Friday, February 10, 2006

What other people think

Just killing some time until the wife calls for me to pick her up. I wanted to blog a bit about a recent realization I've had. In part my present relaxation is due to an acceptance that what other people think is not really all that important to me. Let me explain.

I'm talking about my wife's family, my brothers, the au pair, my wife's coworkers... just about anyone who's not in academia. I'm really tired of explaining my unemployment status, trying to convince them what I am (in better moments) convinced of myself: that the right job will come along, or perhaps it won't, but either way it doesn't really reflect on the relevance or worthiness of the work I do... but rather, in some skewed way, it reflects the often inexplicable alignment of ideas that leads a committee to say Eureka, he's the one!

I was just reading My Department is Dreaming of a Wedding on In Favor of Thinking and Discipline Boundaries on What Now? It's nice to see things from the other side of the table now and again. God, what I wouldn't give to be adored by a department, or frankly even liked enough to be hired.

But, those things are beyond my control. Sure, I can put on a good face, and expend the necessary energy to write a bang-up cover letter, and what have you, and endeavor to just wow them, should I be invited to campus. But those things alone will not guarantee a job offer.

In his later years, my father took to saying that what's in our power is to decide whether or not we are going be good; history alone will decide if we are considered great. It means a lot to me. I've been ambitious all my life. Not ambitious as in I wanted to be CEO, or a famous movie star. I confess to having daydreamed about being POTUS or to thinking myself as good an actor as someone famous. Sure, I've fantasized about such acclaim and power.

Mostly, however, I've aspired to greatness, to making major contributions to something. Over the years, I've narrowed down my field. I've refined the areas of my principal interest, ostensibly the domain in which I might make that giant leap. But, giant leaps are not so much in the distance we cover, or in the amount of effort we put in. No, we can decide to be good at what we do. It's luck, and timing, and circumstance, and the ability of society to recognize and realize the value in what we do... it's a whole slew of things, that conspire for or against our accomplishment's value in history. That is to say, great things are not always better than good things. Maybe I've just passed through the stages in life that ProfessorMe described as stages in a student's attitudes toward the dissertation.

I haven't given up my aspirations, my ambition. I've only mollified it a bit. As an actor, I often wondered at the strange and glorious mutations that some directors go in for. I've wondered at the fascination artists and composers often have with what's novel. And I've come to the conclusion that 1) sometimes it's enough to just do something good, even if it's been done before; and 2) before spending too much energy finding your own voice, be sure you've got something to say.

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