How my career was like a broken pan

I wrote a version of this composition a few months ago and published it on Medium. I think I earned 49 cents that month thanks mainly to this piece, my only curated work. Shortly thereafter, I realized that perhaps that Medium wasn’t for me. I saw no traffic and little curation. I didn’t seem to have the voice, age, or interests that they were looking for. Moreover, there were fewer and fewer articles that interested me on that platform. I wasn’t into reading about tech, sexual affairs, or ten steps to earning $10k a month on Medium. I decided to start my own blog, where I didn’t feel like I was trying to write for the platform, only to be ignored on the platform. I get that from work already. I didn’t need to experience it in my free time as well.

A Broken Cast Iron Pan is a Perfect Analogy for my Career

Employees at my workplace are rewarded with length-of-service awards every five years. It’s not a particularly high honor, just recognition that you’ve survived another half-decade with the outfit. There is a small ceremony, usually tacked onto the end of a larger meeting where everyone has gathered into a conference room. I recently was presented with my 30-year award, along with a gift. Recipients choose their gift before the ceremony and I selected a cast iron cook set — handsome and functional.

The package was heavy and carrying it to and from the car was a workout. At home, I opened the box and carefully removed the cardboard inserts between each piece: Dutch oven, lids, 12-inch skillet, each one engraved with our workplace symbol. As I pulled out one of the smaller pans, a piece fell from the box and hit the floor. It was a panhandle with a chunk of the body still attached. Part of my gift for my 30-years with the outfit was damaged. It was cast iron, solid but brittle. And it was broken.

I picked the handle up from the floor. Naturally, I was disappointed that my gift was in fragments. But later, I thought that receiving a broken pan was perhaps a fitting tribute to my research career. Of promises made and broken.

Crack in the cast iron

I realize that I’m not the first person to be sorely disappointed at the closing stage of their career. Mine started as my dream job. I wrote in my college alum newsletter that I could not imagine doing anything else. I got to work in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. I would be contributing to their protection. I directed the research to engage in. I had copious resources. I felt valued — and solid.

And then…not so much.

Things changed slowly at first. Two new heads of the program came and went, one removed for his violent temper and incompetency. Neither was particularly interested in my research, and resources were funneled elsewhere (mainly toward their projects). I was then re-directed to work from an office in a different city, requiring me to uproot my family and move. Facilities promised as part of that relocation were not available once I arrived. When I brought this up and tried to force the issue, it made matters worse. I was deemed “difficult” for wanting space. I ended up squatting in other labs because I had no space of my own. It wasn’t until five years after my move that I finally gained space to continue my work.

I don’t think that I ever recovered from this initial blow and onset of the crack.

The next years were a series of lulls and downs; there were no “ups.” The copious resources dried up and work became piecemeal. I worked on two new projects, each for three years, and never saw a dime of additional funds. I lost research dollars in those years. I walked away from these opportunities because I could no longer afford to work on them off the backs of other projects. But the damage was done and I needed to salvage six years of lost research time.

The crack continued to grow.

Broken

At this point in the analogy, the pan has broken and the handle is lying on the floor. It is no longer functional. I’m now walking away from my career at a point when most researchers begin to enjoy themselves and their work. They are settled, comfortable with their contributions and place in the field. I am neither settled nor comfortable.

I’m leaving not because I no longer care, but because I still care so intensely. I want to continue, but feel grossly ineffective. My work is unsatisfying and nearly impossible to do — mainly from absurd limitations imposed by a now toxic work environment. But more importantly, I am beyond burned out. I am opting for early retirement because I too have broken into pieces.

Picking up the pieces

I suppose the next step is to pick up the pieces of both the pan and me. Neither of us is useful for our original intent, and it would take some serious remolding or gluing to put us back together.

It’s best to replace the pan — and for me to do something else.

I look at my career path and think about how I could have done things differently to avoid those initial and severe blows causing the first cracks. I would advise others in similar situations to be fiercely protective. Of yourself. Your time. Of resources. This isn’t easy in many fields, and it may be difficult to realize the detrimental effects of those blows at the time they are dealt. We want to “get along” and are encouraged to be “team players.” Unfortunately, this often leaves us vulnerable when we give up too much for the team. I’ve learned that good team players primarily benefit only the leader of the team.

Once the crack starts, it’s a short time to breakage. It’s not a point that any of us wants to reach.

Photo by Helinton Fantin on Unsplash

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