Usually it’s the end of year roundup that provides a good moment for a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, where the setting of New Year’s Resolutions can feel like a teeth-gritting pushback against the failures of the twelve months just gone. But if you work in higher education, the start of the new academic year also seems to provide another Janus moment of looking forward and back, of disappointment in the lost opportunities of the preceding year and of setting resolutions for the months ahead. New academic diary, new notebooks, new you.
There’s a meme that’s been circulating on twitter that asks what you’ve achieved in the three-quarters of 2018 that have passed. Normally resilient though I am, I’ll admit that this kind of question fills me with a throat-clutching kind of anxiety. The answer for me is always, inevitably: not enough. Something I’ve done in previous years, when I’ve faced this kind of question (if only from myself; one of the drawbacks about being of an academic disposition is the relentless self-probing – no sniggering at the back, please) is to try to rationalise it. To make a list of the things I have achieved, to look back on each month and coax out all the victories, small and large. This can be a useful exercise! I’ve found it reassuring, and I am cheering on all of you who’ve used this meme to celebrate your achievements – particularly those of you who are in precarious circumstances, whose achievements aren’t being celebrated by proper paid employment, or those of you who have overcome enormous personal challenges to make it to Day 254 of 2018. More power to you. I’m proud of you. But it’s not a game I want to play any more.
I don’t know how to undo the way I measure myself in things I have achieved. It’s been a way for me to articulate my value for as long as I can remember. Number of A*s at GCSE, how many university offers, a first class BA, etc. Being on the job market isn’t exactly a way of sloughing off that attitude, either, not when the constant refining of my CV and covering letters to present myself as the Ideal Scholar, Teacher, Colleague is both a list of what I have achieved and what I will achieve, a long litany of milestones. While I am passionately committed to the idea that all human beings have innate dignity, and that our value is not in our achievements but in the very nature of our personhood, I can still restlessly resist the idea that I can be special without achievement. And of course the goalposts keep shifting. I will be content, I thought once, if I turn the PhD into a book. That will mean the PhD was worth doing, whatever else happens. I did that, but my goal had changed. If I can have a job that lasts more than one year, that will be a success. I’ve done that twice over. I always tried to make my personal goals modest, achievable, while underneath them of course I’ve wanted success beyond that – to be brilliant, to be noted for that brilliance, and to have it rewarded by the kind of job where I no longer have an end date in mind.
But something this year has taught me – that I knew before, theoretically, but that wasn’t yet written on the inside of my skin as an intimate knowledge – is that the last achievement might never be mine. I remember this summer, when I did two interviews in two cities on two consecutive days (a nightmare I do not recommend to anyone), and I sat on the train going home from the second, swallowing hard against tears of exhaustion, knowing how good I had been in at least one of those interviews and that neither of them were likely to say yes, I grieved hard for what could have been. I think it’s only recently I’ve learned that I was grieving, too, for a kind of optimism I had once about if I worked hard enough, if I burned bright enough, it would finally be my turn.
This isn’t a pessimistic post. I have moved past that moment – even if recollecting it now has brought tears to my eyes, just in sense-memory – and I am in a different place. My 2018, my 2017 or 2020 or beyond aren’t beads to be counted on an abacus of a successful life. In 2018 I have done a lot of things I haven’t done before, and I have done a lot of things I have done many times before and been made richer in spirit, stronger, and I hope kinder by them. I did a lot of things that gave me headaches and felt like a waste of time. I did a lot of things that are part of the necessary grind. And I did things that disappointed me. There’s no easy way of measuring them; only of remembering, and of feeling changed and unchanged by that remembrance.
I vomited my way through a conference I organised, unable to enjoy any of the fruits of my labour. I spent time with friends I have barely seen in years. I stood ankle-deep in cold surf at the turning-dusk of a June day, entirely alone. I helped my daughter build sandcastles. I wrote a few things and read a few more. I lay in bed sobbing over an opportunity lost, and shook off another with barely a shrug. I turned fondant into fishtails late into the night before a birthday party. My weight moved up and down by 3kg all year long. I had the summer weather I’ve dreamed of, of sun-scorched grass and blooming flowers and nothing on my legs for weeks.
And hey, no blood clot in 2018 (touch wood). That’s got to be one for the bank of achievements, after all.