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Fear and Loathing in Philadelphia

November 18, 2011

Today was the point in the conference season where I started to lose my nerve. It happens every year. Conferences are hard on the ego. There are always people more interesting, smarter, better, more desirable than you. This is true all the time, of course, but at conferences, where careers are made and lost by what you know and who you know, it’s easy to feel unimportant, invisible, or uncertain.

Today’s episode of Self-Doubt Digest is brought to you mainly by the fact that this is my second conference in two weeks, that this is the twelfth consecutive day of work without a day off, that most of those days I’ve worked 14 hours or more, that I’m sick. It’s also that I don’t know as many people at this conference. But it is, too, because more than at the last conference, I’ve been fielding the question, “So why did they hire you.” It’s a question a lot of people seem to have about my job at the Toy Factory. It’s not surprising. It’s a question I have myself, often. But most people are too polite to ask it.

At lunch, today, though, I ate with an interesting and unusually outspoken person at lunch. We were powwowing about a project with a third person, who’d introduced us. At one point in the conversation he turned to me and said, “What do you mean by brilliant?” “What do you mean?” I asked. I hadn’t remembered saying the word. “You just called that joke brilliant.”
“Oh, well, it’s just a vocal tic, I guess. I just meant it was funny. It’s probably a Britishism, a relic from my childhood in London.”
“How old were you?”
“I moved there when I was nine.”
“When do you first remember becoming a conscious being?”
I wasn’t expecting that one, but it was easy to answer because I’ve thought about this question a lot.
“When I was nine.”
“Why?”
“That’s the first year I can recall nearly everything. I remember things from earlier years, but that year I moved to London, I think I paid attention to everything.”
That seemed to satisfy him. Later, though, when we were talking about what I do, he said, “You must know that is a very prestigious job.” The implication was clearly that he was uncertain whether I belonged there.
“I do know. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to it. And also a little terror.”
I think he liked that answer, because that was the end of my interrogation and we got into the project. But it left me a little uneasy. Still, he was interesting and engaging and the meal was, overall, enjoyable.

This afternoon I had a meeting in a very public place with three of the best known people at this conference. All through the meeting, former students and colleagues were coming up to them and paying their respects. I was an equal partner in the meeting, but I am certainly not their equal in the sense of academic hierarchy. I haven’t yet earned my stripes. Which is why people keep asking the question about me, Why you?
And because I don’t have a good answer, because I’m not used to being under this kind of scrutiny? It wears me down, makes me wonder how I’m doing. I do better with actual work. Working on Toy Factory projects calms me down. But still, I spent the evening in my room and made plans to see old family friends on Saturday. I am ready for a break.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2011 9:29 am

    you is kind. you is smart. you is important.

  2. November 18, 2011 10:31 am

    Feeling like you’re under the microscope is always difficult. Hang in there, and remember that most of the time the people you assume are judging you are just trying to find their own place in hierarchy and are feeling just as unsettled by the whole thing.

  3. November 18, 2011 10:44 am

    I hear all kinds of responses to “Why did they hire you?” in my head. This is my favorite so far: “Because, in the famous (and roughly translated) words of an obscure 17th century Italian librettist, I am the bomb diggity. Previous people employed in this position had been either bombs or diggities. I guess I am the first person they found who is both.”

  4. November 18, 2011 11:16 am

    It’s probably the insecure turkeys who either didn’t get hired for the job or have a friend or a student who didn’t get hired who are asking. Wonder what would happen if you turned it around and asked, “why are you asking”?

    Sounds like a brutal conference circuit! I don’t have anywhere near that kind of stamina for that kind of thing.

    Plus: I think I found your other blog through searching around regarding gifted education issues, and I read that with interest and now this. I live in NYC and would love to meet you when you’re back. Coffee maybe?

  5. November 18, 2011 11:22 am

    As I told Joy, when I hear that question or the related “why should we hire you” version, in my head I’m thinking “because I am Queen of the Universe.”

    I’d never say it but I sure think it–it’s an appropriate response to a stupid question. They hired you because you kick ass on all levels.

  6. freshhell permalink
    November 18, 2011 11:35 am

    people that are uncouth enough to ask that are insecure and jealous. Clearly, if you hadn’t been the right person for that job, you wouldn’t have been hired. Ignore those people. There will always be people ready to cut you down and make you feel unworthy. You don’t owe them an explanation.

  7. November 18, 2011 12:26 pm

    Welcome to academia. You’ll be fine, though, and next year will be easier. You will earn those stripes, too!

  8. drgeek permalink
    November 18, 2011 3:25 pm

    I sometimes think that promotion to tenure causes the part of the brain that censors uncouth questions and statements to atrophy. Perhaps it is because some academics spend all their time grinding graduate students into the dust. They ask questions like this to those they deem to be their juniors, and are merely rude to those they consider their equal competitors. Only to a few are they truly friendly.

    In short: you’re fine. It’s them, not you.

  9. cranky permalink
    November 18, 2011 3:46 pm

    sounds like an aspergers asshole. i say FEH!!

  10. November 18, 2011 11:37 pm

    Thanks everybody. 1 green blogger, that would be great, although probably not on my very next trip, as I won’t have been in the office in nearly six weeks and the week’s being cut short by Thanksgiving flight restriction. I’m fully predicting some major overtime to get caught up. But I’ll be in touch when I’ve got my schedule sorted out!

  11. November 19, 2011 2:15 pm

    I’m not keen on people who ask such questions for the sole purpose of baiting you – can you rise to my personal challenge? Then again, if said person paid for the meal…

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