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Independence Every Day

I woke up early this morning, Independence Day, because I don’t have any goals.

I don’t mean I don’t have goals for today; I do indeed. I will make Green Goddess vegetable dip, I will limit myself to one small plate of treats at the pool party, I will perform one household task from the list of Things to be Done, and I will finish a collection of Jonathan Franzen essays that I would be reading this moment except it is under a sleeping cat.

No, I mean I don’t have goals professionally. This came up because a friend, hearing that a number of job interviews Were To and Have Been Taken, asked me if I was “ready” for the the job interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

First, perhaps this is an error, but aside from reading up on the organization and its personnel and asking around about the principles, I don’t prep for job interviews, beyond worrying about what to wear and strategizing about foods to avoid at interview luncheons (anything red and liquid, to start with, though I will heed one friend’s suggestion to avoid crispy tacos). So I’ve probably flubbed that question several times in the last two months alone, and have routinely flubbed it in the past for every job I’ve had since entering LibraryLand in 1991.

I also assiduously avoid coaching myself with lists of questions before the fact (unless the organization provides them as “pre-work,” of course). I skimmed that list, and it would be very helpful if I were interviewing someone, but if I stayed up prepping myself on 121 questions, I would sound canned, and that’s worse than being temporarily stumped. If I can’t handle a simple question extemporaneously to an interview group’s satisfaction, then that’s a big clue it’s a bad match on both sides. You hire me, you get me, the extemporaneous, uncoached, unplugged version.

But back to goals. It’s reasonable to think beyond where you are right now to places you’d like to work and accomplishments you’d like under your belt. But I know people who live their careers in the future tense, always thinking about how they are going to get to the job that puts the right title on their door. I don’t see that as working toward a professional goal. I see it as medicating your life, bargaining away your time and soul in exchange for the chance to be the [fill in the blank]. Most of these people are pretty boring and a little sad, as is to be expected of a monochromatic life.

(I remember one place a few years back where the game to be played was “let’s brag about who spent the most time working on Christmas Day.” I was a real spoilsport for saying that I left early on Christmas Eve to wrap presents, buy food, and hunt for a bottle of Drambuie.)

I wonder, too, when I see people whose lives are completely taken over by their career goals, if that isn’t a way to avoid facing questions such as “Is there room for love in my life” or “What is my relationship with God” or even “Do I really like myself?” I also know that when you get to be the [fill in the blank], it’s not going to fill that hole in your soul created by the time you didn’t spend with friends or family, the church services you missed, the gardens you never planted. You never get that time back.

(Note that I’m not arguing against working hard and doing a good job. I’m talking about perspective and proportion — the difference between burning the midnight oil on a crucial project versus burning the midnight oil because you don’t know what else to do with your life.)

You also can’t do a great job at your current gig if you’re constantly thinking about where you are going next. Your decisions have to be driven by more than “I want to be a [fill in the blank].” Despite the illusion of busy-ness, career-zombies expend so much energy on themselves in their work-narcissism that despite all the hours they claim to put into their jobs, a lot of that effort is all about them. I’ve seen people so absorbed with their own careers that they neglected the needs of those they worked with — or even trampled on those needs, taking all the plum opportunities and soaking up so much of the organization’s resources that there wasn’t enough left for others.

I stopped having grand career goals about twelve years ago, following a series of life events that made it clear my priorities had been badly awry — events, not extraordinary but still personally hard, that included  serious illness of a loved one, death of a beloved, aged pet, and disillusionment with a cherished professional goal that up close, turned out to be meaningless. I also had a renewed sense of the joy and bittersweet brevity of life with those we love.

Once I stopped having goals and built more balance in my life, I started having fun, and I became a much better librarian. In the last decade-plus, I have spent far less time worrying about my “career” and a lot more time thinking about how to improve things wherever I work. Wandering across the country in family moves, I directed a small, special library for the EPA; I was a rural library director; I was a systems librarian for a nice-sized suburban library; I ran a respected, state-funded web portal and took it through some major transitions. If I had an implicit goal, it was to leave every place better than when I arrived, and I would like to think I have batted a thousand in that regard.

So where do I see myself in five years? I don’t know. Probably right here, in Tallahassee, if you want the literal truth. The real question is how — not where — others see me in five years. Will I be seen as a team member who works hard, does a good job, plays well with others, and has fun moments? Will I have at least a couple of victories under my belt? Will I have helped others reach their goals? Will the place — and librarianship — have been better for my presence? Because it doesn’t matter where I go next or what my title is; what truly matters is that the collective answer to those questions should be an emphatic “yes.”

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