An old man and his son lived in an abandoned fortress on the side of a hill. Their only possession of value was a horse. One day, the horse ran away. The neighbors came to offer sympathy. “How sad” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man. The next day, the horse returned, bringing with it several wild horses. The old man and his son shut them all inside the gate. The neighbors hurried over. “How wonderful!” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man. The following day, the son tried riding one of the wild horses, fell off, and broke his leg. The neighbors came over as soon as they heard the news. “That’s too bad!” they said. “How do you know?” asked the old man. The day after that, the army came through, forcing the local young men into service to fight a faraway battle against the northern barbarians. Many of them would never return. But the son could not go, because he had broken his leg. (Taoist sage Hyau-nan-tse, in B. Hoff, The Te of Piglet. Dutton Books 1992, pp. 171-172)
My Ph.D. program was at a nationally ranked institution, and I started there as king of the hill. I was a scholarship award winner, my research yielded several publications, and I won a graduate research competition, all before I even started writing my dissertation. After my oral exams, I began my dissertation research, went on the job market, and had two prestigious universities interested in hiring me. Then my university began building a new set of graduate housing buildings and it turned out I was allergic to the dust raised by the bulldozers and earthmovers. Before long I developed a full blown case of pneumonia. I almost died, and it took over a year for me to regain my strength. By the time I was able to finish my dissertation, I had been in school over six years and finished in an economic recession, so there were few jobs in my field. I was physically weak, financially broke and unemployed.
In desperation, I accepted a post doctoral position as an adjunct research professor, and felt quite bitter about the hand that had been dealt me. The job market remained very weak, so I left academia for a position at a local consulting firm. I found that I enjoyed consulting work, and after 3 years I left to start my own consulting firm, when my wife developed severe health problems. Once again, my best laid plans had been destroyed. There was no possibility of remaining independent without health insurance, and now no insurance company was interested in insuring my family.
One of the first schools I was invited to interview at was a big state university in the Midwest that seemed perfect. After visiting, the faculty had strongly recommended me for the opening, and my contact assured me the rest of the approval process was just a formality. Great news, until the Academic VP insisted they hire someone else for the position. This was devastating news, since I had just turned down a job offer at a smaller school, expecting this position to come through. I had to join the recruitment cycle again for the following year.
Finally it worked. Rejoining academia, I landed a job teaching entrepreneurship at a state university in New England with a stable salary and excellent health benefits. I love the location, I enjoy the students, and I even enjoy most of my colleagues. However, with a family of five, including three college-bound daughters, and a wife who cannot work outside the home, there is no way I could afford to live in this expensive area on just a professor’s salary. Fortunately, my part-time consulting contacts provided more than enough work to make up the difference.
Do you notice the irony? I was bitter about becoming so ill, but without that illness, I would have moved into academia immediately, and never have developed a consulting practice to easrn extra money my family needed. I was bitter about my wife’s health problems, but without them I never would have transitioned back into academia, with the security of the health and retirement benefits that a large university affords. The midwest university, my first choice, financially collapsed a decade later, and is currently dumping half of their faculty. Now I am in a secure job I enjoy, with great benefits, with a comfortable income, doing what I want to do. I live in a nice house in a nice area within a reasonable traveling distance of my parents. And I bitterly protested every step of the path that led me there. To think of the time I wasted feeling sorry for myself, when all the time God was arranging things for my benefit. The moral of the story is to keep trying hard, and have faith that if you do the right things long enough, good things will happen, even if they do not unfold the way you expect.