“Your last name?” she asks. “Humphrey” I tell her. She types my last name into the keyboard. People begin queuing up behind me. Shelves filled with candy and glossy magazines surround me. Their covers tell me many things. I am not tall enough. I am not tan enough. I am not sinewy enough. I do not know how to please her enough. “How did I get here?” I wonder. “The mismatch” I remind myself.
There is what we do with the life we are given and there is what we should be doing. Our job is to match them up. It is our only real job. It is the most important job. It is the hardest job. For the longest time, I shirked on this job. I malingered. I loafed. I was lazy. I have never been accused of these things. But, when it comes to this job, I am guilty of them all. Indeed, I tried taking a shortcut. I surrendered the job to someone else. I was looking for someone to tell me what it was I was supposed to be doing. And, I found someone.
For me, that someone was a Nobel Prize winning economist. Doug North was my mentor in graduate school. I absorbed every moment with him. He was inspiring. My time with him was intoxicating. However, my time with Doug was also toxic. I strove to please him. My well-being hung on each and every one of his words. I scrutinized thoroughly and endlessly every comment he made about my work, about me. I was ever fretting about what he thought about me. Was I good enough? Did I deserve to be at his side? What does he think? I clung to his approval, striving to meet what I thought he expected of me.
When I accepted my first position, Doug told me that I “would have to write my way out of there as soon as possible.” The longer it took, he warned, the harder it would be to get a position at a Research University. So, I wrote. But, I did not thrive.
I was not Research University material. It was not what I was placed on this planet to pursue. I loved the classroom. I thrived in the classroom. It felt natural. It flowed. Yet, every day I did my best to play the part of a Research University kind of person. This dissonance took its toll on me.
Just months into my first position, I was visiting a doctor complaining about feeling lethargic. “Are you depressed?” he asked. “No” I answered. “Do you ever think about killing yourself?” “No, of course not…well…sometimes when I am riding my bike I think about running it head long into a bus….but not all the time…does that count?” I asked. He stared at me, took copious notes, and ordered intensive blood work. The results came back as stress-induced hypothyroidism. It was not serious. It was not life-threatening. It was perfectly manageable. But, given the damage I inflicted on my thyroid, I would have to take medication for the rest of my life. So, I did and I do.
When I took my second job and the teaching load was even heavier, Doug told me that I was “going in the wrong direction.” So, I woke up earlier and pursued my research more vigorously. And, each and every night, before going to bed, I would twist open a plastic brown bottle, roll a little blue pill in my hand, pop it into my mouth, and take a long look in the mirror knowing that something was wrong but once again choose not to do anything about it.
To get me through my days, I sought artificial support in the approval of others, Junior Mints, and Cheetohs. My heart grew wearier and wearier of this false pursuit. I was never enough. How could I be? I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. Doug did nothing wrong. He was doing his life’s work. He was transforming young scholars into world-class economic historians. I was not doing mine.
In this job, there are no shortcuts. There is no guru, guide, mentor, coach, parent, partner, friend, teacher or counselor who can do the work for you. Yes, we can learn lots of things from other people. But, we cannot learn WHO WE ARE. In the end, we have to walk into the wilderness alone. The good news is that the hardest step is the first step.
It was not until the spring of 2007 that my heart turned the tide in this struggle. And, it was not until January 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm EST that I decided to go “pro” in my life’s work (ht Steven Pressfield).
“Is that with an E-Y or an I-E-S?” she asks. “E-Y” I reply as I stare at the magazines. “Maybe I should start shaving my chest” I think. “Synthroid?” she asks. “Yes” I reply. Her question breaks me free of their momentary grip. “Would you like anything else?” she asks. “No, thanks” I answer. “I have had enough of not enough” I think to myself. I slide my card, look into the faces of those around me, and wonder if anyone else is picking up medication for a past or present mismatch.
Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)
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