aNewDomain — “Those references are incredible. I’ve never seen a letter like this.”
The chair of the faculty search committee leaned back in his seat and eyed me with something that looked a lot like suspicion in his face. I thought he was going to run me in, demand to know how I’d gotten the references, give them back to whoever I’d stolen the letters from.
But they all had my name on them, so he couldn’t.
I was amazing, fresh out of graduate school. I’d worked with the top people in my field, had a list of publications and presentations, had volunteer and international work to my credit. I tried for three years to break into academia. That narrow-eyed interview was the closest I ever came to a full-time gig.
Now, if you offered me one of those, I think I’d turn it down.
I got up early today because I wanted to. I’m drinking coffee, getting my words in because I want to. I have no particular obligations today and, most days, when I have obligations, they’re not that onerous.
The work I must do occupies 20-30 hours of my week. The work I want to do occupies my life.
I worked like a bastard to be the best out-of-graduate-school psychologist I could be, and that wasn’t good enough. Blame me, blame the economy, blame the University of Phoenix who poisoned the institution of higher education for graduate students everywhere. Blame Obama, I don’t care.
But I tried, I tried hard, and I failed. I licked hundreds of envelopes, sent out packages, manually entered the same information over and over in the websites schools use to slow your roll forward before screening. All I managed was a couple of call-backs, one interview and two phone interviews.
And they all hired someone else.
I’ve never been so grateful for anything, ever.
Is success really worth it?
I watch my friends who are succeeding, and they’re tired. Dog-tired, worn down to little nubbins. They sweat and slave, rush from place to place, can’t take the time to relax in the morning with an open page and a cup of joe.
They’re killing themselves.
They’re getting fat from the stress and then trying to work off the fat by walking on treadmills, machines that so symbolize the life of corporate ascendency that it makes me cry a little inside.
Outside there is a sun. It sits in a sky too bright to look at but you should try anyway, look at that sky until your eyes water, until your mind waters.
In here there are stories. Purple prose, livid encounters with grief and all the flavors of sadness, tales of courage, adventure, the magnificence of being.
Is success worth it?
Is it worth it to miss all this radiant beauty, all this engagement and all these dreams, all for a life on the treadmill?
When I failed the first time, laid off from my job with a baby on the way, I got depressed in a hurry. I walked under that yellow sky and worried. Fretted, really.
But I didn’t do anything about it.
I mean, I filled out job applications. I eventually got myself hired at yet another soul-sucking place for a grueling, homicidal number of hours.
But in the time between, I didn’t sit down at the computer, open a Word document and write my dreams.
The more I succeeded, the more I expected that success to lead to more. More money, more work, more … success. But it didn’t.
It all lead to student loan repayment programs, debt, eventually despair.
I didn’t go deep enough the first time. I grew depressed but still had a basic optimism: things will be okay. I can handle it. I’ll find something. And it was true. Later, later, I had to learn about the ultimate hopelessness of things, and how to embrace the sad life.
I get to write for half my living now, I have eight novels on my hard drive to choose from as I move towards publication.
This is all because I failed. It’s because I despaired, got right with despair and went on to eat every slice of my humble pie.
And because of an accident.
A chance encounter. For all of my hard work, I have failed soundly as an academic. But a friend of a friend, a handshake between meetings, and I’m a columnist. So I’m up early living this life of magnificence, dwelling on things of import while my friends get up early because they have to fit in an hour on the treadmill.
All that work, the agony and the anguish, it wasn’t for nothing. It just wasn’t for what I thought it was.