Notes from an Unapologetic “Work is (or can be) Life” Advocate

Written By: Heather Benning, Executive Director of the Midwest Conference (MWC)

As I approach the four-year mark as the Executive Director of the Midwest Conference, I occasionally find myself considering: what is next? I don’t feel pressure nor am I propelled into contemplation out of a sense that I need to “move on.” Rather, I realize that I am no longer “new” to the role of Executive Director…I’m no longer trying it on as a potential professional opportunity that will afford me a more decided role in athletic administration. Commissioner is an identity I comfortably own – I am a full-time athletic administrator in the NCAA Division about which I am exceptionally passionate. And, while I absolutely LOVE what I do and thoroughly enjoy the opportunities the position provides – so much that it motivates me to approach each day with energy and optimism. I also know that one day this may not be the case…and, thus, I need to know: what is next?

To better understand why I think it is important to have an answer to this question, or at least a general idea of where next I might go, it may be helpful to back up and share a little about why

I pursued this career opportunity four years ago.

2013-14 marked my 19th year coaching and teaching at a selective liberal arts college in Iowa. What kept me at one institution for 19 years is that every 2-4 years I was afforded the opportunity to grow through the addition of new responsibilities, challenges and the occasional title change. There was little (if any) reason to consider seeking opportunity elsewhere because I was professionally challenged, I loved what I was doing, and my family was settled in the community. Work was my life (or at least a part of it) and I approached it with passion and was rewarded with fulfillment.

In what became my final years there, I grew hungry for greater administrative opportunity, and to be honest, a shift in overall job responsibilities. I recognized that some of what I had been doing for many years was no longer providing the same levels of joy, satisfaction and desired challenges. A significant aspect of my job description had become “work” – not “work” in the sense of “a challenge” but in the sense of separate from life. It was something that I had to do, not necessarily what I would choose to do. I wanted to redefine what I was doing so that my job description met my contemporary passions and allowed me to continue “loving what I was doing.”

This is at the core of something about which I am very passionate – the goal is to live a life you love living, where what is by definition your “career” isn’t experienced as work or something one has to do, but rather something one enjoys, chooses and/or wants to do. It is why I have an aversion to the concept of “work/life balance” – it assumes that work is something other than, and in tension with, life – to have more of one means to have less of the other. For me, the ultimate goal is to find a career that feels like it contributes to my life, positively contributes to my identity and that, ultimately, is part of who I am.

So, this brings me back to the initial proposition, “What’s next?” When I was offered the opportunity to be the Executive Director of the Midwest Conference, I saw it as a 6-year opportunity to pursue a career in a more decided athletic administrative role, while affording my children the chance to conclude their K-12 education in the school district in which they were raised. I was very honest that I might not be retained for the full 6 years…after all, this is my first experience as a commissioner of an athletic conference, and it’s still possible that the opportunity may fall short of the 6 years, but, the point is…I’m all of a sudden four years in, and I am so loving what I am doing that I’ve not often thought about what is next. Right now I am loving the life I am living and that is my goal – not to feel like I am balancing the obligation of work with the passion and aspirations of my life. I am fortunate that I’ve found a place, for now, that feels like my life.

Heather Benning, Executive Director of the Midwest Conference (MWC)

Benning is the Executive Director of the Midwest Conference (MWC) – a NCAA DIII athletic conference comprised of liberal arts institutions in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. She recently was elected to the NCAA DIII Management Council and DIII Commissioners’ Association (DIIICA) Executive Committee. Immediately prior to her appointment as commissioner, Benning served as Grinnell College’s Assistant Athletic Director, Associate Professor of Physical Education, Senior Woman Administrator, Head Women’s Soccer Coach, and Coordinator for Title IX in Athletics. She began her tenure at Grinnell as an assistant soccer coach in 1995 before becoming the women’s soccer head coach in 1998. She guided the Pioneers to five MWC championships and took her team to the NCAA Tournament four times. Benning earned her Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College and her Master’s degree from the University of Iowa.

Guest Blogger