Forgive the continuation of my existential angst (and gratuitous Charlie Sheen reference), but I think it’s an angst that many of us share in higher education. Those of us still struggling to find our place inside higher education or wrestling with the decision on whether or not to leave the institution all together need to speak more about these issues, giving voice to our individual and collective issues.
The past three weeks, the show Louie (which is excellent and you should all be watching it) has been addressing the issue of success, getting what you want, and (possibly) giving up. Louie is a stand-up comedian wrestling with life (apparently, I shouldn’t be in promotions). In the last three episodes, Louie has been offered the chance of a lifetime: replacing David Letterman on The Late Show. It’s not clear he’ll even get the job, nor is it clear it’s a job he even wants. Also, he needs to make a number of important sacrifices in order to get the job (lose weight, change how he does comedy) and also if he does get the job (such as time with his daughters).
In the first episode, he is confronted with the reality of his career; he is a stand-up comedian in his mid-40s who is a mid-level success (small national tours, no TV show or movie career) and is potentially on the downward arch of his career. He can either take a chance on The Late Show (where, admittedly, they want a bigger name who is too expensive) or accept that he is as successful as he could ever be. The choice is: put himself out there and potentially fail spectacularly or not try and remain where he is.
This isn’t a perfect analogy for higher education, of course. There are other opportunities for us outside of higher education, but I think that we are often presented our options as simplistic as the ones Louie is presented with: massive success or middling failure. The Late Show is our tenure-track position: what we all aspire to but can’t achieve (more on this a bit further down). But perhaps leaving higher education is our Late Show; it’s the opportunity that we don’t believe exists or that we’re even capable of achieving. Do we fear trying outside of higher education because if we fail, it will be even worse than not succeeding in higher education?
Louie goes through with it and kills it on his test show. Everyone is certain that he will be offered the job. Turns out, Louie was just a decoy to get David Letterman to accept less money. Louie was used, and, to make matters worse, he began to want the job, want something more than what he currently had. He succeeded and still failed (tell me that doesn’t sound familiar). But, Louie chooses to see the success; he goes outside The Late Show theater, flips Letterman the bird, and episode ends with Louie deciding to continue boxing (or more literally, fighting).
The game for Louie was fixed from the beginning. He succeeded and still failed. How many of us in higher education feel like failures or are frustrated because success doesn’t seem to matter? Louie keeps on fighting, but it’s unclear what he is going to strive for; there’s only one Late Show. But he wants something more, something bigger and better than what he currently has. He rediscovers his ambition. How many of us need to rediscover our ambition, but also need to redirect it away from what is unavailable to us?
(I could continue on with the analogies: backstabbing friends, unhelpful and cryptic ancient mentors, hazing rituals, but I’m going to just end my brief analysis it here.)
I was thinking of these episodes the other day while I was swimming. I’ve been sick and the practice wasn’t going well. I don’t have a coach, I don’t swim on a team, so there was no one there judging me or relying on me if I just gave up on the set. Why was I pushing myself? I’m never going to make the Olympics or Nationals or anything we would typically define as “success” when it comes to amateur sports. So why was I still pushing myself? Penance? Self-punishment? Or is it more about a small sense of accomplishment of going a little faster than the week before, of seeing the results of putting the work in? What does it mean, to me, to win in swimming? Part of me knows that giving up in the pool means I’m mentally weaker than I need to be.
And what does it mean to “win” in higher education today? I know that competition analogies are difficult because they imply (ok, explicitly require) winners and losers. But, come on, we know that there currently exists a whole lot more “losers” right now in higher education. And most of us will probably never “win” a tenure-track job. So, what do we do? What are we fighting for, individually and collectively? How can we simultaneously win while still losing?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I keep fighting. I rediscovered my own ambition. I just don’t know yet where it will take me. But, I know that I can define for myself what it means to win.