There are sins.
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(1) I struggle to say “no” in appropriate ways. Instead, I tend to say “yes” to everything, then simply place anything I don’t actually want or have time to do at the very end of my to-do list, right after “individually polish the blades of grass in my lawn.” As a result, instead of refusals, people get what they experience as broken promises. This is particularly true when I manage a refusal the first time around but someone presses me—I almost always relent, but then fail to prioritize whatever it is I’ve relented on and agreed to do. This leads people to imagine me as inconsistent. I don’t get any points for saying, “but I tried to show that I really didn’t want to do it” or “but I said no twice before I said yes!” Not that I think I do. But I seem to act as though I do.
(2) I struggle to simply write, even though I’m essentially a writer and have always known it. At times, in fact, I can be a damned good one. But rather than simply write, simply produce what is there to be produced, I’ve spent a lifetime doing “less frivolous things” or doing my writing in a “less frivolous way”, which renders my writing rare, stilted, unintelligible, and useless. The result: not much productivity, and what exists sounds foreign to me and excessively complex to others much of the time. Too often I hear someone say, “Why is it that this thing that you wrote for purely personal reasons turns my world upside down, but what you write professionally is so incredibly average and workman-like? Why don’t you just write more like that instead?” I don’t know. I suppose I’ve been convinced that some stuff is unimportant and other stuff is what The Serious People write, and that only The Serious People ever manage to pay their bills. I need to unlearn this.
(3) I mischaracterize my skills. For decades, I’ve spent my work life emphasizing skills that just aren’t me. As a result, I’ve landed jobs and contracts in those areas. And I’ve done them and rolled them into additional CV experience that earns me more jobs of that kind. Why? Normativity. It’s a good thing to be experienced, organized, a multi-tasker, a project manager, great with people, and so on. These are social values. Nevermind that I hate doing all of them—absolutely hate. That’s what I’m supposed to be and supposed to aspire to. So I keep getting these jobs and keep rolling that experience into getting still more of the same, and featuring all of these things on my CV. That needs to change. I hate doing the same things over and over again; experience is a fucking humbug. Done it before? Then I never want to look at it again. I hate being organized, irrespective of my ability to do it. It drains me. It makes life meaningless. I hate multi-tasking. Despite years of experience and intense effort, I am coming to the realization that I am a middling manager at best because my heart isn’t in it, and I really don’t feel anything like myself while acting in that role. Great with people? I like to drink with people. I like to work alone—completely, entirely alone.
(4) I have built a forest, not a career. The result of these things is that I have spent a working lifetime building the wrong body of experience, the wrong identity for myself. My wife looks at my CV and says “howcome this person looks so accomplished and yet when you talk about your life, you sound so unsure?” The reason is simple: if I were someone at home with these things, what’s on my CV would be a solid career with solid prospects for a great future. But wearing this CV is for me like trying to wear a suit tailored for someone else that is a foot shorter, thirty pounds heavier, and some other gender from me. It doesn’t fit. It’s taken me four times more emotional and mental effort to build my CV as it would have taken someone that actually reveled in these jobs and skills. And where I can get in ten years staying on this path falls well short of where they could get. So it is that despite a great CV, rather than feeling like a person with a career I feel lost in my non-academic work life most of the time, with the deep sense that everything is temporary or ephemeral.
(5) I am not true to myself as an academic. I was once, but now I often feel rather like a trained monkey. I have internalized the “norms of academic discourse” and the “conventional wisdom” on which topics and approaches are “legitimate” as opposed to the world of others that are not, and I broach them in “the appropriate ways” and through “appropriate channels.” The result is that with every passing day I have made myself stand out less, look more like every other cookie-cutter, bog-standard Ph.D. candidate out there in the intensely competitive sea of would-be professors. It’s a cancer and a poison. I am my best when I am who I am—when I get the response that “Um, this is very unconventional and I’m more than a little uncomfortable with it because you’ve broken a whole bunch of unwritten rules, but it’s quite brilliant in spite of itself.” Unfortunately, this is usually followed by “If we can just fix a bit of this naiveté and show a little more decorum and disciplinary awareness, you’ll be a real challenger.” I have to stop listening to this last part, because when I take the advice, I lose the “quite brilliant” part, which is the only part that ultimately matters to me (and, I suspect—though few will admit it—to the academic world at large).
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In short, I have sold myself short, and sold myself as something other than what I am, even to myself.
This is been a difficult year. I’d like to say that it’s been a year of growth, but in fact I don’t think I’m that far along yet. It’s been, instead, a year of discovery and self-study. The number of books I’ve read, from the popular to the academic to the spiritual, on topics from life balance to personal habits to career development, is astounding.
But they all point to the same thing.
It’s time to grow up—which for me means the opposite of what I was always told by well-meaning elders of all stripes. It’s time for me to stop listening to authority, stop trying to “bite the bullet and behave,” and stop being “responsible” instead of “frivolous.” Because frivolous can be very profitable, too (something that the intergenerational splits in the U.S. always seem to exemplify but somehow never illuminate) and responsible isn’t all that productive (or, indeed, responsible) if you’re just tremendously inefficient at it.
— § —
I’m a writer and a thinker and a teacher. Not an editor, not a manager, and not a traditional “academic.”
The differences could not be more important.