Thursday, 20 September 2012

Tides, travel and travail


There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
(Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene III)

This, probably much-over-quoted passage has been on my mind a lot recently. Perhaps I remain enough of an Englit type to default to Shakespeare in times of uncertainty. Or perhaps it's because I've been thinking about my mentor Wil, a Shakespeare scholar, who died almost exactly 10 years ago. (I do begin to wonder whether I am doomed to mislay mentors once a decade at about this time. But I digress, and I have barely started). In any case I've been pondering the whole life, career, happiness, motivation thing a lot recently, and my conclusion is this, to quote another fine piece of drama, Housman's (actually very funny) Fragment of Greek Tragedy, 'Life is uncertain'. As a result knowing when to catch a flowing tide, is, it seems to me, vital.

The last few years have been like being on that full sea: mad, hectic, exhausting; sometimes for positive reasons, sometimes very much the opposite. It's hard to believe how much my life, especially professionally, has changed. In January 2009, I was an average Senior Lecturer, quietly doing her DH thing and keeping out of people's way. Since then I have become a professor, vice dean, and head of the UCL Department of Information Studies, not to mention serving on more committees, panels, boards and working parties than I dare list. Perhaps the greatest, and most amazing change is that I have been partly responsible for establishing the wonderful UCLDH, complete with a successful Masters course, lots of PhD students, and award-wining research projects. I could not have imagined this in January 2009; yet here I am now, the co-director of a thriving centre of which I could not be more proud.

Looking back, I almost find myself thinking 'How did that happen?' It seems too implausible, but maybe it was just that flood tide running. It felt like the time to say yes, to try things, to work harder than I could ever imagine possible, to establish some new things, mend, tweak, prod or restore others, and to do it all at about 90 miles an hour, because it seemed that there was no alternative speed. Everything had to be done now, if not before. Looking back it seems almost as if it happened to someone else; rather as you sometimes think you remember doing something, then recall that it was in a dream, a movie or a novel. It seems vivid, but you know it can't have been real. Too many unlikely things seem to have happened in that time, both good and bad, to be credible, and yet they really did take place.

As wonderful as all this was, though, it was equally exhausting. I took on too much, wore myself out and got far too close to an edge I didn't really want to peer over. I took a lot of time off over the summer, and realised that I cannot sustain the pace I'd been living and working at for the last few years. In any case, I get the feeling that other things are changing too. That particular tide has run out, life is in a different phase and different things are called for: not so much set-up and firefighting as consolidation and gradual development, achieved at a pace that's closer to the speed limit. This will still require plenty of hard work: when flying an aeroplane, if you don't move forward you stall and crash, so stagnation is not on the menu either. But then again, if you push the envelope too hard, the wings fall off and by last summer I swear I could hear some ominous creaking.

But when you have been used to living on adrenaline, how can you motivate yourself to move forward at a gentler pace, and how to you know what to aim for? I am still grappling with that problem. I am not really sure what I am going to do in future or where I am going, career-wise. I had a map, but I've used it, visited the places I wanted to go, and some I didn't even know existed and come to the edge of the page: it's all terra incognita from here onwards. I can't actually spot any dragons, but neither can I see an obvious path to follow, or landmarks to aim at; or maybe I can see several and don't know which to pick. I can't decide where I'd like the next tide to take me, even if I am able to catch it.

In the summer, I talked to some wise people about this peculiar situation and one of them said 'Well, why don't you just enjoy what you have achieved, and the fact of being where you are for a while.' I realised he was right, and that realisation brought great relief. After all that rushing about, maybe it's time to slow down, look around and enjoy the scenery a bit: to reflect on a hectic journey, successfully completed and be grateful to have arrived. I never intended to end up in this exact place, but in the end, it seems like a reasonable destination, at least until I decide where I'm going next. If I take time to sit still, look out of the window, and notice the details, the view begins to look surprisingly attractive after all.

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