Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Vocational Exhaustion

There's this thing that happens to a lot of people when they hit the mid-career. You look around and think, "is that all there is?" It's not about doubting your own skills, although I've had my share of that. There's the struggles for budget control and the struggles for respect from colleagues and the struggles for the next big idea, and then - once you get beyond all those struggles - things can start to feel old hat. Very "been there, done that, lost the t-shirt already." You ask yourself what's to be done, and yourself answers like this:

It's pretty much the polar opposite of vocational awe (and if you haven't read that excellent article yet, I suggest you stop reading this blog post and instead head over to In The Library With a Lead Pipe right now. It's okay. I'll wait.). You can see librarians/librarians for all their warts and peccadillos, for all the systemic racism and gendered nonsense. It's not burnout, per se, but it it is definitely a point at which you've run out of the optimism that propelled you into the profession and you're wondering what you'll do with the rest of your life.

I've known people who left librarianship at that point, and that was absolutely the right decision for them. I've also known people who stayed where they were and everyone else around them was made all the more miserable for their coworker's misery. When I've hit this wall (and it's happened to me multiple times - vocational exhaustion is not a one-and-done phenomenon), I had a serious talk with myself and found ways forward:
  • Is it librarianship or is it your employer? The last time I had this issue was about 5 years ago, and when I asked myself this question I realized it was definitely where I was working. I took my time and found the right new opportunity, and am so much happier now.
  • Are you putting too much of yourself into librarianship? If you've been reading my blog for even a second, you know how much I harp on the need for work/life balance and choosing librarianship over Librarianship. Spending more time with family or friends or with yourself doing something other than librarian stuff has been the right answer for me time and time again.
  • Are you focusing too much on what's left to do and ignoring your accomplishments? Wow, that to do list can be overwhelming, am I right? I've never in my 6 years of being a director been able to to argue for an increase in funding or staffing, and that kind of admission can make me feel like a failure and like change never happens. But then I look at the students who found their way to my classroom with whom I'm still in touch. I look at the collections I've built. I look at the people whose careers I helped launch.
  • When was the last time you took a real vacation? Not a weekend where I'm still checking my work email or a conference where I'm still consumed with librarianship. Time where I genuinely unplug and stare at things that aren't screens. I'm the worst at this, but I've got some time off coming up.
  • Are there really no more challenges left for you? I'm getting involved with a statewide effort to recruit the next generation of library leaders and foster the growth of people who've recently taken a step into administration, and I'm super excited about it. I'm also reaffirming my commitment to this blog and trying to get new voices to publish here. There are plenty of horizons left for me to conquer, and I bet there are horizons left for you as well.
How about you? For those of you who've faced this hurdle, how did you get over it? 

Credit goes to "Everything Is Awful and I'm Not Okay: questions to ask before giving up" for the form this post took; lots of credit goes to Jim DelRosso who helped me name the phenomenon; and thanks again to Fobazi Ettarh for giving us the term "vocational awe" in the first place - I never would have written this post if not for that article.


  1. Thanks for this. I have certainly struggled with this in my mid-career. As happens to many of us, I was pushed into the management track even though I suspected (correctly) that it wasn't for me. I was fortunate that my employer let me out of supervision (I was seriously considering leaving the profession at that point). What motivates me is gaining new skills and learning, and fortunately there are plenty of opportunities for that in the metadata area, so now I'm focusing on linked data.