A few weeks ago, I had lunch with some younger friends. We all serve on our university’s women’s council, and the younger friend is easily a decade younger than me. She was talking about moving away from our college town and having a more “adult” life rather than living in her teeny tiny apartment at she was able to afford on her salary. I turned to her and said “do you know where I was when I was 28? I was in the middle of getting divorced. I was broke as all get out because of said divorce, the credit card bills that we both racked up but were in my name, and my student loans coming into repayment at the same time. And I was living in an apartment that I still call the ‘shoebox’ because it was literally shaped like a shoebox.” My friend looked stunned by my honesty and then thanked me for sharing that with her because she felt better about her own shoebox apartment that she had at 27.
What I wish I had known in my 20s is that people who are in the 30s and 40s and seem to have their shit together all had times in their lives when they didn’t. I’m envious of those people who walked into their grad program and thought they were all that and moved forward through grad school with confidence. I follow some of those people on Facebook and Twitter and I think to myself, damn. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time in my twenties looking for and needing approval. Whether it was an A on paper, a faculty member who wanted to work with me on a project, or a boyfriend (!!!), I needed that approval. I took my chair’s tenure letter of non-support so hard that I cried for a weekend. (I’m sure others are devastated when they receive this letter too.) When my therapist and I talked about this, she described it: I’m a perfectionist, my (academic) achievements were always celebrated from my childhood forward, and I needed that pat on the head. That resonated with me SO much, and I’ve been very aware of this personality tendency for the past few years since she told me this.
However, the other day, I was listening to the Nasty Women Radio podcast and they called this “hustling for worthiness.” This phrase hits the nail on the head. We’re all hustling for worthiness. I posted the other day about my book project and how I gave up on it after someone who has always shitted on my work decided to do it again. So, guess what? Even though I’m tenured and promoted, I still don’t have my shit together. I still allow people to get in my head about my projects. I sometimes allow people to write my story (Reviewer 2, I’m looking at you). But it’s happening less and less as I realize that this is something I need to continually work on. I know my value. I know my worth (or that damn piece of paper in a nice frame on the wall in my office wouldn’t be there). I also don’t need external validation of my projects/my life/my worthiness. Obviously, I really do… thanks, peer review! Hustling for worthiness is fucking exhausting. You aren’t always rewarded for that effort either (ahem, my divorce). We need to cultivate a feeling of value in ourselves. The real question is how do we get there? I’m a big believer in that the answers I give are not “one size fits all” but I’ll tell you what worked for me.
First, finding an awesome therapist who was able to help me on this journey. She opened my eyes to a lot of things I couldn’t see about myself. I had defined myself solely in terms of my academic achievements (ie, if I’m not an academic, then I’m not marketable). She urged me to see that I’m so much more: I’m a wife, mother, daughter, friend. I love to garden and read young adult novels. I am thoughtful, loyal, and empathetic. I am not just my publication record and my methods skills. Some reading this might snort and say “well, reading The Fault in Our Stars isn’t going to get you promoted to full.” Nope, it’s not. But I wish I had learned early on in my grad school days to lead a more balanced life. This is something that I impart to my grad students as a faculty mentor.
Second, realize that your path isn’t someone else’s. Sure, we’re groomed from day one to get THEMOSTAWESOMEJOBPOSSIBLE. Being on the job market is trying for anyone. I remember when a friend got a job at a teaching college that he wanted to go to and other students were like “oh yeah, but it’s just a teaching college.” Is it possible that some of us are better teachers than researchers? If that’s the truth, then why do we all want the same thing other than… Laud? Prestige? Being able to say our department has a PhD? Comparing yourself to others all the time? That is exhausting. Embrace your path. Embrace what YOU want other than what others want. After all, this is your life, not theirs.
Third, and I can’t say this enough… surround yourself with good people. Seek out mentors who want to build you up with constructive criticism and are willing to work with you to move past problems. Find peers who want to read your work and give feedback (and you do the same). Don’t snark on other’s journeys. Some people don’t want to be an academic… and that’s ok. Some people don’t ever want to have children… and that’s ok. Some people only publish in the top five journals… and that’s ok. I truly believe what you put out in the world comes back to you, so only put out what you want back. And stop hustling for your worth.