The Unbearable Lightness of Being
(Oregon Planners' Journal, December 1996)
By Richard H. Carson
As professionals, we all have career goals. However, as we grow older; we come face-to-face with the reality that we either may not achieve them, or equally as bad, we may actually achieve some of them. The human response to our perceived professional failure is often to be bitter. Alternatively, we may attain the dream and then spend the rest of our lives reliving and lamenting our "glory days" to any poor soul who will listen.
At the End of the Rainbow
Attaining your dream can be the pits because we not fully prepared to contemplate what success means. In America we are raised to he competitors, but we are rarely told there is more to life than winning. For example, there are very few truly pinnacle planning positions in Oregon. I would say that being the director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development, the Governor's senior advisor on growth management issues, or Portland's or Metro's planning director qualifies.
I was the latter, so I have some experience with this phenomenon. I remember once when Ethan Seltzer- now the director of Portland State University's Institute of Metropolitan Studies - and I both worked at Metro. One day we went to testify before the Land Conservation and Development Commission. The representatives of both the City Planning Directors and the County Planning Directors had both testified on behalf of their organizations. As we sat down, Ethan introduced himself and then introduced me as the representative of the Regional Planning Directors Association. Everyone laughed because it was a funny line! Then it struck me -- there was only one truly regional planning director in the whole damn state. And I was him.
When I left Metro I had to ask myself, "Now what?" You see, all of these top jobs come with term limits built in. Such jobs last about as long as the elected official who appoints you is in office -- say four or eight years. And I was uncertain what to do next. Given the limited pinnacle job opportunities, the only real opportunities for professional advancement would require that I leave the state. But I like living in Oregon and my children live here. So I was faced with leaving or staying.
A Different Perspective
The answer I found really quite simple. I decided not to settle for the past or the present. I found a different possibility - I decided to dream a different dream. The key to a complete life is that we have to adapt - we create a new dream. We simply must realize that the fabric of our lives is woven by many threads. If your dream consists only of reaching some professional pinnacle, then it is a very poor dream. For this may be our chosen profession, but we are never indispensable in our jobs.
If your dream does not allow for the flexibility to seize new and unanticipated opportunities, then it is too rigid and limiting a dream. As planners, I think we have one great short coming - we are poor opportunists. People who plan their lives too far in advance miss the great opportunities of the moment. The fact is they cannot even recognize opportunities under their very noses. I have come to learn often the hard way - that the person who blends careen family and social interests into their life is the happiest.
We need to try and see our accomplishments through a different lens. Planning is about starting people down the path to a thousand futures. We strive to envision how the future may evolve - but we must rejoice in the endless possibilities that we help create. For the future will never be what we first envisioned. It could be better.
The Road Untaken
I decided to live a different life. I got on the Board of Directors for the Kit Carson Historic Museums in Taos, New Mexico and explored my roots. I started working on a Masters of Public Administration from Lewis and Clark. I took a job as Community Development Director for Oregon City a job where I meet real people. I decided to become the editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal. Our youngest son was leaving to attend the University of Oregon, so my wife and I decided to start our lives as parents over. There would be no early retirement for us, no property in Central Oregon or on the Oregon Coast.
This morning, I awoke in a hotel room near the Vietnam border, in the People's Republic of China. The first thing I saw was my 9-month-old adopted daughter sleeping next to me and it struck me as ironic that she had been abandoned at the city hall here. How strange she would end up with a man who was a Vietnam era veteran -- and a man who worked in a city hall in America. In the Oregon City Hall, we worry more about people leaving bombs than babies.
That was when I realized, that this is a better dream -- then I sat at the hotel desk and wrote this.
Richard Carson. Guangxi Province, Nanning, China, August 18, 1996.