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old post: Facing into the waves–about a mentor and career changes

from November 2012

Professors often have jobs for life, but we teach people who change their careers quite often. I don't have career change stories I can tell about myself, but I do have one to tell about my friend and mentor Antonette (Toni) Zeiss. I heard Toni speak this past weekend at the annual convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. I'm going to write a bit about her, then a bit about my experiences with her. Hopefully if she stumbles across this blog, she'll appreciate the telling! 
Out of graduate school, Toni landed a tenure line job at Arizona State, then left it for a one year spot at Stanford.  She was a native of Santa Cruz and she and her husband Bob decided that they wanted to return home, so they did, hoping that one or the other would land a job that would last. And they did. They both eventually took positions with the Palo Alto VA, a very different spot than a tenure line position at a major research university!  Toni became expert at gerontology. 
But that wasn't the last of Toni's career changes.  Within the VA, she developed new interests. She took on interdisciplinary team training--the idea that care for someone might work best if people with different expertise could work together as a team to provide that care.  And she later became expert at the training of young clinical psychologists when she headed up direction of interns at the Palo Alto VA. 
Finally, Toni was called to the VA in DC where "she became the first psychologist, the first woman and the first  nonphysician to head the department's mental health policy office," head of an organization with a $6 billion budget and 20,000 employees (per this piece: <a href="http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/va-mental-health.aspx)">http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/va-mental-health.aspx)</a>. This has been a terribly important job in recent years. Toni got there in 2004. The VA had shrunk from having around 1900 psychologists in the '90's to just 1400 in 2003.  It's grown to 4200 today. Well over a million vets seek psychological services in the VA in a given year. We're trained as psychologists to do research, sometimes also to do clinical work.  And yet Toni became an administrator deeply involved in policy making.And that policy making is critical for the mental health of so many.  For instance, as a psychologist, she brings a voice at the policy table for nonpharmacological treatments for the vets.  What treatment people get depends so much on who is there in the administration. 
Toni's career has been one of changes. 
Part of this story is the *that* of Toni's job changes. She could not have predicted where she landed.  Neither she nor I thought of the VA job when I knew her in my grad school days, but there she is. 
Part of this story is the *how* of Toni's job changes. In her talk, Toni spoke mostly about the VA, but also some about her career. She mentioned three lessons she had learned from her mother, and one was to do what you love.  And that's what drew Toni to psychology, then to the Stanford job, then the VA, then training, then policy.  Love is a bit mysterious--hard to know where it will lead in the end, but something you can at least follow and trust. (I now have Linda Ronstadt in my head singing "Love is a Rose..."  Maybe that analogy will help.) Having grown up near the ocean, Toni also told of her mother warning her to face into the waves rather than running from them.  And so she looked into that wave of change in the VA, and came to serve it most admirably. 
Part of this story is the set of *constants* in Toni's job changes. Sonja Batten, also a psychologist at the VA, gave a lovely intro to Toni's talk, thanking Toni as a mentor for the kindness and grace Toni displayed in challenging circumstances. And for demonstrating the importance of believing in the best in others.  In leadership, whether it is the leadership of teaching, of training, or of leading a bureaucracy these strike me as central.  Kindness and grace make others want to join the enterprise, and it leads them to model kindness and grace and bring in still more.  Belief in the best of others keeps the focus on what you can do together, rather than on self-protection. And I suspect it draws out the best in others. 
My first memory of Toni is at a lunch that David Rosenhan held for her at the faculty club at Stanford, in my first year of graduate  school, her one year on the faculty there.  I was pretty lost at the time--I had only taken my first psychology course two years before and had such a limited sense of the field or even why I was in grad school. I had (largely by a quirk of chance!) done depression research as an undergraduate. Toni did  depression research, and I was just drawn to her for reasons I probably  couldn't name.  And so I asked if I could do some research with her and she  became one of the most important of my mentors. 
Partly I remember her patience with my struggling through ideas.  In my first year in graduate school, they weren't particularly good ideas, but her patience let me at least develop them, rather than seeing them as static.  This put me in a spot from which I could listen better my second year of grad school when I was fortunate enough to take a course from Albert Bandura, at which time I started to build a few somewhat ok ideas. 
Partly I remember her trust in me when I was a grad student.  There was the trust that I would figure things out.  But also I housesat for Toni and Bob sometimes when they travelled, and that was such a treat as a break from my grad student digs.  Given the trust, I think I learned a bit to trust myself. 
Partly I remember her graciousness.  Toni always made me feel welcome. And generally I'd laugh in our meetings. Work was invitation rather than command. 
We've stayed in touch over the years.  Some of our students from AU ended up out at the Palo Alto VA.  Toni would sometimes come to Washington, then came to stay these past years.  And throughout Toni has been a model of doing what she loved, and of playing nice, and of facing into the waves. Those habits stand one well whereever you go, even if the temptation is too often to do only that which happens to be in front of you, to play for oneself, and to run from the waves.  And perhaps that the story to tell to students who will often change their jobs.
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