What I’m Reading: Rising Strong

“When you try your best but you don’t succeed…”

Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’

After I was rejected in 2018 for a dream tenure-track postdoc fellowship in my favourite city, this line from “Fix You” went through my head for longer than I’d care to admit…It perfectly captures the shame of not being good enough. I honestly felt like I had tried my best, which made the rejection very painful.

For the past year or so, I’ve been applying to lots of jobs, both inside and outside of academia. Every time, I’ve been rejected without ever being invited to an interview. It stings a little, especially when I thought I had a good shot, but I’ve gotten used to it. When we were on holiday in Somerset a few weeks ago, I got invited to interview for a lecturer position that I’d nearly forgotten about–it was a full-time, permanent, Grade 8 role. It was interdisciplinary and very exciting–an awesome job that I didn’t expect to be shortlisted for. I applied anyway because it’s like the lottery–you have to be in it to win it.

This time, I prepared harder than ever. I looked up all of the panel members and took notes on their research interests and roles. I looked at their research groups and saw where my work would fit in. I read the Vice Chancellor’s statement on Black Lives Matter and watched videos about their reciprocal mentoring initiative, which I loved. I looked through their student life and support pages, and was really impressed with their values–you can tell they appreciate the fact that students have a life outside of the university. I worked hard on my presentation, practiced it with a timer several times, recorded myself and watched it back, edited my notes.

On the day, I was extremely nervous and did all of my “power pose” and breathing tricks to calm down (thank you Amy Cuddy!). When it actually was time for the interview, I knew I’d prepared as well as I could. My presentation went well, but the actual interview questions were harder. I could tell that I hadn’t made enough of a research agenda, especially in terms of a funding plan, but to be honest, without an affiliation for the past 2 years, I don’t even know where to start with funding. I need a research funding officer to walk me through the process, and I need time and space (aka childcare) to come up with research ideas and write up proposals. Proposals also require some background research (preliminary lit review), and I don’t have the time or journal access I need to do that. It doesn’t help that I’ve been sleep deprived for two years, either. When I work through these issues, I feel like I’m making excuses, and I worry that the underlying truth is that I’m just not good enough and I just haven’t tried hard enough.

A couple of days later, I got the rejection call while I was on the school run, picking up George and chasing Paul around the playground. Getting feedback in public was not ideal, and it was especially annoying given the fact I’d been carrying my phone around with me constantly with the ringer on for the past 2 days. I kept it together, and I managed not to cry until we got home. Richard took the boys over for me and I followed the advice in Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout to “feel my feelings.” I just sat and cried. It wasn’t even about this specific job–although that was disappointing and I had gotten my hopes up for it. I cried because it was yet another rejection in a long string of rejections. I cried because, to argue with Paolo Coelho, it felt like the universe was conspiring against me. If this isn’t the right path, if I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing, then what am I supposed to be doing? If I’m not meant to have an academic career, why did the universe allow me to go this far–passing my PhD viva without corrections, getting articles and chapters published, presenting at conferences–but not get a proper, full-time, permanent job now? If something better is meant for me, why is it taking so long?

Friends and family were quick to send comforting words, and I distracted myself with a busy weekend (food festival, visiting friends, church). I also read Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, which had been sitting in my to-be-read pile for just such a time as this…

Rising Strong is the follow-up to Daring Greatly, both in terms of Brown’s publishing timeline and also in actual practice. Daring Greatly inspires you to put yourself out there–take a chance, apply for that job, open yourself up to a new relationship, etc. Unfortunately, being that brave can/will result in a crash, and that’s where Rising Strong comes in. It’s about picking yourself up after failure.

Brené Brown outlines a 3-stage process based on emotions and storytelling: the Reckoning, the Rumble, and the Revolution. The first stage is about thinking through your emotions–not just feeling your feelings (although that’s crucial, too–instead of numbing them), but also questioning them. My reckoning with the job rejection news happened right away–even as I was reacting to it, I knew I wasn’t actually that upset about that particular rejection. It was about linking my self-worth to my accomplishments and feeling worthless. It was about being embarrassed that had been made redundant two years ago and still hadn’t found a job. It was the shame of not being good enough to get a job. Good enough to get a PhD (seven years ago…), but not good enough to do anything with it. Sylvia Plath talked about this feeling in The Bell Jar–being good at winning scholarships, but struggling with the real world outside of school.

And this kind of storytelling is where the Rumble comes in. The story you tell yourself about the event in question is the SFD (Brown borrows Anne Lamott’s term “shitty first draft”). My SFD was that I wasn’t cut out for academia, I had wasted my 20s and half of my 30s, and I would never find a proper job because, at the end of the day, I just wasn’t good enough. The SFD is full of confabulations–“lies, honestly told” (p. 81)–and conspiracies. Rumbling with it is about working through what the actual facts are, what your assumptions are, what’s going on with other people in the story, and what’s underneath your own response to the event.

So what actually happened?

I interviewed for a job and didn’t get it.

Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s not a reflection on my self-worth, or even on my ability to ever establish myself in academia.

It was one job, one interview, one department, one panel.

There are other jobs, both inside and outside of academia, and I need to have faith that I will eventually find the right fit somewhere.

My job search history sounds terrible in my mind (only 2 interviews in 3 years), but if you compare it to dating, it makes more sense. I can see that I just haven’t found the right one yet and I need to keep believing that something better is out there. It’s like going on an unsuccessful first date in 2018, having some rejections on dating apps, and then having another unsuccessful first date in 2021, and deciding you’re never going to meet anyone and you’re going to die alone. If somebody presented that timeline to me, I would tell them to put themselves out there more, or stop looking and just try do to more of what they love to do.

The final stage, the Revolution, is about re-writing the story and creating a new ending. Obviously, I want the ending of the story to be that I finally get a career (preferably in academia, but I’m open to other possibilities). It’s supposed to be based on the learnings from the Rumble, so I suppose mine is the realisation that I am actually good enough, I have actually already been a lecturer and I can be one again. I have a PhD and publications and experience that they can’t take away from me, no matter how long I’m a sleep deprived stay-at-home-mom who hardly ever gets to write anymore.

The Rising Strong process has also reinforced the importance of self-compassion, and the need for me to go back and re-read Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion. If a friend was going through the job search process and struggling like I am, there’s no way I would ever say or think “You’re just not cut out for this.” I would comfort them, commiserate with them, make them a cup of tea, and remind them of all of their best qualities. I would tell them to keep trying and reassure them that the right job is out there, and it will come at the right time.

Now I just need to practice talking to myself like that!

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