Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Confidence, Rejection, and Criticism: Advice from Actors to Academics, Part Three

Christmas week is especially hard for young academics trying to get a job, especially in literary studies. The annual rhythm of the job search means that most first-round interviews (the interviews that take place at major disciplinary conferences over the winter) get scheduled during the first half of December. By this time of year, grad students (and recent PhDs) looking for a job are counting the meager number of schools where their applications are still active; they may have applied to dozens of jobs and gotten one or two first-round interviews to show for it. Worse yet, many people are getting nothing but the long and lengthening silence that tells them, day by painful day, that nothing is happening for them this winter.

And then many of those eager job-seekers, who've been tops of their classes all of their lives, have to fly home for Christmas and explain to their family that they're not getting a job this year, that they're not even in the running for a job this year. The darkest time of year is pretty dark for people in my business.

So, since it's that time of the year, it's time for a third installment of "Career Advice from Actors to Academics," inspired by Robert Cohen's classic book of advice Acting Professionally. As I wrote in part one, an academic career has become like a career in the arts because of the scarcity of work and the pervasive rejection. So academics, especially newer academics, can learn from our brothers and sisters in the theater (and in the other arts as well), who've been dealing with rejection and penury since back in the day.

But the hard truth is that artists are better prepared for rejection than scholars are. Few arts careers have the kind of heartbreaking schedule that the academic job search demands, where two-thirds of your job prospects for the year can evaporate within a window of a few weeks. Actors get rejected all year round. So do writers, dancers, sculptors, painters, and filmmakers. A stand-up comic who lives in the right city and works hard enough can get rejected every single night of the week. But none of those artists have to watch most of their chances for the year slip away just before Christmas. Artists get to space out the rejections better, and to inure themselves on a daily and weekly basis. (When I was an undergraduate theater bum, every show for the semester did make its casting decisions during the first week of the term, which is the only thing in my life that even remotely prepared me for the annual MLA conference.)

More importantly, almost every working artist, including the ones who've gotten an MFA, have started racking up rejections from their early twenties at least, while scholars don't begoin to experience the hard knocks until they've been systematically unprepared for it. Every actor gets turned down at auditions constantly, and many who enter a graduate acting program have been turned down many times before they get to school. The same goes with writers and other artists. After all, if people were already putting you on Broadway, you wouldn't go to acting school. But in fact, people are not putting you on Broadway. So actors who get a graduate degree have had to toughen up at least a little; they're prepared for the hard realities of the market because they've already tested them.

The scholar's career path is completely different. The rejections don't start until after you get your PhD. Graduate school is tough in all kinds of ways, but it promises to reward all of the deserving, as the job market will never do. If you earn a degree, you will get that degree.The working life of many doctoral students is a long series of A grades, scholarships, fellowships, and departmental awards until graduating with the doctorate. Then the working life suddenly turns into a long, bitter round of pummeling rejection. Most people aren't ready for that at all. How could they be?

The only thing that will get you through is confidence, which is not at all the same as ego. Let's go to Cohen's working definition:

Confidence is the power a person has over his or her own personality; it allows the person to accept criticism and at the same time rise above it.

Note the importance here of accepting criticism without feeling belittled by it. The false confidence of a heavily-defended ego cannot take criticism at all. But an ego like that can never survive an artistic, or an academic, career. You have to have a healthy perspective that can take criticism on board (although you don't necessarily allow any given critic to override your judgment completely) and find ways to use it.

It's important here to distinguish between criticism and rejection. If you have a fragile ego, those two things sound the same, or nearly the same. In fact, they are fundamentally different. Criticism, even if it happens to be mistaken, is almost always a gift. Someone has taken time and effort, neither of which are in great supply, in order to help you improve. Some criticism is not helpful, but all criticism is an attempt to be helpful.

Rejection does not come with criticism. It just says no, and moves along. The eerie silence that haunts some job-seekers the week before Christmas, or the brief formal rejections that some hiring departments send, don't offer any tips on how to improve.

You also need confidence to deal with the polite silence of rejection. Here is Cohen again:

 [Confidence] allows an actor to believe in the reality of his or her performance even when no one else does. A person may have all kinds of doubts about his or her potential for career success, but may not doubt that "he is an actor," that "she can act."

Note that confidence is not a prediction about results. I will be a star someday is not confidence. I am an actor, even when you've been turned down for the fifteenth audition in a row, is confidence.

In the same way, your conviction that you will get an incredible and shiny job this time out is not confidence. (In most cases, it is simply magical thinking, which is unhealthy.) Confidence, in the sense Cohen is using it, is not about predicting career outcomes. These businesses are too precarious for predictions like that. Confidence is not your will to believe that the plum Ivy League job on this fall's listings will be yours. Confidence is the belief that your work is valid, that your scholarship is actually a contribution. You might note the distinction here is very close to a distinction between believing in "yourself" and believing in your work as something separate from you, which I think is largely a healthy distinction.

Confidence, in Cohen's sense, is about believing that the work you do is useful and worth reading: that what you do is scholarship, no matter what the external rewards are.

I would add one further thing about weathering rejection. In all of the arts, the psychologically healthy rule of thumb is that successful artists (read: academics) get rejected all the time, and that they are rewarded only sometimes. To put it another way: you will be rejected even if your work is good, indeed no matter how good your work is, but you will never be accepted at all unless your work is good.

That means that you should usually only attach meaning to the good results, and write the rejections off as the normal cost of doing business. That would be an irrational approach in most other endeavors, but in the arts, including the scholarly arts, that approach accurately describes the real facts on the ground. If the talented are only rewarded one time in ten or twenty, then the single success is more meaningful than the nine or nineteen rejections.

If you are a struggling new academic and you are finding that the rejection is truly universal -- if, for example, you applied for three dozen jobs this fall and none of them even asked you for an additional writing sample -- then you probably need to change something about what you're doing. Most likely, there is some qualification that you need and don't have, something that you need to add to your CV in order to enter the pool of viable candidates.

But if you are getting small flashes of encouragement inside dark, watery depths of rejection, then you are perfectly rational to take the encouragement, and not the rejection, as meaningful. No one can afford to reward all of the deserving job-seekers. There are too many good people to offer them all even a first-round interview. This is the literal truth. But at the same time, no one has any need or reason to waste their own time with someone who isn't, on some level, a viable candidate. You only get asked for extra materials if your CV is up to snuff. You only get a conference interview if the committee thinks they might actually hire you. And even if you don't progress to the next round of interviews, you should remember that the people who interviewed you saw you as a professional doing real work.

There are more good people than there are rewards for good people. So even the good are only rewarded rarely. But only the good are rewarded at all. Forget the failures, because everyone fails. Remember the successes, because there is only one explanation for success.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog

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