Writing a monthly column is not without challenges. Themes are elusive, facts (at least as we used to quaintly define them—i.e., the verifiable kind) are often scarce, and it is a constant battle (at least for this writer) to avoid straying into unwarranted speculation or just plain invective. After all, (he reasoned), there are so many ignorant people in the world, what harm is done by calling them out from time to time? The difference between a monthly column and a monthly rant is, however, razor-thin, and separating the two requires at least a modicum of observing ego. For columnists who have egos that spend more time seeing rather than observing (to put a tailspin on Conan Doyle), this can be extremely problematic.
Happily, this month’s essay is an easy one to write, being somewhat of a song in the Key of Me. I’m using it to announce to all long-suffering readers of this column that I’ve posted an announcement of my retirement as CEO of the National Register. I’ve been at the helm of the organization since 2014, and it’s very difficult to think of a more rewarding seven-year period in my life. But before I reflect on this, a few (verifiable) facts.
As you read this, we’ve posted the announcement for a CEO search. The Register’s Board has formed an executive search committee, which Board Chair Beth Rom-Rymer and I will co-chair. We intend to have a candidate on board by July 2022. The successful candidate will initially come on board as our Director of Strategic Partnerships, and after a few months transition period is intended to step into the role of CEO. I am hoping that many of you will consider the position or consider referring a colleague who is interested in running the second largest professional association in the profession. It is a great job, which is one reason why I have to leave it. In many respects, it is too good a job to keep for myself.
Why leave now? The answer is a little complicated. The easy part is that I’m a little past my “sell-by” date. I recognize that “retirement” among psychologists is a fungible commodity, many of us don’t retire as much as we transition into less intensive versions of our current work. That may be the case for me, I’m not yet certain. But there is a generational issue to consider. While I certainly could continue for more years, I need to be mindful that my generation is no longer the future of psychology, we’re rapidly becoming the past. And the Register needs a leader who not only understands the future but is of the future. So part of my decision is fear-based: I fear becoming a relic, a stubborn hanger-on, a Banquo’s ghost who is increasingly unwanted at the professional table.
It is also true that COVID played a part in my decision and has caused me to re-examine my life goals. Watching the devastation wrought by the pandemic has reinforced my desire to focus on non-career goals, of which I have many. I came of professional age during the AIDS crisis and watched several close personal friends succumb to that horrible pestilence. The memories of those losses have become resurgent in the past year and serve to remind me that a career is but one facet of a well-lived life.
Let me also tell you what doesn’t motivate me to leave. Mostly, I’m not leaving because I’ve become disenchanted with our profession, as difficult and disputatious as it is. I’m not leaving because psychology has become too liberal or too conservative, too permissive or too intolerant, too focused on social justice or insufficiently concerned about the same. My opinions on any of these matters (and I definitely have them) will endure, whether I’m professionally active or not. To leave because I think that the profession no longer represents my personal values would, I believe, be both wrong and dangerous. Wrong because the correct response would be to engage to reshape the profession instead of abandoning it. Dangerous because leaving under such circumstances would only lead to an extremely unhealthy state of resentment and bitterness.
Psychology is a social science, not an abstract one. Like all sciences, we reflect prevailing societal mores far more than we influence them, but unlike many sciences, we play a defined role in shaping those mores. The physicist and part-time philosopher Richard Feynman once observed that he didn’t encounter academic prejudice until he moved from the “hard” side of the scientific campus to the “soft” side—the social sciences. His argument, as I recall it, involved his belief that in the absence of the demonstrable laws of physics, intellectual speculation was free to vary and was more often based on the thinker’s biases and predispositions rather than any verifiable law. As much as I admire Feynman, he betrayed a bit of prejudice himself there. The science of physics, if not its laws, is as susceptible to social prejudice as any other (just look at the relative absence of women in the top ranks of physics and other “hard” sciences). The science of psychology is certainly full of biases that we must atone for, but I for one am proud to be a member of a science that is as messy and unpredictable as its subject—human nature itself.
To wrap up, for the time being at any rate—I’m going, but I’m not gone yet. I look forward to the coming months as we search for new leadership for the organization. I welcome participation from all our Registrants and Associates in that process.
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