Success, failure, and neither

As the final leg of my PhD has coincided with the onset of a global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we represent not only achievements but also things we haven’t accomplished. I’m lucky that my research and writing were not impacted by the lockdown in any major way: library access is not vital at this stage, and I’m able to work from home and have supervisory meetings online. However, it is hard to keep going with any project when you feel confined, and it’s annoying not to be able to get a change of scene. The general doom and gloom of the news creates a blanket of despondency, compounding my natural tendency towards procrastination, so that some days I only manage a bare minimum of productivity. It turns out I’m really not the sort of person who seizes the opportunity presented by a plague to invent calculus or write three tragedies.

Nevertheless, as I review my CV with an eye to post-doctoral life – whatever that may have in store – I have also been reflecting on achievements in a more general, long-term sense. At the end of 2019, before the current emergency kicked off, there was a brief twitter fad that saw people listing what they had accomplished over the past decade. Sharing such things on social media is not really my cup of tea, but I must confess I took the chance to do this exercise for myself in my notebook. Encouragingly, my list turned out to be longer than I expected and covered a range of personal and professional successes. It included the sort of achievements I list on my CV, such as getting letters after my name and winning prizes; big life changes, including leaving an unhealthy relationship and moving to another continent; and accomplishments that are rather nebulous and ongoing, like coping with social anxiety or improving skills such as speaking French or singing.

This year, though, my ‘undone list’ has sadly had a few lines added to it: a planned residency had to be cancelled, as well as two summer teaching jobs. It’s a little irksome to have applied and been accepted for such things, only to find that they are now might-have-been achievements on a sort of ghost CV.

Others with caring responsibilities, especially women, have been impacted by the pandemic in ways that are much more pervasive and even harder to represent on a traditional CV. I like Rachel Wheeler’s suggestion of representing this broader picture with a ‘RealCV’, which uses different colours to record stresses as well as successes, both personal and professional. I’m also quite inspired by this Princeton Professor’s CV of failures. And while I don’t think I’m currently on track to collect 100 rejections this year, I do try to see every literary rejection email I get as an achievement of sorts.

Ultimately, listing past achievements and applying for future opportunities are both easier than actually accomplishing things in the present. Submitting poems for publication is much simpler than writing them, and polishing the CV is satisfying because it offers the chance to review a done list rather than a to-do list. Presenting the best version of yourself as part of a job application allows you to spend some time indulging in the fantasy that you are the ideal candidate. By contrast, my ‘undone list’ represents a strangely unmoored version of what I might have achieved in a parallel universe. Ultimately, perhaps the fact that I put so much effort into applying for opportunities that resulted in neither accomplishments nor rejections, but simply didn’t happen, should remind me that it’s just not worth stressing out about these things too much.

Holyrood Park provides a brief escape from lockdown restrictions

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