I hate this process. Why are you good at this? What are your strengths? Why should we pick you when we could pick any of the other thousand applicants who are equally well-qualified in English Language Arts, who have more experience and more convincing references, who haven’t had ten addresses in as many years and who haven’t had about thirteen unrelated service-industry-level jobs and who can provide legitimate references? Why are you good enough for this? What is it that you have that they don’t that means we should take a chance on you, a newbie, currently uncertified and new to the area and the profession?
I don’t know! I mean, I can think of some things that I do well, but the problem is that for each one I can think of a way that I could have done it better, of someone who would have a better idea, of an experience I haven’t had yet – of some kind of weakness that makes me the less-than-perfect candidate. Not that there is such a thing as a perfect candidate. But how on earth could it be me?
I had the same problem with dance jobs. It’s part of why I stopped doing it – I could not stand the process of applying, of how heart-wrenching it was to put my heart and soul and integrity and brain into each process, each piece of material, only to find out that someone else did it better, that my body wasn’t good enough for them, that I had nothing to say that they wanted to hear – I wasn’t enough for the people who were hiring, and even when I wanted to make a piece for myself I wasn’t enough unless I was able to share my deepest darkest secrets – and even then I wasn’t enough.
But the fault wasn’t, and isn’t, with them.
It’s with me. The hardest thing for me to do is to decide where and how I’m “good enough.” Maybe running, maybe those things that I do just for me – making jewelry or friendship bracelets or reading aloud to kids – but those aren’t things that can get me jobs.
I’ve been thinking about protracted adolescence lately, a conversation sparked by an observation about cats – apparently domesticated cats never really grow up because humans always provide food for them, and they never truly have to be on their own – they never have to fully and completely stand on their own four feet and survive, because they always have the ability to fall back on the humans who will feed them and love them unconditionally no matter what.
Dancers end up this way sometimes. I ran into an old friend the other day at my first ballet class in a year (more on that later – the longest I’ve ever gone in over twenty years). She seemed good, sipping her smoothie in the lobby of a local dance studio before class and talking about how she’d just quit her second job because she was spending too much time working and not doing what she’d come here to do, sighing over the constant struggle for artistic fulfillment. I was reminded of my years in San Francisco, of the often-unreconcilable tension between the “job” that supported me and the “career” to which I devoted most of my mental and physical energy but for which I was paid about nothing; like my friend, I remained at twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven independent but propped up by my parents, dreaming but not moving onward, stuck in the cycle of seeking approval from everyone else, never being good enough because I wasn’t actually being paid to dance, because I didn’t take the time to believe in myself first, idealized by my friends for following my dream but always feeling like I was lying to them because I wasn’t enough. I was never, ever, never, ever enough. I gave and gave and gave, taking on every menial task and side-job and servile attitude in hopes of learning what exactly it was that got people noticed, of learning where my place was – always apologizing and making myself smaller and smaller and smaller and less significant in the process. I became everything to everyone except myself.
Now, on the edge of a new career, I am caught again by my own belief in my insufficiency. I don’t have my social studies endorsement, I am afraid I don’t know enough to pass the test, I am less qualified than others, I am twenty-seven but without academic adult career experience…I am still convinced that somehow I’ll be found to be not enough, and I spiral in a seemingly-endless cycle of avoidance. How am I supposed to list my strengths when I can see the flaw in every. single. one? How do people do this? I’m tempted to call my Dad, the educator, my professors, my supervisor, other members of my cohort who are also looking for jobs, tempted to look for approval from everyone I can think of – maybe they’ll know something about me that’s worthy of presenting, something they see that I don’t that I can use to make myself stand out, that I can use to muster up the necessary gumption to apply for these positions for which I claim to be qualified.
But the fact is, they can’t help. Even if there is something they see in me, if I don’t see it, saying it won’t feel genuine, and if I fake the words I won’t be able to face the real person who reads it and justify my claim. Yes, they say to “fake it till you make it,” but somewhere underneath the “fake it” has to reside some kind of strong and solid belief that you can do it, that you deserve to be in the room, that you are enough.
It strikes me that this is the final phase of growing up: knowing you are enough for YOU. Just like every other phase, it’s going to take longer than I want it to, and it’s going to hurt. Because growing means acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers and, even harder, that I need help to get there – even with all the tools available to me. I have to work just as hard at building myself up as I do at finding all of my imperfections, because finding those faults is the work of someone who needs others for approval – if I place the responsibility of identifying my strengths on everyone else, then I leave myself responsible only for finding my faults. It seems for me, the final step to becoming a professional and not a student is deciding for myself what my strengths are – how am I enough?
This isn’t an easy question right now. I’m new at this. I’m not that good at it yet, though it is frustratingly simple upon reflection to notice all of the things I SHOULD be doing that I simply can’t do yet. I am unproven. I am an experiment. I am a chance, a risk. I know how to fix my physical position in a ballet class – I’ve been speaking that language for twenty years. I don’t know the quickest, most efficient way to communicate a learning target, lead a discussion, track failing or struggling students and target their work for improvement, deal with difficult parents, or assess for learning for all students. I have dozens of theories and hundreds of observed strategies – but enacting them is a whole other thing entirely.
And yet, the kids are worth it. How can I identify how I am enough so that I can serve my students? Because these kids – however old they are – need more than someone who apologizes for imperceptible faults, who is still looking for approval. I can look for feedback and fit, but approval is now my responsibility. I have to believe I am enough; I have to believe I am enough. I have to know, in my heart of hearts, that I am enough – there is no such thing as the perfect way to do something; humanity lies in the freedom to make mistakes. If I want my students to know that, then I have to be enough for myself.
The paradox: I can be better, and I am enough.