Anatomy of a Decision (1)

About a year ago I have taken a decision, and I am now taking a leap of faith. This blog is gravitating about this decision, and I am writing now about a journey that began a while back.

I am finally working on plan A again, after I had been quite successful in pursuing plan B. I am not all sure where to begin with, and this is probably the reason I am writing a blog and not a book. So I will simply jump right into the middle of the story and select some menial and unspectacular moments that were important to me.

I had studied physics and worked in R&D for some time, then I switched to IT. I can – and probably will – talk endlessly about what physics and IT have in common; actually more than what seems to be obvious and actually it is not “IT”, but some special subfield that matters. But for now, it is only important that the following repeating pattern in lunch-with-customers-small-talk hit me hard from time to time.

Small talk goes like this:

  • You studied physics! Really! How interesting – what did you work on?
  • … superconductors … lasers …
  • How did you end up in IT?
  • <Insert some description of post-doc life-style here, and about job prospects for people who want to explore the secrets of the universe>
  • <Add some unbiased and optimistic statements about my current field, and why IT naturally connects to physics. Think quantum cryptography.>
  • <Add more cheery stories about my current work.>
  • <Skepticism expressed non-verbally by the others>.
  • Yes, but why are now working on that stuff? (Should probably mean: On the same stuff we do not like either.)
  • You ditched physics for THIS?

This is not a verbal transcript; it is exaggerated and an amalgam. And I was able to handle the conversation better sometimes, and there is a positive version also that goes like this

  • <One of my workshops on cryptography and its applications.>
  • <Maneuvering the chat towards foundations of physics or history of science.>
  • <Some time may pass till this short conversation>.
  • Yes, everybody in the room could notice that this is what your heart is really in.

The latter sentence was key: A stranger said this to me, a colleague I met the first time for business lunch. In this business lunch I thought I would play my role so well – the role of the seasoned IT industry expert. I could not even remember later that I said anything about my personal history. And yet, later I was remembered most strongly for some statements my subconsciousness had driven to the surface.

Finally, I took my decision instantly – after months imagining myself writing letters that started with: Dear customers and colleagues, I need to tell you about a personal decision affecting my professional life and our business relationship. I never wrote any letter of that sort, not even now. Now I only tell the current version of the story to whoever would still ask for IT consulting. Within one hour I finalized a plan to switch fields *right now* and to go for another (engineering) degree. I took the decision all on my own – no hesitation and no counselling and asking friends for their advice. And once for all I stopped thinking about explanations. I kept the decision as a secret and cloaked it as “another big project I am going to embark on”, so that it will keep me from embarking on the usual stuff I did for years.

I made appointments with colleagues, determined on still talking business as usual and silently sneaking out of the door. But spontaneously and not prepared well in advance, I started talking about the changes I am going to make. Colleagues had often called me good at self-marketing and presentations, but for sure these talks were not my best presentations. However the point of all was to reduce the dependency on any kind of feedback. I do not need venture capital, I do not need to be everybody’s darling, and I do not need and want to be expert no. 1 in country X and field Y. Not any more. So I did not care if I failed the pitch, maybe.

And then I made the same strange announcement to the colleague I mentioned above, the colleague I met for lunch. This time I thought I would play my IT girl role, as there is no need to make an announcement to somebody I had not quite started to have a business relationship with. And then I heard this answer some weeks later: Yes, everybody in the room could notice that this is what your heart is really in.

Do not be mistaken: I never did and never will advocate the follow-your-heart-and-everything-else-will-follow advice. I am down-to-earth, a control freak, and great at crafting detailed plans and paranoid fallback scenarios for whatever. My plan A is solid (I do not think my calling is to be a theoretical physicist and work on string theory), though still considered unusual given my history and track record.

But nonetheless both the negative and the positive versions of the physics-or-IT-small-talk finally drove the evolution of this decision. It is not so much the feedback given by somebody else. It is a statement that struck a chord with what some part of myself tried to tell me unsuccessfully so far.

Now I am listening.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary Schirr says:

    Thanks for sharing Elke. I did something similar 12 years ago and am enjoying my career 3.0. Glad it is working out for you!

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Gary! I agree with enjoying career 3.0! I count mine as the third one, too, after 1) academic researcher / staff scientist and 2) IT professional. I see number 3 as a synthesis of sorts and in addition I feel like I don’t have to prove anything anymore.

  2. Excellent. I envy your strength. I wish I had half as much. What field of engineering? Mechanical? I use the word ‘selfish’ in an entirely positive and supportive way when I ask, is this degree entirely selfish? Are you doing this for yourself? Are you doing this to broaden your personal understanding of material that interests YOU. Or, are you doing this as a means of supporting the heat pump/solar/thermal side of your life? in any case .. bravo. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave! The program was called ‘Sustainable Energy Systems’ – I completed this degree in 2013 (I wrote this post in the 2nd semester, I am looking back with nostalgia…). It was like ‘a bit of different kinds of engineering – mechanical and electrical, plus non-tech stuff like economics and law for engineers.
      Of course I was interested in learning new things, e.g. thermodynamics from engineers’, not physicists’ perspective. I really enjoy projects we did – with real external clients, like planning an off-grid PV system or an upgrade of a wind farm.
      Technically and business-wise it was not strictly required as we already had a business license as ‘Consulting Engineers in Applied Physics’ (based on our first degrees) and we had started to work on the details of your system already.
      I think my main motivation was
      1) to make myself familiar with ‘engineering culture’ and an industry sector I was not familiar with – this was a program for people working full-time, so it was also interesting to connect with colleagues with diverse work experiences.
      2) to set a sign for myself. I had to cut back IT projects, I had to drive to the university every weekend (I would not have wanted to so an online-only degree even if that would have been an option – it was a ritual telling myself now I really get going!
      So maybe selfish, yes :-)

  3. Not only do I congratulate you for having the courage to make such a life altering decision but also I applaud your methods. While there are times when an intuitive leap of faith is required such decisions really require a rational facts-based approach, which is exactly what you did.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice! I am not sure if the facts-based approach is just post-rationalizing of an intuitive decision already taken though ;-) (I tried to describe this in Anatomy… (2)). Yes, I did my pro’s and con’s list, and I am a conservative penny pincher… but in this case appreciating the black swan was required, too.
      It was not even this particular career decision but another one that made it even clearer to me. I once had a chance to return to academia – quite an honorable offer a few years in non-academic jobs… to that interesting field at the intersection of physics and IT I mentioned in this post. But in a sleepness night after the interview I knew I don’t want it actually … and being offered the job scared me. But they did and I had to decline. I did my Excel sheets and all, but something within me had anticipated that decision before I rationally took it.

      1. Yes, it’s hard to tell which comes first–rationality or intuition. I would adopt a Hegelian position and just assume that they work more or less together, somewhat like two dancing partners–one moves with the other and it’s pointless to try and determine which is ‘driving” the other. Your conversation regarding declining the academic post reminds me of a recent conversatrion I had with a colleague. Over 20 years ago he left a comfortable estate in Saskatchewan where he was living while teaching and took an academic post at this university. While he’s had a good career here and has done some very fine work he has his regrets as he and his wife would have pursued goals similar to those you and your husband have gone after.

        1. elkement says:

          I can relate a lot to your colleague’s story, Maurice. In all these years I heard so many surprising ‘confessions’ by people successful by all standards… about things they ‘actually’ would love to do. (And was is not only or not at all economical constraints that held them back)
          In the economic crisis of 2008 many people were forced to make a change – and some of them said with hindsight that losing their jobs was the best things that happened to them as they were finally free to do what they want (without having to explain and justify it, I think). Actually, the latter type of stories was the final trigger I had needed – in a weird sense I was nearly envious of people who were forced to make a change whereas our business (only IT projects for large corporations at that time) had thrived in the crisis. Then I really knew I have to do something about it and initiate that change myself.

  4. elkement says:

    Reblogged this on Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything and commented:

    Four years ago I tried something new – I took a decision and started communicating it (some half-baked version of it) without having worked out a detailed plan. One year later I started this blog, reflecting on the journey and this decision. So I celebrate the 4 years anniversary with shameless, self-indulgent nostalgia. Besides, you might have noticed I did not write much blog posts lately in the personal essay / opinionated piece genre. Perhaps because I don’t want to repeat myself. And I commit the cardinal sin in the visual age – not even an image!

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