The fear of falling behind

I spent last weekend away with friends. We had a super time exploring Whitby and York, eating good food and enjoying the seaside, Dracula references, reading, and lazing about. It was really good but as I was reflecting on the weekend on my train home (trains are excellent for reflection), I realised that I was the only one who had not done any work-work at some point over the weekend. This made me pause. 

On Monday, as my anxiety about various adulty things grew (trying to get a mortgage//worrying about being in the ‘right’ place//worrying about getting things done etcetera etcetera), I realised that at the core of my worry was a growing anxiety about falling behind. This was exacerbated on Tuesday by people at work talking about their high citation index scores, and my own lowly score becoming frighteningly obvious. 

It is all very well to declare allegiance to slow living; to decide you are leaving the rat race to pursue a different path; craving purpose external to work and/or monetary success. BUT (and it is a large one) how do you then ignore all the people who continue to work on the weekend, who write academic papers in their spare time, whose citation scores far exceed your own? How do you know you’re making the right choice by not doing? What do you do about all those people whose pursuit of the next thing makes you feel inadequate, and like you are not sufficiently in love with your job?

I got home on Tuesday night and stumbled across an article in Red magazine on how to overcome comparison. The article focused on the perils of social media comparison but my comparison fears, while not generated via social media, are just the same. Of the four steps that Lucy Sheridan advises to overcome comparison spirals, it was the third one that resonated most: decide what you desire. Her advice is to revisit goals and ideas, because (killer point here) they may change! I know this is actually obvious when you take a moment to think about it, but realising that the goals you want now are not the ones you wanted three, or four, or five years ago is a big step, and a scary one. Let me explain… 

Some of my anxiety this week stemmed from a conversation we had at the weekend on academic paper writing. I am currently (actively) working on two papers. And I have a third set aside, readings somewhat found, abstract written, to write after the two papers are done. One of my wise friends pointed out that there was actually no need to write the third paper. It wont benefit me in my current job, or the new path I seem to be forging, in fact, I do not have the (work) time this year to do so. And part of me felt wrenched.

Choosing not to write the paper is an active step towards a proper non-academic life. It is a step further than the one I took last July, to take a job outside of Research&Teaching (which is still in a university department, filled with other PhDs, so no one really looks fussed if you say you are working on another paper. It is even indirectly encouraged). It means acknowledging that leaving the academy means leaving papers unwritten. It means actively pursuing non-academic writing over academic writing (which I know is what I eventually want to do all the time). Each step makes my new path become more real, less of a dream.

Somehow the thought of that, that active tearing from the unpaid labour of academic writing, is scary. Like very scary. It is scary because it is an acceptance that my needs and wants and goals have changed. It means accepting that I am not the same person who finished a PhD three years ago, whose goal was to be a researcher. It means that I need to have time to pursue things that interest me now; that I want to build my life around… more writing, maybe teaching about writing, more yoga, maybe teaching yoga, more baking and understanding bread… Eventually making those things pay the rent.

Erin Bartram wrote beautifully about all the wrenching fury of not being enough in her goodbye letter to the academy: “If I’d been smarter, or published more, or worked harder, or had a better elevator pitch — if my brain had just been better, maybe this wouldn’t have happened“. 

She goes on to explain about her academic writing:

People say “But you should still write your book — you just have to.” I know they mean well, but actually, no, I don’t. I don’t owe anyone this book, or any other books, or anything else that’s in my head. “But your work is so valuable,” people say. “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it. “Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it’s so valuable, then why won’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?

And that, in essence, is what my writing is coming down to. My current job has very little time I can squirrel away for writing (or, even more importantly, the thinking that goes with writing). What writing I do this year will need to be done around my actual paid work, in the mornings, evenings, in snatched hours, and on the weekends. While that is okay for a time, while I finish projects I started before my switch, projects I want to finish, that is fundamentally unsustainable in the long term. In the long term, I need to make my writing pay, and academic writing won’t do that.

So I understand that the fear of falling behind is part of that process of acceptance. It means acknowledging that yes, I will fall behind my academic peers. It means accepting that perhaps my work community, my new peers, are elsewhere. Accepting that my goals have changed, and I am scared of the unknown path to get there. But the unknown is full of possibility. That is what I need to grab on to and hold tight, as I forge a new path.


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