Do what you want and the identity crisis will follow

A graduate student finds that there are tougher dreams to pursue than scaling the walls of the ivory tower.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Is my notion of what constitutes success and failure in a career flawed or is following one's heart the short road to hell? I used to be pretty sure about the answer to this. Seven years ago, I embarked on a Ph.D. at Cambridge; funded by a scholarship to live and study in England, I began to make friends with people who not only thought I had an accent but found it charming. Success was a simple state in which personal satisfaction and social approval were the same thing. I thought I was doing OK. Actually, I was pretty pleased with myself. People seemed to think I was doing OK. So OK then, no problem. I planned to: a) finish my thesis, b) get a good job at a great university, c) do some brilliant research and d) make some money. Simple. Brilliant!

It wasn't that I didn't have a philosophy of failure, but I just didn't think about it. Since finishing with graduate school and moving from the fens of England to the cornfields of Iowa, however, I have had ample time to reflect upon its many grubby nuances. Initially, failure was pursuing an academic career when I no longer wanted to. Failure was betraying my heart's secret dream and never admitting to another soul that I wanted to write a novel or, worse, never putting creative pen to paper. Most of all, failure was not admitting that my dissertation topic was mindfuckingly boring and should not be inflicted on a dog.

So, I hit the ejector button upon submission of my thesis. Banzai! Shooting aimless from the wreckage of my academic ambition into the unknown sky, I found that success suddenly meant saying no. No to the possibility of a good salary and a tenured job, but also no to the constant struggle between article quantity and research quality, no to the life of petty, carping competition with the 15 other people in the world trained in my specialty, and no to the angst-filled job search, the commuter relationship and the prolonged post-doctoral infancy. Like other doomed relationships, it took too many months to let go, too many months to stop looking at the job ads wondering if we'd get back together and too many months after that to dam the flood of post-coital/collegial recrimination. Eventually, the tide of disappointment and confusion ebbed, and success was the certainty that I had made the right decision -- to say no.

Yet success in the form of money, recognition, security and the admiration of my peers -- success in the sense that someone, anyone, gives a crap what I do -- has proven to be a little more elusive. Academia has become an increasingly tortured path but it is still a path, and it allows all us "good students" to imagine our futures as a seamless highway from our first day of kindergarten. In the new university where there are stars and there are slaves, at least we know our places. Out here where there are no hierarchies or offices, no conferences or departmental secretaries, it's easy to drown in our own freedom. The ivory tower -- for all its rigidity -- gives a shape and a place for all that abstract thinking. Like most of its denizens, I've leaned on it for so long that thinking all by myself -- the very essence of any kind of writing or reading -- now feels a little lonely without its ivy-covered walls.

Yes, I know this is what I was meant to do, yes, it's a long and winding road, and, yes, one day my heart, soul and mind will certainly converge harmonically, but can anyone tell me how long I must be the freakin' Buddha before I get a little bit of acknowledgment? After two years of making bit money with freelance jobs, two years of sitting at my desk day after day spending more daylight hours with fictional characters than real ones, two years of being rejected by agents while watching my partner's and my friends' more conventional careers soar, I am left wondering how much recognition we human beings (modify that with educated, ambitious) need from society before we just go mad. I am lucky -- I have the encouragement of family, friends and beloved partner -- and sometimes I feel that it is greedy to want more, but I yearn to affect the lives of people whose phone numbers I haven't memorized. My outrageous desire is not just to write novels, but to have them published as well. But no matter how much the greeting cards and the inspirational posters exhort me, I don't really understand how I can create success when it is dependent on the actions, ideas and feelings of others. When I first stepped away from what had become the structured and predictable misery of institutional life, I did not expect to find myself instead twirling so wildly in confusion at the unstructured misery of being self-employed. I think I can cope without the money, the fame and the security, but right now my novel has fewer readers than my dissertation, and that's just wrong.

If self-knowledge is the antithesis of failure, then I may be a success after all. If I hadn't changed career trajectory so dramatically, I would never have discovered that one of my unconscious assumptions about the world is that success comes inevitably to those who have the courage to risk failure. I knew deep down that as long as you really believed you were taking a risk, you would triumph in the end. Now, I'm not so sure. Perhaps unmitigated failure also comes to those who risk failure. Nonetheless, when I am not straining toward tomorrow, I remember I chose to forgo the twitching, clock-watching dissatisfaction that comes with pursuing a career that I do not feel religious about. The freedom that I now have is not the goal, the goal is what the freedom enables me to do: to grapple with the angst and joy peculiar to my vocation.

So, if you follow your dream and you don't achieve success, how much rejection should you take before you pack it in and try something else? John Kennedy Toole reportedly received hundreds of rejections before killing himself and then posthumously winning a Pulitzer prize. Certainly the relationship between suicide and publishing is an interesting one; it's just not one I want to pursue yet. I can't help hoping that there is some kind of cosmic reward for being brave enough to go the road less traveled. The more form-letter rejections I get, the greater the prize must be. Meanwhile I try to count my blessings and realize that success and failure are illusory and transient, mere distractions in the face of getting on with life -- doing our work. And when I am not lost in the labyrinth of self-indulgence, I know that this is right. But it is not easy.

By Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is an Australian writer who lives in New York City.

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