On “Career Advancement”

It was a striking moment of cognitive dissonance for me. I was at a conference and saw David Wiley – well known as a scholar and professor – sitting behind a booth in the trade show. And I realized there’s a perspective where the transition from academic to entrepreneur is an advancement in career. I will probably never understand this way of thinking, but in the Land of Opportunity south of the Canadian border, apparently it holds true. (Stephen Downes)

I’ve been reflecting on this comment almost constantly since reading it last week. Suffice it to say, it has prompted many feelings. I’ll try to be brief here.

In 2012 I was having a pretty good career as academic careers go. I loved teaching and did it fairly well. I had tenure. I had received grants, published papers, won awards, given keynote talks at conferences around the globe, etc. I was deeply integrated into, and in some ways a leader of, a community forming around an emerging discipline (open education). I had some momentum and my career was heading in a positive direction. However, I was also coming to understand that there wasn’t a way to make the next impact I felt I needed to make while staying on that path. (Yes, there was plenty of additional impact I could have made on that path. Just not the kind of impact I felt called to make next.)

The decision to leave my university job at the end of 2012 and co-found Lumen Learning was most certainly not “an advancement in career” – it was, in many ways, walking away from a somewhat established / quite promising career to start over, doing something that was completely new to me. This change was not about – could not have been about – advancing my career. It was about doing work I felt compelled to do.

And though it has been far harder than I thought it would be, and for reasons completely different than I expected, it was absolutely the right decision. I love working at Lumen. The work we are doing, and the team we’re building, and the impact we’re having are more rewarding than I ever imagined they could be. And it just keeps getting better – there are amazing things in our future!

I know some people from my “former life” don’t see it, and that’s ok. I’m not doing this work for them.

There have been many armchair quarterbacks who have felt the need to explain to me everything they believe I’m doing wrong, including a list of reasons why I should do things the way that they prefer to see them done instead. And that’s fine. They’re welcome to their opinions.

And there are those who have supported and encouraged me in this demanding, exhausting, invigorating, and amazing new phase of my professional life. And I will never be able to sufficiently express my depth of gratitude to you for that.

But the reason that I and the entire 70+ person team at Lumen do the work we do is to improve learning and increase success for all students. Or, as our mission statement explains, “to enable unprecedented success for all students.” And WOW am I energized and excited and inspired by the things we’re working on now! But not because they’re going to advance my career – because they’re going to improve student learning and student success.