October 21, 2004

Goals, choices, and other trivial issues

It does't happen often, but every great once in a while, I read a letter in an advice column that I really identify with. Today's question in Salon's "Since You Asked" column is from a woman about my age who, although she is obviously very bright, feels stupid because she didn't attain the level of academic success she expected, planned for, and worked for throughout most of her life.

Having successfully completed only one of the two graduate programs I've undertaken, I know where she's coming from. I have not had the same experiences as the writer, in that I never flunked out of anything (instead, I washed out as a result of my own lack of direction and motivation, not to mention laziness), but the feelings are much the same. Many (if not most) of my friends and acquaintances have completed terminal degrees in their fields of choice; many are now teaching, or pursuing other exciting careers. I always intended to do those things, too, and though I have been mostly successful in letting those dreams go, sometimes I can't help but feel like I just wasn't smart enough to make it happen.

I don't mean to imply that I don't like what I do, or that I have any regrets about pursuing librarianship. It's just that I've always placed such a high value on academic achievement that not having managed to get that Ph.D. is still painful sometimes, even though I'm pretty certain that when it came right down to it, that wasn't really the right path for me.

Of course, I could go back to grad school full-time. I could go back to musicology, or I could start fresh in a new field. I could go on in library and information science, where the job picture is quite a bit rosier than it is for humanities Ph.Ds. But in some inexpressible way, I feel like I've passed a point of no return in my life, beyond which certain things -- like being a grad student again -- are impossible.

At the same time, I long for the constant discovery and palpable sensation of my mind expanding that I felt during my best moments in graduate school. As this blog amply demonstrates, I don't really have the focus or discipline to concentrate on a single area. But grad school forced me to have that focus, and it made my thinking much less lazy and more efficient. I miss that.

This whole thing is also closely tied to the larger truth that non-choices in life rapidly become de facto choices: the longer one puts off a decision, the fewer the options that will be left when the decision is finally made. I more and more often experience a (paranoid?) sense of doors closing behind me, as days, weeks, and years pass and I can't decide whether to go back to school or not. In the end, I'm too content where I am to be goaded into action. But that's a choice, too.

Posted by at October 21, 2004 2:10 PM