Liminal Thoughts

I have held the same job for the last seven years, with a company where I have worked for almost twenty years. This week is the start of a new position, so I am thinking about transition and change. Pardon a deviation from my stories series and permit me to chew on this topic for a moment.

As a history major, one of the ideas emphasized by our professors was the illusion of causality. Again and again in the events of the past, modern interpretations string together thoughts, actions, and outcomes in ways that link them as part of an intentional sequence, yet often the plan that the historian teases out of the past is a fiction, a modern fabrication that imposes a pattern on a series, much as the eye conjures shapes in clouds.

Years ago my undergraduate thesis focused on Eisenhower. One of the stories often told about Ike, which may or may not be true for all I know, related a pair of sayings he would use with his staff. If they were being too deliberative, he would tell them, “planning is essential, but plans are worthless.” Conversely, if they had not performed what he considered to be adequate preparations, he would chide them that, “plans may be worthless, but planning is essential.” I choose to believe he did say these things, as they fit well with many other stories about him as a leader and as a planner.

I mention this of course because another quirk of the human mind is to impose patterns of causality and intention on one’s own memories and actions, summoning up a thematic arc where there was in fact none. As I look at the evolution of my working life, I occasionally find myself leaning on this narrative crutch. Twelve years ago, a bureaucratic squabble in my firm led to the dissolution of my department. In the scramble to find a new spot, I moved from a planning job well suited to my skills and temperament to a new position that had me managing capital contracts. While not my cup of tea, this nonetheless taught me a lot and challenged me in a range of new ways – managing vendors and timelines and many millions of dollars. Unfortunately, we ran out of capital, meaning no more contracts to manage. Some of my work in that role had been equipment performance analysis, and that aspect of my work evolved into the basis for the work I have done for the last seven years. This is exactly the sort of transition that could, in retrospect, look like a carefully executed progression reflecting planning by both myself and my company, but of course it was an entirely ad hoc, somewhat fortuitous, leap.

The fortuitous parts reflected the department head for whom I worked, who is a good and conscientious manager. I also learned that despite many years of having math teachers convince me, very effectively, that math was dull and that I was no good at it, it turns out that I make an adept statistician, corralling arrays of data and teasing meaning from them in ways that offered genuine insights to the operational side of the business. The less fortuitous part of that work reflected the abysmal state of IT in my firm, where data are siloed in various systems with conflicting definitions and one must put far more work into gathering the data than in interpreting it and learning from it. I fecklessly inherited a report that was forty pages of cut-and-paste madness, a collage of inputs gathered from more than a dozen colleagues and systems that took several days to assemble every month. The effort invested in compiling this document always seemed out of proportion to any value obtained from it, and as time went on this odious report came to haunt me like some Dickensian specter.

After almost two years of this being the case, the level of dread I felt for tackling this each month snowballed, demanding real discipline on my part to drag myself in and face this over and over. I do realize in a world where far too many do not have work that the horror of a monthly PowerPoint is in fact a minor one in the scheme of things. I have always been grateful for my work, the associated compensation, and the security it provides to my family. Still, I aspire to work that is meaningful and productive, even if I am not necessarily changing the world. I also found it increasingly frustrating to have my work revolve around skills that do not reflect what I am best at, or really what I enjoy. As gratifying as it was to open Excel or Tableau and make the numbers do my bidding, I wondered over and over why would anyone task me with analysis, when it is writing where I feel most naturally and closely engaged.

My work over the past few years has brought into contact with a member of a department where I worked briefly twenty years ago, and I have been able to supply him with various data and analyses that helped him to make the points he needed to as part of our legislative affairs efforts. When this man’s most recent work brought us together his last fall, we had occasion to talk a bit more about what he and I do most of the time, and the conversation suggested several ways in which I might be well suited to be of assistance to him.

Sure enough, a job posting appeared several weeks back seeking a writer with industry knowledge and experience in data analysis. I applied, I was interviewed, the offer was made and rapidly accepted, and now I am embarked on a new set of tasks and challenges. I am immensely excited about the change, gratified to be selected and proud to be able to contribute in a way that seems more meaningful to me. The new job entails a harder commute than the old job, and I lose my large private office in exchange for a goldfish-bowl cube, but the trade off still leans heavily towards the new position.

As is always the case, I do not know where these experiences will lead, but I am struck but how much it looks, in retrospect, like there was some coherent plan in place to bring me to where I am. My undergraduate and graduate studies, the various positions I have held over the years – it is not hard to weave a story in which these reflect the execution of a carefully considered campaign. Having lived through all the moments of doubt, indecision, and regret that occasionally accompanied these steps, I know all too well how incorrect such a conclusion would be.

I wonder, then, how to convey to a young person getting started on a career the reassurance I find from this? I have spent years feeling troubled by how uncertain I am about what I want to do when I “grow up”, and yet time and again I see fragments of an underlying pattern emerge, usually out of the corner of me eye and just for an instant, but they are there. A recurring theme in what I write here on this nearly dormant web site/blog/online journal is the difficulty of meaningfully explaining the passage of time to someone young. It would have done no good to tell me, at 22, that time would help me stitch together the accumulated experiences of the next two decades into a form that would appear intentional, and yet how reassuring I would have found that if some kind soul had pulled me aside to tell me just that via some magic incantation I would have understood.

Of course, I do not know what lies before me, how long I will stick with my new job, or what direction I will move next. Hopefully when the time comes it will also look like a natural progression, a well plotted advance as part of a larger campaign. Perhaps it will even be an inflection point, and if so, I cross my fingers that it will inflect cheerfully. All of these fulminations bring me back to a couplet I first read in a high school English class in 1988. It comes from a 1967 translation by Marie Borroff of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the words have been etched into my memory since the first time I read them, preparing for Hugh Atkins’s in-class discussion: A year passes apace, and proves ever new; First things and final conform but seldom.

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