Sunday, 30 September 2012

Reflections from the midpoint

I no longer feel like a new professional. I discovered librarianship as a profession over three years ago (1) and since then I’ve defined myself as a new professional in LIS, struggling to break into the profession, get a permanent job, and make my mark. The informal, folksonomy-type definition of a ‘new professional’ in LIS is one who has been in the profession for under five years and so according to that definition I have approximately two years left on the clock before I tick over into ‘seasoned professional’. Nonetheless I feel like I’ve reached a midpoint in my career. 

I’m well into my second job in librarianship (2). This is a position which, according to this theory by Ned Potter, can be the most important in one’s career. I’ve had most of the major ‘firsts’: first professional post, first big conference, first epic US conference, first award. I’m into the habit of presenting at conferences and writing articles. I’m active and semi-well-known within the LIS blogo- tweeto-sphere, etc. I’ve made professional contacts and good friends throughout the profession. I’ve paid my dues and now I’m settled and happy in a post that plays to my professional interests, that is helping me develop my skills, and that I enjoy doing every weekday. 

The goat is a metaphor. From Flickr user: Jungle_Boy
The midpoint (3) is an interesting position to be in and one that is, I suspect, universal not only across LIS but to a range of different careers. It feels like some sort of weird limbo in which I find myself halfway along a rope bridge: too late to turn back, no way to go but forward, stuck in the middle. There follows a series of illustratory positive statements followed by ‘but…’ and accompanied by examples from last week alone. I have real responsibilities at work – colleagues turn to me for decisions about book moves and later this year I’ll be conducting staff reviews for some of my colleagues – but I get no formal recognition of this. My opinion is valued and specifically sought out – over the purchase of resource discovery system software – but I feel unequipped to give advice on such major issues. I’m privy to all the ‘dirty laundry’ of the library’s inner workings – [example redacted] – but don’t have the power to change things. I earn enough to live comfortably – over the weekend, I deliberately went out to buy luxury items with disposable income – but feel that my salary doesn’t reflect the responsibility, particularly supervisory, of my position. I feel comfortable enough and entitled enough to complain about these issues but I feel vaguely guilty for doing so: 

You are young. You will get your recognition. And honestly, it is absolutely ridiculous to be two years into your career and counting your ideas. Everything to you is an opportunity. And you should be thanking me every morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day.
Don Draper to Peggy Olson in the seminal 4x07 episode of Mad Men

This is the midpoint: where I want to be but not quite able to make the changes I want; overeducated and overworked but underpaid and – it feels – underappreciated; reaching for some vague next step but not sure where or what it is. The goals I had as a new professional have been reached and so I need to begin the process of redefining my identity and my surrounding support network of formerly-new professionals (or soon-to-be-formerly-new professionals). 

And being in the midpoint is affecting me psychologically in a couple of interesting ways: in terms of impostor syndrome and in terms of ambition. 

The midpoint is making my impostor syndrome more acute. A Google search for ‘impostor syndrome librarianship’ brings up hundreds of relevant results including the one I was looking for: this excellent summary post by Laura Woods. Impostor syndrome among librarians is a well-documented psychological malady in which one feels that one is an impostor who has managed to trick his/her way into being successful despite not really knowing what one is doing at any given moment and that there are people far more qualified, hard-working, and better at their jobs who simply haven’t been as lucky and that if one doesn’t continue to work myself to exhaustion every single day and blog something insightful and important every single week that everything will fall apart and people will see through the façade and so any minute now everyone will realise all this about me which will lead to humiliation, ejection from the profession, and being shunned by all my friends and colleagues who will realise just how fucked up I really am and how I’m not special or deserving of praise and how everything would be easier if I just kept myself to myself and lived a quiet life of non-ambition but I can’t because of this desperate narcissistic desire for the love and adulation of a wider community and the need to prove myself, be the best, etc. etc. as some sort of compensation for being the proverbial ‘Ugly Duckling’ when growing up. And so, as more people rely on me and call on me to do things, this feeling grows rather than, as it should rationally do, diminishes. I’m pretty sure this is just something I’ll have to live with while gradually adjusting my self-identity to be the person that people think I am. 

I have discovered that achievement does not mean the end of ambition. [Un]fortunately there’s never going to be a point where I can say “Right, I’m done now. Everything is achieved.” This relentless drive – this sound of distant drumming – is never going to end. Even more irritatingly, my ambition seems to be constantly one step ahead of my reality such that my achievements never give the satisfaction I imagined they would. I wanted to be published, I wanted to be called a genius, I wanted to get a Distinction, I wanted to go to America: all these things happened but, after the momentary flush of satisfaction, they didn’t perceptibly change anything. Our expectations change as our world changes. Ambition is burning with hunger for food that does not exist. 

'The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for… After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are… LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.'
'You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.'
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

I recently read D. T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace who, in the midpoint of his career, not only wrote about ambition and the cage that success creates but felt himself to be trapped by them. Wallace worried that “to know him too well would be to dislike him. Or at least dislike him as much as he disliked himself. He felt a fake, a victim, as he would later write, of “imposter syndrome.”” David Foster Wallace was a genius – who I’m sure would hate the fact that I idolise him to such a great extent – and his writing, particularly Infinite Jest and the short stories 'Mister Squishy' and 'Good Old Neon' (4), truly captures how I feel better than I can express it myself. I read his biography in an attempt to discover how he lived with his impostor syndrome and his raging ambition even though I knew that ultimately he didn’t and took his own life in 2008. 

The best advice he gives is in his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College where he says that “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Life is meaningless and so you have to learn how to choose to your own meaning as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. You have to learn to see the invisible cages that you’ve built around you – ambition, relationships, self-identity, doubt, fear, etc. – and you have to choose to not be in them anymore. 

So now I’m in the midpoint. I’ve run so far and so fast to get here that I can’t see where home is anymore. I’ve reached all my destinations. I’ve had the education; I’ve got the good job; I’ve made the friends; I’ve got my independence; I’ve won the award; I’ve proven myself. Now what? 


(1) Which discovery involved realising that there are people who care about the same things I care about, that librarianship can combine a love of books and computers, and that there are organisations which will pay me to do things I enjoy. In one of my (digital) notebooks, I have the date jotted down as ‘Either the 8th or the 15th July 2009’. 

(2) Second full-time library job. If we include part-time pre-qualification positions, I’m on my fourth (or arguably sixth (2a)) job. 

(2a) Long story. 

(3) ‘Midpoint’ is a poor choice of words but I have nothing else. I'm well aware that I'm actually very much at the start of my career. I’m 25: if this is the midpoint of my career then it will last until I’m about 50. 

(4) Which is about a “young man whose personality is built on the need to impress others. And the more he succeeds in impressing them, the more of a fraud he feels.”


Nicola Franklin said...

Great post, as always, Simon =]

I think this demonstrates perfectly why we all need to be constantly reevaluating our careers, goals and ambitions.

While it is important to take a moment or two!] to celebrate achieving milestones, its also vital to continue developing a new guiding vision. Otherwise there is the risk of a feeling of ennui or futility creeping in, which could spoil an otherwise great job or even lead to depression eventually.

What sort of goals could a mid-career (or mid-job] professional have - to manage projects, supervise or manage staff, be responsible for budgets, or be the one able to make policy decisions and change services or processes for the better, perhaps. So an objective could be either to develop the current role to either enable these (or to obtain recognition for them] or otherwise to move to a role where that would be the case.

I think that how often career goals need to be reassessed deends on the speed at which earlier goals are achieved. It could take 5 years for someone to get into their 2nd professional post, speak at conferences, be asked for their opinion at work, etc. It could take 2 years - or 10 years. It is impossible to say *you should reassess your goals every 2 years*.

Instead, start thinking about what is important, what goals you have left to work on, and what is making you feel satisfied or disatisfied every 6 months or so and then start reassessing career goals before you run out of milestones to achieve.

woodsiegirl said...

Fantastic post, really resonated with me. I feel pretty much the same about my career path too - it feels like I ticked all the boxes I wanted to in the early part of my career, but now I'm no longer a "new professional" (I haven't felt like one for some time, and I think I'm now officially past the 5 year mark too) I'm not really sure where to go next. The pressure to keep up with the standards new-professional-me set feel a bit overwhelming at times - I do worry that I threw myself into too many things in my first couple of years in the profession and I'm now running out of steam!

So, nothing really useful to add from me I'm afraid - just happy to see that I'm not the only one struggling with the new-to-mid-career professional transition.

P.S. I do have to take issue with your maths here:
"I’m 25: if this is the midpoint of my career then it will last until I’m about 50" - only if you started your career when you were born, no? Assuming a career start age of 21 (I'm using that as a standard as that's the age most people leave university) then if the mid-point of your career is at age 25, that means it'll be over when you're 29 ;)

Simon Barron said...

'Ticked all the boxes' is a very good way of putting it, Laura. I reached the goals I wanted to reach and haven't had the time to formulate new goals so... now what? Celine Carty forwarded on this post from Claire Warwick which expresses this well: "I had a map, but I've used it, visited the places I wanted to go, and some I didn't even know existed and come to the edge of the page: it's all terra incognita from here onwards. I can't actually spot any dragons, but neither can I see an obvious path to follow, or landmarks to aim at; or maybe I can see several and don't know which to pick."

And though your maths make sense, I was more implying that by this definition my 'midpoint' will be massively oversized compared to the 'start' and 'end' of my career. Top marks for showing your working :)

Wendy said...

Excellent post - and stating the obvious as well, but doesn't just apply to info/library roles. I was very comfortable in my last information role, and I've slightly changed direction and gone into research since I became Chartered, so haven't yet got to a mid point - in fact I still feel completely adrift! (Waiting for someone to 'find me out' as you put it - does that ever go away?!)

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