Most of my adult life was dedicated to the business of building a career. I had always known that I would have one, and was driven by the belief, or even the commandment, that it should be brilliant. As I’ve remarked earlier, quitting was shameful. With the arrival of the women’s movement, I got the message that settling was just as much a deadly sin. I had failed in my initial plan to become a violinist, and so I found an alternative: an academic career pursuing my interests, which were entirely within the framework of the humanities. I majored in history in college, but almost completed a philosophy major as well; in fact, my senior honors thesis was so philosophical that at the very end of my four years I changed my major to Intellectual History.
“As opposed to what,” people would ask, “dumb history?” I laughed, but it was hard to explain, especially as the definition shifted during the time I was a student. History of ideas? Or the history of texts in context? The history of how people express meaning? And then, there was the question of what was included. Literature? Philosophy? The fine arts? Any and all of the above, I would say, elaborating that I had had so much trouble choosing that I finally landed in a field that allowed me to have everything.
The only trouble was, at the time of my graduation from college in 1976, there were no academic jobs to be had. The demographics of my generation were to blame: when the baby boom generation first began reaching college age in the 60s, graduate schools responded by accepting more students to increase the number of newly-minted professors. Unfortunately, there was the lag between bringing these people into the pipeline and sending them out, because of the length of time it takes to train a college professor (anywhere from 4 to 12 years, roughly). Thus for awhile there was a limit in supply, until the inevitable crunch occurred as the baby boomers cycled out of college and into their adult lives.
Graduate departments did not notice this fact immediately, and so as applications for admission to colleges and universities began to slacken, the supply of PhDs continued undiminished. Not only did the number of people still in training remain high, but new ones were being admitted year after year. Academic departments are like any other unit within a hierarchical organization, in that they operate to increase their share of the whole through expanding in size wherever possible, and thus during the heyday of the 60s these organizations had enjoyed their expansion. They did not easily arrive at a decision to contract, even if they found themselves almost overnight unable to place their graduates with the same success as earlier.
This bit of history is of little interest to most people, but to the academic world it had devastating consequences. I had been celebrated in college as an excellent student with wonderful prospects, but suddenly I found myself in a position where the sky was no longer the limit in terms of what I could accomplish. Still, my narcissism was such that I was convinced I could not fail. I took some time out between undergraduate and graduate school, ended my first marriage, and then went ahead with my plans.
Throughout the years that followed I was obsessed with landing a job. I got a series of temporary positions after five years in school, completing my dissertation at the end of my first year out. I sent out applications each fall to every school offering a job even remotely in line with my experience, attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association each winter to interview with those that had indicated an interest in my application, and returned home in an agony of expectation waiting to hear further. I eventually landed a job at a fine liberal arts college in the Midwest, far from family and friends, and remained there until retirement two years ago.
I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones, and have no complaints about the lot I drew in my vocational life. I also recognize that I made sacrifices to get and keep that job, and that throughout my career I often wished I had chosen differently (I even find myself revisiting the question in retirement). When I was applying for jobs 30+ years ago, I was under the powerful illusion that I would be blissfully happy if I attained my goal. I also regarded the difficulties of my job search and early career as a miserable burden, resenting those who seemed to have an easier life—mostly older, established professors, which I myself would eventually become—and wallowed in self-pity at the unfairness of it all. It’s not that I didn’t know about the multitudes of people in the world struggling to survive in war zones or in extreme poverty, but I simply did not relate their lives to my own. And so I spent my young adulthood mired in self-centeredness and delusion.
The job search and subsequent career also threw me into relentless competition with countless others, equally or better qualified, who I feared would rob me of my prize. The real prize, I found, wasn’t just a job doing meaningful work or an income, but self-esteem. I invested my entire self in winning this competition, regarding my competitors with a sense of grievance. Most frightening of all was seeing how easily I could be surpassed or replaced. The fear was like a choking sensation in my throat, as if I couldn’t breathe, as if these doubles of myself would suffocate me. For if someone else could do everything I could do, only potentially do it better, or be more attractive or more praised in doing it, then what was I? The answer was that I was nothing, nothing at all.