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Mar 23, 2019

The false starts and all that Zen

A very common, but largely invisible part of my work is pursuing opportunities for the College that turn out to be dead ends. One recent example: we were told about some decent office space available in another building. I had to go and look, negotiate with to different programs, complete a couple of forms, communicate with Academic Affairs a few times. All in all, perhaps 8-9 hours, maybe a little more of my time plus the time of several other people. The space turned out to be not that great – we were looking at the wrong floor plan. It does not have access to bathrooms in the evenings and has no windows. I can think of several other dead-end projects, some a little longer, others a little shorter. Probably up to 10 percent of my time is wasted that way. For faculty, the closest thing would be applying for a grant and getting a polite rejection letter. You spend all this time, come up with all ideas, write the narrative, estimate the budget, …. and nothing. Can’t even put it on your CV.

Actually, Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School, has called publically for her peers to publish their failure resumes. Hers is quite funny, and one day I will publish mine (a much longer than hers). In my dean’s job, however, only a smaller portion of the false starts has to do with my personal and professional failures that can be overcome. In most cases, it is like the office space story – a small hiccup somewhere else lead to this waste of time. The imperfections in human communications, and glitches in the bureaucratic machinery constantly make our work less than efficient.

It is easy to pretend to be all Zen about it, or say that it is just the cost of doing business. In real life, no one likes to waste time on things that do not work out. The way I tend to do this is to forget as soon as I can, and move on. It is like paying your parking ticket: the faster you get it over with, the better off you are. Mulling over it, assigning blame only makes it last longer.

The false starts are sometimes described as educational experiences. In theory, one learns something from every one of them. In real life, it is not exactly so. The story with the office space has no lesson, for example. Should I have been doubly vigilant, and made sure it is the right work plan? Should I have though to ask about bathrooms? Would I track down the error about the floor plan, to fix a systemic problem? None of these actually makes sense. I’ve learned nothing, because there is nothing to learn. It is just the random noise of the universe, and there is more of it than we all like to believe. It is not sad or tragic, just mildly irritating.

People say that when I get much older, I will grow to enjoy every moment of life, with all the false starts, errors, and random events. Is there a way to learn the trick sooner? Does Zen actually work?


  1. Kristi Garrett8:44 AM

    A very thought-provoking post. Sometimes I hate to think about all the false starts and wrong turns I've taken in my life. Yet, each experience adds skills, insights, expands my networks, and enriches my lived experience. No project, whether it seems to produce a return on investment, is a loss. It's part of the journey!

  2. Your humility is inspiring. Thank you for being so human.