tougher workplace challenges come from?  Interestingly enough, in most cases, it is not the actual work, but it’s the people in the workplace that can make or break the work experience.  More often than not, it’s the people who do not follow the ethical rules of a profession and try to manipulate for some personal or professional gain.  It’s those who try to withhold resources required for work.  

People are not always on their best behavior.  A colleague bragged to me that he had sabotaged another colleague by making some changes to his codebase.  A different colleague retracted a $10 a year funding for a URL for a shared group project that benefitted her bureaucratic unit, but her direct supervisor had moved on, so the years of investment into the project was deemed unworthy of protecting.  Another colleague became irate when I was holding a Zoom with one of our mutual colleagues, and she thought I was too loud in cubicle-land.  There are more difficult issues related to ethical challenges and discrimination, which are beyond the purview of this piece.  

We all work in social spaces.  We all have a responsibility to preserve social relationships while enabling the work to progress.  A lot of people have calls on one’s life, and some are legitimate calls, and a subset of those may result to one’s good or well-being.  Faculty want to collaborate on research where one does all the heavy lifting, but they take first-author position, for example.  People all have their own gravitational pull, and one has to decide whether or not to be entranced and brought in. 

Figure 2.  Work Harder, Work Smarter (by Pexels on Pixabay)


Time sinks and dead ends

For all the defined objectives, there are many time sinks and dead ends.  One is going to altmetrics as a measure of one’s effectiveness in work.  Real positive effects are one thing, but social likes and popularity are something else.  I can flap around for attention, but that draws away energy more than anything positive towards actually advancing work.  Each of us can be lured by any number of bright and shiny distractions.  

I say that we need a stalkers’ patience to achieve gains to one’s skillset.  And in the real, it takes a lot more years to actually see results.  For example, it took some 16 years before an instrument I made was directly used by another person who reached out to let me know.  (The instrument was published out in 2005, and the researcher reached out to me in 2021.)  Every endeavor has some promise, and that promise is either fulfilled or not…at some point in time.  Sometimes, self-promotion can help, but often, a lot of other factors have to come into play for a work to be used.  

Another common “dead end” involves resting on laurels.  Over the pandemic, I made it a point to give away my library collection of publications to several libraries, with the rest dissolved into a local bookstore in another town.  Too often, I see others who spend a lot of time mulling their own past achievements, to the detriment of any accomplishment into the present.  One never truly arrives, but the striving goes on into old age.  The respective disciplines are constantly evolving, and it is important to strive to be relevant.  


Every so often, it makes sense to re-evaluate one’s work situation to see if the fundamentals are still working.  

In the Great Resignation, during the SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 pandemic, it sounds like many engaged in such considerations and took action accordingly.  Such considerations also occur during smaller scale considerations, perhaps based on personal life decisions, perhaps during and after workplace crises.  If the fundamentals no longer work, one has a range of options, both local and farther afield.  Of course, where there were a lot of opportunities before and a lot of head-hunting activities, perhaps there are fewer ones now with less government-supported liquidity and higher interest rates to tamp down runaway inflation.  

Regardless, the need for meaningful work is ever-present.  

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  Her email is  
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