Taoism and the Job Market

May 04, 2006

"To bend like the reed in the wind, that is the real strength" -- Taoist proverb

I was introduced to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism after reading The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff for a class project during my senior year of high school. Despite being born and raised in the United States, I find that the philosophical ideas of China continue to influence my life (see my second column for a description of my Confucian trust of the academic hiring system).

Taoism's founder, Lao-tzu, a Chinese philosopher who preceded Socrates and Plato by a century, composed the maxims found in the text known as the Tao Te Ching over 2,000 years ago. The main message I took from reading both texts is that one should learn to emulate Winnie-the-Pooh -- to focus on simply being, rather than worry about doing. It is better to bend like a reed with the currents of life, accepting and flowing with life's vicissitudes. A staunch tree that tries to stand up to the currents will break when faced with a sufficiently strong gust of wind.

This being my last column on my search for a tenure-track job in economics, I feel it is necessary to somehow sum up the experience. I should say that by all accounts, my job search was a success. I didn't get a job at a top-five department or at a liberal-arts college, as I'd hoped to, but I got a tenure-track position at a nearly top-5 university, with top people in my areas of research and an administration committed to my scholarly agenda. And, as a side benefit, the university comes with a good "mother-in-law effect," that is, my girlfriend's mother was suitably impressed by the name.

Which is why I have to be very careful when I make the following claim: I am sure it would have all worked out in any case. That is a too-easy sentiment when made after it already has worked out.

I experienced firsthand how such a sentiment can sound while having dinner with a certain professor following a disastrous job interview I had with a top university. He had graduated just a few years before me and landed a position on that campus. We had gotten to know each other, and I considered him a friend.

I was feeling a bit out of sorts after essentially failing my chance at what could have been my dream job. As consolation, he told me that failing the interview should be looked upon as a good thing, potentially one of the best things that could have happened to me. Failure provides the chance to re-evaluate one's priorities. He himself, he said, had decided that being a professor at this top university wasn't as important to him as his wife and children. Then he told me that I should feel fortunate, because whenever he tells strangers that he's a professor at this prestigious university, they treat him as some kind of superior being or something.

Gee, glad I dodged that one.

Of course, the truth is that he had a point: Failing that interview did help me re-evaluate what I wanted out of life.

It was quite some time after that dinner and rather late in the job-search season before I got a job offer. But before that offer came, I had decided that I would be happy regardless of outcome: I would continue my pursuit of economics (on my own if necessary) wherever I wound up, and I agreed with my friend the professor, that the most important things in life don't depend on the job search at all. The well-being of my present and future family won't hinge on how this search turns out; having a Ph.D. in economics guarantees, at the very least, a decent standard of living.

The academic job market being what it is, very few of us in Ph.D. programs wind up getting the jobs we hoped for when we started those many years ago.

My friends mostly also started with dreams of tenure-track positions at top American institutions, and though a few did achieve that goal, most have been able to find happiness elsewhere: a few at academic posts in other countries, a couple in visiting-scholar positions that allow them to live with their significant others, many in well-paid industry jobs. I am fairly certain I would have been happy with any of those outcomes for myself.

The Taoist idea of acceptance meshes nicely with what modern science tells us about happiness. Because a Taoist outlook always worked for me, I used to think that maybe it worked through some kind of spiritual magic, the same supernatural power that allowed the Taoist masters of legend to live for hundreds of years, walk on water, and shoot fireballs out of the palms of their hands.

However, after writing these columns, I have a new theory. Maybe the Taoist precept of accepting life works precisely because it allows us to dynamically redefine what makes us happy. True Taoist masters always find happiness in life because they define happiness by their current situation.

Of course, blind acceptance is not the answer to everything. It is my humble opinion (inherited from my mom) that the blind acceptance advocated by Taoism, coupled with the strict obedience to authority of Confucianism, led to the stasis and complacency that characterized pre-Cultural-Revolution China. Sometimes it requires a willingness to go against the current, a certain dogged entrepreneurial spirit, in order to achieve progress and effect change.

The road to academe is a long one. To reach the goal requires a relentless passion for your subject matter and an unwavering determination to fight through all obstacles along the path. To reach the goal with sanity intact, it helps to accept some of the Taoist wisdom: to find happiness wherever you can get it.

The academic job search has been a grueling, often painful, but, in the end, rewarding process. It helped bring clarity to what I want out of life, and what must be done in order to achieve it. But I am certainly glad it is over; I hope I never have to do it again. Now I can allow myself at least a moment's respite before I start worrying about tenure.

B. Ho is a Ph.D. candidate in economics. He has been chronicling his search this academic year for a tenure-track job.