Kaelin Alexander had hopes of being a professor. It’s how he ended up in Ithaca, NY, pursuing a Ph.D. at Cornell University, teaching and working on his dissertation.
But, at 27 years old, between class, prep for teaching, grading, and applying for jobs, he was working around 60+ hours a week, and it took a toll. “I don't think I was aware how stressed I really was because that was just the norm for everyone in my life."
Despite his busy schedule, Alexander made time for the gym to help with his mental health. “I came to depend on the endorphins from the gym in order to keep my head above water when I started experiencing depression and anxiety. At that point I wasn't taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds of any sort, so it fit that need.”
After completing his Ph.D. at 29, Alexander applied for numerous positions, and he landed a one-year visiting professorship in Lexington, VA.
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It was in Lexington that Kaelin started training smarter, rather than harder. “I really became much more intentional. I found better resources for understanding how nutrition and fitness actually work. I really approached the gym like a librarian, even if I wasn't one yet at that point.”
Before moving to Virginia, Alexander had dropped some weight—landing at 150 lbs. But over the course of his year at the college, he put on 25 pounds of muscle. But while his physical changes had continued to evolve, his career was not taking off the way he’d hoped.
The Breaking Point
After his year long position was up, Kaelin applied for more professor positions, but struck out left and right. The rejection really weighed on him.
“The first few times [you get a rejection] you think, ‘Well, that's surprising,’ but that quickly becomes this weekly ritual of getting rejection letters, for years. They’d go out on Friday nights, and then I’d really feel awful going into the weekend.”
Alexander moved to Denver in 2017, hoping to shake his depression and anxiety. His plan was to leave academia, and head there with his partner. At first, he worked in a coffee shop.
But part of the plan to “leave academia” was to get administrative jobs at colleges, which eventually happened when he picked up a data entry position in a university admissions office, and later a communications position. “Instead of doing something new and sustaining, I just threw myself right back into academia, but in this totally different, very silly way. It was very much a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in retrospect.”
The Catalyst for Change
In early 2018, Alexander went to see a career counselor, as well as a therapist. Going to the career counselor helped him realize that “at that point, I was never going to get what I needed from a life in academia, and that academia really didn't need anything from me except to exploit my labor. So, I knew I needed to get out.”
His therapist helped him realize “that anxiety wasn't necessary and that it was okay to need help,” he says. He went on medication, which helped him feel like life could be a little easier.
Then, Alexander started volunteering at a local Friends Meeting for First Day School (“imagine a really secular Sunday School” he says), and at the local science museum, and made a crucial connection about his next career path. “That’s when I started to recognize that it was the education in the abstract, and not any particular knowledge, that really motivated me.
He decided to apply for jobs in libraries, because they supported that interest in helping people learn. In April 2018, when Alexander was 33, he landed his first library job, despite thinking it wasn’t going to happen. “I thought that I could never be a librarian because all the librarians I knew were hyper-competent, focused people, and I definitely felt—especially in 2018—that I was very scattered and that my career was incoherent.”
Alexander is still in the library field, as a Branch Library Specialist, and lives in Denver, CO. Healso married the partner he moved there with, who he credits as being a big motivator. “I'm grateful that meeting him gave me the push I needed to find my value outside of academia. Loving him, and moving across the country, were the first real choices I made after deciding to leave academia.”
His fitness is still an important part of his life too, as he goes back and forth between weight lifting and being a cyclist. “Last year I went from 200 pounds after a very dirty bulk down to 165 in about four months. The tradeoff for that was the I got down to 7.7% body fat and became a very solid cyclist.”
But Alexander also finds his “transformations” to be pretty cyclical.
In the fall of 2018, he went from 180 to 200 pounds in four months. Then he had to cut to get a cycling weight of 160. Then he was back up to 180, to his new PRs.
“My husband and I took [the phrase] ‘We Learn and We Grow" as something like our House Words when we first met. Sometimes that's very literal—making #gainz—and sometimes it's about finding ways to do fulfilling work. But, as a result I'm really not that invested in particular outcomes so much as I am in doing the work and making progress.”
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