When in Doubt, Follow Your Passion

NH New Hampshire trail

This post is going to be a bit off-topic from what I’ve been writing about of late, but it’s something that has been on my mind for awhile and I felt the need to share it. It’s not about running per se, but rather some thoughts on life and this blog that have come to the forefront after thinking about some friends and the troubles they have been having trying to figure out what to do with their futures. In some ways it’s a very personal post, and one that I hope can help in at least some small way. Here goes…

I’m a big believer in following your passion. In my professional life as a college professor, I often find myself sitting with students who are trying to plan their future, often with a great deal of uncertainty. As biology majors, most of these students enter college with the expectation that they will one day become doctors. However, once the reality of a poor transcript or the realization of the cost and time that medical school entails begins to settle in, many of them find themselves questioning whether this is a realistic or even desirable choice. Often, they ask me to tell them what to do with their lives – I can assure you that that’s quite a heavy burden to have placed on one’s shoulders. My most frequent response under these circumstances is to ask the student what they enjoy most. What’s your passion? I tell them to choose a path that they will enjoy and that will make them happy, and not to worry what others (including their parents), might think, or what the job might pay. I truly believe that the best paying job in the world isn’t worth pursuing if it’s not something you are passionate about, and this is something I have tried to practice to the best extent possible in my own life.

I arrived in my current job by taking a rather large risk. In the final year of my Ph.D. program I applied for and was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral research grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant would have provided me with funding to pursue my research on the functional and evolutionary anatomy of tadpoles (yes, people do study things like that) at a large, prestigious research institution. Though nothing is guaranteed in academia, I had a strong publication record for someone at that point in their career, and taking the postdoc would have set me on a path to be competitive for jobs at just about any large university that might be hiring an anatomist. At about the same time, I was also interviewing for teaching jobs at small colleges, and received an offer of a three year, non-tenure track position at a small college in New Hampshire. The job would require that I teach several classes that I had never taught before, and it carried with it no guarantee of permanency.

One of the things that I realized in graduate school was that although I enjoyed doing research, my true passion was being in the classroom as a TA (teaching assistant). I derived far more enjoyment from helping students learn biology than I did from publishing scientific journal articles. I also saw the life that was required in order for a faculty member to be successful at a large research institution – publish or perish is very real at such places, and grant-writing is a near full-time part of the job. Neither of these job characteristics were particularly desirable to me. A third factor that figured into my decision making process was that I had also just found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child (who is now 6 years old – hard to believe!). She being from Maine and me being from Connecticut, New Hampshire was a very attractive location for us in terms of familiarity and proximity to family.

Thus, in light of the above factors, given the choice between a prestigious postdoc and an uncertain, and sure-to-be difficult three year teaching position, I chose the latter. Many of my friends and mentors at the time thought the choice was crazy, and there were moments when I too wondered whether it was, but I had made a decision based on following my passion and doing the right thing for my family, and I was going to go with it.

It turns out the I made the right choice. After surviving my first year at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH (there really is no other way to describe your first year as a teacher), I was converted to tenure track – taking the risk had paid off. Now, seven years after making that original decision, I am a tenured associate professor in a department full of good people and I get to teach courses that I love to some great students. I have a wonderful wife, three great kids, and am living in a town that I absolutely love. Life is good, and I owe it all to my willingness to take a risk and follow my passion.

I’m now at a similar, albeit somewhat less consequential, point in life, and it has to do with running and this blog. If somebody told me five years ago that in 2010 I’d have run five marathons and would be writing a running blog with over 40,000 monthly visitors, I’d have said they were crazy. Well, here I am, and quite honestly, the success of this blog has taken me completely by surprise. I’m now struggling somewhat with how this blog should fit in with the rest of my life, particularly with regard to my professional career. The reason is this – for me, my running and this blog have become passions right alongside my passion for being a teacher. Outside of my family, being a teacher, running, and writing this blog are the three things that keep me going and that occupy my time. As I discussed above, I believe in following my passions, and therefore I’m trying to figure out how to best integrate these three parts of my life. You only live once, after all, and no sense in not doing what you enjoy most while you have the chance.

The problem I have is that blog writing is not typically viewed as a worthwhile pursuit among academics. Although I have written more prolifically in the past year than I have at any other point in my life (and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it!), none of it has been in peer reviewed academic journals, and thus from a professional standpoint, none of it counts. The question here is whether I really care. I’m tenured (though I still have one more promotion step to achieve), I’m having fun, and I feel like I’m making a difference at least in some small way.

In moments of clarity I tell myself that more people probably read what I write on this blog in a single day than have collectively read all of my scientific publications put together (I truly believe this may be the case). Scholarly publication is a necessary part of academic life, but it’s not a part that I particularly enjoy. Much of scholarly publication is esoteric (I can assure you that few people care about tadpole skulls), and most of what gets written is published in journals that can’t be accessed easily by the public (or even by faculty at small colleges like myself). This doesn’t mean that scientific research isn’t necessary – I believe that it’s essential. However, I also believe that we all have different roles, and my role is more that of an educator and communicator of science rather than a hard-core researcher.

This blog suits my self-defined role perfectly, but I still feel pangs of guilt about the amount of time I put into it. I value the ability to think out loud on the blog, to get near instant and thoughtful feedback, and to present ideas as they pop into my mind. Maybe someday blogs will carry some weight in academia, particularly as new faculty who have grown up in a blogging world begin to permeate faculty ranks, but we’re not there yet. There are some great blogs out there written by college profs, but our numbers are still small, and I suspect that I am one of the only ones on my campus who does it. Given this, I sometimes question whether this is something that I should be spending so much time on. Should I shift the time I spend writing here to more scholarly pursuits that would garner greater respect from my peers in the ivory tower, even if I would derive far less enjoyment form it?

At the end of all of this, I have to come back to passion. Writing this blog is something that I love doing. I like testing products and writing reviews with a somewhat scientific angle, for if I help one person to be able to get active and avoid getting injured, then I have accomplished one of my major goals in writing Runblogger. I love thinking and writing about running mechanics. I have fun making observations and generating hypotheses – whether or not it is I or someone else who goes out and tests them is less of a concern. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy interacting with my readers. For much the same reason that I enjoy being in the classroom with my students, it is the social interactions and friendships I have made via this blog and my other online pursuits that really make them worthwhile. Hopefully you have learned something from me, and I can assure you that I have learned an immense amount from you (just as I learn a lot from my students in the classroom). All of you who read what I write here keep me going with your comments and emails, and that is a huge part of why I have no plans of letting up anytime soon. It would be great to be able to write Runblogger without the deep-seated feeling of professional guilt, but I’m quite passionate about the value of blogs, and the only way to overcome this guilt to help further their acceptance. Thankfully, the only way to accomplish that is to keep on writing.

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Peter – Count me too as another fellow-runner that both enjoys and benefits by your excellent product-related reviews, running-form analysis, and other closely related topics (e.g. how human evolution was clearly impacted by our species superb long-distance running abilities).

  2. Ann Brennan says:

    I am totally with you on this. I have a son trying to decide on colleges right now. He is a very serious kid and pushes himself really hard. I have told him exactly what you said. Follow your passion. If you are going to work really hard anyway, it should be doing something you enjoy. In his case he really enjoys engineering. This a departure from the normal family business. Almost all of the men on my husband’s side of the family are attorneys. But it is what he loves and really has loved since he was a boy. Thank you so much for sharing this post and please do continue to blog. We really enjoy your posts.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Ann,

      I see far too many college kids come through my office that tell me they
      want to be doctors, when the reality is that they are being told that that
      is what they are going to be by their parents. It’s sad that so many of them
      have people essentially planning their lives for them, when that plan is not
      something they really want or are capable of achieving. They then get to
      their senior year, realize they don’t have the grades to get into med
      school, and break down because they don’t know what to do, despite the fact
      that they are still being pushed from home. It’s truly a shameful thing.

      Your attitude is exactly the correct one – your son should follow his
      passion wherever it leads. If he’s happy and enjoying what he is studying,
      he will do well in college and life. Wish all parents of college kids
      thought the same way!

      Pete

  3. neurorunner says:

    What a great blog. I love your running blogs, they really are an inspiration. I also love teaching students but also love research so i went for a high profile university in Boston. Long story short, a disaster in terms of my career and personal life. I have thought about going into biomed industry or a teaching job at a college. After reading your previous blogs and now this one i am seriously considering exploring the teaching option again.
    It will be interesting if colleges and universities assess blog writing as part of their promotion scales and i think pretty soon they will after all some institutions consider book publications and tv and radio work. One thing that really strikes me about your blogs is that you could turn your expertise of anatomy and running into academic studies and publications that would be a big contribution to the field. There seems to be a big calling right now for a scientific study on minimalist shoes, barefeet and structured shoes and their impacts on forces and injury. I was particular interested in Anders Torger’s post on overpronation and neutral shoes. My area of interest is neuroscience and i am interested in how brain biochemistry can affect running, mainly fatigue. Your approach of combining your loves for science and running is a big inspiration to me to explore this area more. I read an interview with Dave Martin who said that “there are not enough coaches who are scientists and not enough scientists that are coaches” leading to many runners who are uninformed by coaches who use information that was popular decades ago. Through your blogs many runners are getting a scientific point of view on very important topics.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks – not sure if you read Steve Magness’s Science of Running blog, but
      he’s a coach and scientist, and his runners are lucky to have someone with
      his depth of knowledge. Check it out here: http://www.scienceofrunning.co

      You’re right – here’s ton’s of research to be done, but the big questions in
      the field require funding, lab setups, staff, and time that I could only
      begin to dream of having as a small college guy. I am working on a few small
      things that will hopefully be publishable, but things like randomized trials
      and the like are beyond my capability.

      You should definitely consider teaching – I love the job, and the lifestyle
      very much suits me and gives me a lot of freedom to be with my family.
      Couldn’t imagine doing anything else, except maybe running around the world
      and getting paid to write about it :)

      Pete

  4. Thanks for this post Pete! I am in the middle of a crossroad in my career right now and I wonder what it is I’m supposed to do. Who am I supposed to be professionally, with family and where does running and all that goes with it fit in the picture…
    I will say that your posts here and dailymile have pretty much structured the way I think about running. From form to equipment… You have played a role in my decisions. So I thank you for that and am very glad to hear that you want to keep it up.
    Thanks
    Tim

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks Tim – do what feels right, that’s the best advice I can give you
      regarding your own crossroads. Everything else will fall into place.

      Pete

  5. Pete, thank you for sharing these very personal, and very well articulated, thoughts. I guess tadpoles would not have had heel strike issues, huh? At the age of 45, I struggle with some of the things you refer to in your post. The best book I ever read was “Do What You Love and the Money will Follow,” a concept that sounded doable in college but has seemed farther and farther away with the advent of mortgages, debt, and the other obligations of married life with two kids. I think you are on to something, and like the other commenters, I am SO relieved that this post was not a goodbye!! I can’t tell you how often I refer people to it, or come to it myself to learn something about running, especially mechanics, and life. In closing, the book I am currently reading, An Altar in the World, has a great chapter about vocation. I like this quote: In a world where the paid work that people do does not always feed their hearts, it seems important to leave open the possibility that our vocations may turn out to be things we do for free.

  6. Probably the best piece on your site.  I’m about to retire, but when I look back at my career your advice is spot-on.  The work I excelled at was the work I most enjoyed doing at the time.  I have a daughter studying medical research/biology who is questioning what to do with her future.  I’m going to send her the link to this article.  Top stuff, Pete.

  7. Douglas Pariseau says:

    Count me as one person that has learned from your blog, and greatly values the time and passion you put into it. Thank-you Peter! And I hope you continue this adventure with us for many years to come.

  8. Count me in as a fellow academic at about the same point in her career and with similar concerns! And I do think that the feeling of making a difference – wherever you can find it – is what keeps us going and helps us find our center.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks Lee! You are absolutely right – we each need to make a difference in
      whichever small way we can. The beauty of being a teacher is that you have
      the ability to do that all of the time with your students.

      Pete

  9. This is a great blog, Dr. Larson. In my time at St. A’s and now at Tufts I’ve found that it can be easy to get engulfed in the world of academia. And while I have a passion for dentistry, I have learned the benefits of balancing my profession with my other interests, like running. From personal experience, I know that your students appreciate the fact that you have an active life outside of the classroom. Our discussions after class or while we were doing research played a major role in my decision to start running regularly. Running was a sport that I had previously deemed boring, but now I understand and enjoy the excitement and challenge that it brings.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your interest in running with me and for putting your knowledge and thoughts in this blog – it really is great writing.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Greg – thanks so much for the commment, means a lot to hear from one of my
      students on here, especially one who has gotten hooked on running! Ay plans
      to do a full marathon yet?

      Hope things are going well in dental school.

      Pete

  10. Flow Running says:

    Awesome post Pete. Perhaps the question isn’t “do I publish or perish”, but would you rather be passionate or be published. It is one thing to be knowledgeable about a subject, but quite another to have the content of your writing be something that opens a small window of the person you are. It doesn’t mean you neglect your professional responsibilities. It does mean that life is awesome, but it is short. And you had better be sure your time is spent doing things you are passionate about.

    At your eulogy the chances are small anyone will mention tadpole skulls. But there is a huge chance they might mention a guy who loved his family, his friends and shared his passions with anyone who would listen.

  11. Greg Strosaker says:

    Great post and thoughts Pete – like you, I am in a position where blogging really does little for my career, but it is something I enjoy doing and I find that being able to think more clearly about my running and convey the lessons I have learned via writing makes me a better runner. Not only that, but I seek out new running experiences in this manner (different shoes – always looking to you first for your thoughts, of course – different training approaches, etc.).
    Blogging is like a college education in many ways – while you may not be able to point to the direct benefit of applying what you learned (I, for example, was an engineering undergrad but am now in marketing), what is most important is learning how to learn and think critically. Blogging helps make you a better writer by teaching you to think logically, be succinct, and understand your audience. I’m sure that the time invested will pay off, if not financially (which is tough to do), then in advancing your expertise and comfort with communicating. Thanks for continuing to do this blog Pete, it is truly a different voice in the crowded running-blog community.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks so much Greg – as you know, blogging well takes time, but it is very
      much worth it. I have grown immensely as a person and writer since starting
      this blog.

      Pete

  12. Pete for one dreadful moment I thought you were going to tell us all that you you were going to pack in blogging!!!
    I really look forward to reading your posts and hope to read many more.
    I’m taking your advise and following my dreams ai’m going to pack my job in and become a surfer :]
    Only kidding!
    Good advice !
    Have you seen this video Steve Magness tweeted yesterday, any comments ?
    http://runwitharthurlydiard.bl

  13. Thank you so much. I am pressed for time this morning, otherwise I’d write something much more in-depth as a response… Suffice it to say that this was a particularly moving and meaningful read for me today. Thank you again. And yes, as life moves forward and as passions evolve, continue to stay afloat on your ocean of purpose.

    All the best.

  14. Peter,

    Right on and keep the long view. As with running….life is all about pace. You are also living the creed of the early explorers -if you want to discover new places you need to loose sight of shore for a while. like you I’m following the non-traditional academic path and enjoying the impact it has on others, for that is what matters. I’m a physician and finding one can impact health more in the medical home’s backyard (trails, open space, gardens) than in the medical clinic itself. Real health exists outside. In the past year I’ve reduced my day job to do unpaid volunteer work organizing what will be the largest race in our state this year (http://www.freedomsrun.org), building trails and gardens at schools to fight obesity, taking youth on hikes, and opening a running center teaching running form and selling only flat shoes (http://www.trtreads.org). Like you, less sleep but more fun and positive impact on others. Looks like you are discovering your new land.

    Mark Cucuzzella MD
    Shepherdstown, WV

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks Mark – you set a great example through your actions. It’s a bit scary
      to step away from a familiar path, but sometimes that’s what one needs to do
      in order to make a difference in life. It’s good to know that others are
      doing the same!

      Pete

  15. “The problem I have is that blog writing is not typically viewed as a worthwhile pursuit among academics.”

    Although this is changing; some of the other professor-bloggers I follow have commented on this. One notes that his Dean takes the popularity and influence of his blog (“Instapundit”) into consideration. The other posts at the Volokh Conspiracy, another law-blog, and notes that even in the Supreme Court blogs are being taken more seriously as they provide timely, high-quality analysis:

    link to volokh.com

    I think you offer a great deal as a self-experimenting anatomist given the current debate concerning running and the correct use of our anatomy. Hopefully you can make the two work together.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the info Tuck – I think things will change with time, but it will
      happen slowly. Change can take forever in academia…

      Pete

  16. As a fellow academic at a small college, I fully understand your dilemma. The dynamics of teaching at a small school are just different and contrast what is fed to us in grad school. The teaching load alone is enough to keep us from researching and publishing (this is something many professors at large research institutions will never understand). The fact that you can maintain a popular blog while teaching a large load coupled with the other “hats” that must be worn at a small college is an exceptional accomplishment whether the ivory tower recognizes it or not.

    This is an excellent blog as is evident by the number of monthly readers who want a more in-depth analysis of the latest running/minimalist trend. I don’t know if you have considered this but it seems to me that this blog itself has enough in it to make a very good conference paper or journal article. Thank you for all of work and insight as it has inspired me to run and race and, ultimately, transform my life.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Bob,

      I have thought about trying to write something up on academic blogging for
      the Chronicle or something like that. I have done a bit of research on the
      topic, but nothing serious as yet. It seems to me that going forward, blogs
      are going to continue to grow, and academia needs to realize the effect that
      they can have. At a conference a few years back I sat through an entire
      session on communicating science to the public, and one of the speakers was
      Carl Zimmer, who writes The Loom blog for Discover Magazine. That was one of
      the most interesting sessions I had ever attended, and I’m hoping that more
      faculty jump on the bandwagon. We’ll see…

      Pete

  17. Running Moose says:

    I just found your blog about a month ago. One thing that keeps me coming back is how well written and thought out it is. Your advice has helped me greatly when I was at a crossroads in running- start going minimalistic or go with orthotics. I went minimalistic (well, starting to head that way) and bought a pair of Saucony Kinvara’s based on the “pre-review” you had at the time and based on advice from the running store I went to. I have not had any pain problems in my knees. I completed a 9 mile trail run a couple days ago and have two half-marathons coming up and am looking at a 50K in October of 2011. Your advice has helped rekindle an old passion. I used to run a lot in the early 90′s but switched to just cycling because of the same knee pain I was starting to have a few months ago.

    I have been at other crossroads as well. One that was career related. It lead me to my wife (and now two kids) and a teaching career (2nd grade now) that is now going into it’s 11th year. I went with what I felt passionate about- I had to quit my job to be able to go back for my M.Ed. and my El. Ed. Certification, but it was worth it despite the financial struggles I went through.

    Go with what makes you happy. Go with your passion and go with passion!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks! Glad I could help get you running again, and sounds like things are
      going well for you.

      Sometimes the best decisions in life are the hardest ones to make, and
      giving up a career to go back to school is certainly a tough choice – glad
      to hear that it was the right choice! Happiness is often far more important
      than finances, as long as you have enough to live on an support your family.

      Thanks so much for the note!

      Pete

  18. Enjoy your blog, keep up the good job. Your enthusiasm has inspired me to run again having stopped for a few years due to injury. Done couple of half marathons before and I am now training for a full marathon. Thanks.

  19. I’ve just begun my Master’s in cello performance, after doing my undergrad work in Economics. My undergrad years were spent being paralyzed by the fear of taking a risk and doing what I wanted most– music. Since making the decision to go back to my passion (cello), a number of things have fallen into place in my life, and I am able to frame things differently, knowing that risk-taking does not necessarily yield doom and destruction. Although the next two years are going to be a challenge for me, I know I am on the right path. So thank you for this post. I really enjoyed reading your own experience and the comments that others have left.

  20. Peter, I am in a similar professional position, except about seven years behind (and maybe not quite as good a grad student as it sounds like you were :) I am in my last year of a science Ph.D. program, and I want to teach college as well. I am so burned out after 5+ years of research that leading a graduate lab sounds like torture. It sounds like you have a great position up at Saint Anselm–I would love to be in a similar situation in the future.

    I found my field as a pre-med drop-out, much to my parents’ disappointment. Apparently a Ph.D. doesn’t have the same luster to them as an M.D. I remind them that it also doesn’t have the same debt load :)

    Anyway, thanks for the post!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Annette,

      I can’t say enough positive things about life at a small college – I
      wouldn’t have it any other way. Flexibility, reduced pressure, understanding
      colleagues when it comes to family commitments all far outweigh what me
      might lose in terms of pay and prestige. Best of luck to you as you begin
      your search! My best piece of advice – put together well written and well
      tailored cover letters and you will go a long way to getting you application
      at the top of a review pile. Where I am, fit is as, if not more, important
      as publication record.

      Pete

  21. I totally agree with you on pursuing ones passions. But here’s my fall back position or perhaps middle ground – get a job that requires minimal effort, pays well and gives you a lot of time off. That way you have a lot of time to do anything you want including your passions.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Winning the lottery would be nice as well…

      Pete

      • I guess it’s different in the US but teaching highschool in Canada (BC) pays well ~$80,000 a year, gives lots of time off, every weekend, all summer Christmas, etc, etc. It does require effort if one wants to be a good teacher but in highsschool if the kids aren’t already taking some control over their lives and school they never will. There’s nowhere near as much responsibility as teaching Elementary school any way. As a teacher one can basically live two lives, I like that.

  22. Pete –

    As a fellow academic (albeit nowhere near as far along in my career), I think that there’s certainly the potential to work the blog into a viable part of your career. Your passion certainly is there, and your work drips with it.

    While the blog may “not count” as part of your professional career, I wouldn’t look at it in this way. You’re reaching a far wider audience than you would solely working in the academic environment. That being said, your knowledge and position as a professor lends a trust and credibility with a lot of what you have to say. Your ability to connect and communicate with both of these communities is what makes this site so indispensable for so many people.

    While this blog may not be “academic” in the traditional sense or publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, I think that it certainly qualifies as academic. You (and your guest writers) are doing a tremendous amount to educate the running community. And while I won’t go so far as to compare peer review to web traffic, it’s clear that you’ve got the attention of plenty of folks out there.

    Keep up the good work – I’m sure you’ll find a great way to wed both your academic career and your ‘blogging career’.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Appreciate the thoughts Denny – as you well know, academics can be funny
      people sometimes. We have it ingrained in us very early on that peer
      reviewed publication is all that matters, and what I have learned over the
      years is that there is so much more that one can accomplish in this career
      than simply publishing scholarly papers. I just need to come to terms with
      the fact that my passion when it comes to writing is more informal and less
      scholarly, but that doesn’t in any way mean that it’s less worthwhile.

      Pete

  23. I KNOW exactly how you feel… writing my blog is my newly found “vocation”, I just really enjoy it! loved this post as much as your other posts as I can totally relate!

  24. MistyBGreen says:

    Congrats on having such a great achievements. ..I had a good time reading your post..Yes, it is indeed something not so into running but I guess, it is also running on different perspective or aspect..Keep posting!You inspire a lot of people.
    _________________
    keens

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