Everyone I know is tired. Whether they’re students, workers, parents, all of the above, or none – I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t feel trapped within a cycle of exhaustion. Some people cope with it better than others, and for some this fatigue comes with rewards or payoffs. Not everybody wears it the same, but I’m sure everyone feels it.
It’s a time of semester where most students (and I’m sure, academic staff) are reaching peak levels of both productivity and procrastination. As those final deadlines for assignments and exams draw near, especially for those of us – like myself – who are lined up to graduate, we begin to imagine what might come next for us. Where do we want to be? How do we get there? And when does everything slow down to a point where I feel in control?
Fellow classmate Primrose touched on these anxieties briefly in her previous work – in which she revealed herself to be in the midst of a quarter-life crisis and would in a later piece of writing begin examining the way in which self-doubt can become a barrier to developing the self. Within her writing, Primrose digs into the concept of “the absent but implicit”, which Freedman (2012) describes as “constructing the meaning of an experience by comparing/contrasting it to another experience.” It may be an incorrect assumption on my part, but I got a sense that within the arc of Primrose’s work over the semester – as I have seen to some extent in many other students – is an implied notion that a state of self-doubt is fuelling the aforementioned quarter-life crisis.
People are anxious about their futures.
“When we tell stories and process them, using reflective dialogue, we create the possibility for changes in ourselves and others” (McDrury and Alterio 2003).
This has been a big part of what we have been unpacking in our semester of studying the research on narrative practice – a therapeutic field that had been left behind following the sudden death of one of its leading voices Michael White. As another classmate Lizzy Bax concluded in her class presentation, narrative practice is always about the future.
Of course, within the institutions of the university, the government, the workplace, etc. we are already fed a certain narrative about the future. It is the narrative of the career-driven and the professional – and it maps out a linear path for us to follow. It is a narrative that is already written for us, for which we are asked to fill in the gaps. Does a CV really tell a different story whether it has your name on it rather than mine? Or whether it lists cycling as a hobby instead of knitting?
CV stands for the Latin phrase Curriculum vitae, which can be loosely translated to mean ‘the course of my life’. The CV is meant to be a personal narrative, but the external pressures of employers and the professional narrative force us down a path where we create our narratives for others. It’s a way of measuring ourselves against others, to see who is gaining a lead and who’s falling behind.
In her 2009 TED talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie raised concerns about the ways in which single stories become self-actualizing when they come to represent whole groups of peoples. The impoverished African, the abject Mexican immigrant, etc. “Show a people as one thing. As only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” (Adichie 2009). I think the professional narrative – the narrative of the career, the narrative of the CV – functions in a similar way. Following along a career path from high school to university to foot in the door to dream job is presented to us as aspirational. This is what success looks like, this is the story of the functional adult. If you don’t fit within this narrative – or if you stray from its barebones, linear plot – you are seen as a failure. Sometimes to others, often to yourself. Speaking personally and having spoken with other university students over the years, the quarter-life crisis comes from a point in your university degree where you realize you ultimately don’t know what career you want anymore, or you do but you don’t feel like you know how to get there.
In my experience at least, it’s helpful to take a different approach.
When I came upon the work of Maggie Carey I found a seminar video in which she dug deep into the benefits of “loitering” in a personal narrative. Maggie Carey (2015) explains “loitering” in story telling as a process of recalling an event, contextualizing it, acknowledging skills or values used, the effects of the event, reflecting on intentions and linking these qualities to people who recognize them in you; and draws from recent research in the field of neuroscience that suggests this process can rewire the brain in such a way as to build stronger connections for positive experiences. In other words, taking time to reflect on past life experiences and events helps us approach future incidents with more positivity.
When we take the time to think about who we want to be and how we want to be – rather than measuring ourselves against a general narrative of “success” – we are better equipped emotionally to meet the demands of our uncertain futures. This process of “loitering” that Maggie Carey advocates for in a therapy context, is in many ways a counter-narrative to the story of the professional. If success means always looking forward without ever looking back, then in the single story of the career the act of “loitering” not only becomes stigmatised as “failure”, but it becomes sustained, self-indulgent failure.
When I interviewed Andrew Whelan, his purposefully long period of unemployment – living off benefits – struck a chord with me. Because I have been on such benefits for sustained periods of time as well. As I have probably made quite clear in a previous post, I have quite complicated feelings about the way unemployment benefits schemes such as Australia’s Newstart simultaneously support and deride those who use them. But I have also found some periods spent on Newstart to be useful in their capacity to give me space to reflect and “loiter”. Andrew Whelan’s description of contemporary labour as “[Running] around like a slave serving meaningless machines; doing completely redundant, garbage tasks” was personally refreshing to hear, given how often I have been made to feel like a failure within these labour markets.
When I presented the findings of my interview to the class, I remember clearly a fellow student Oliver being unable to comprehend being on unemployment benefits for so long. I remember him explaining that he’d “never be able to do that.” He is not the only young person I know of who has expressed a deep desire to avoid these systems at all costs. In many instances of career uncertainty, I have reminded people that this system does exist and whilst it is riddled with its own set of problems, for those of us with certain privileges such as low overheads and cost of living it can give us an opportunity for some breathing space whilst we try to find work. We don’t have to have a certain goal and we don’t have to be running towards it, guns blazing. This is just what we’ve been told to make us more productive with fewer rewards. This is exactly how internships become exploitation.
Of course the viability of “loitering” is inherently tied to privilege. I’m not from a poor family, I only have to support myself, I am mostly able-bodied, and I am definitely treated better in these institutions because I present as educated and polite. I am not marginalized or discriminated against in any way. There are many factors that benefit me which allow me to treat “loitering” as a very real option. It isn’t an option for everyone, but for many young university students I come across who fear the great, unknown void of their futures – I think it’s much more doable and far less scary than what they think. I think a big part of what holds them back is that they have invested substantial amounts of time and money into following the career path.
‘Won’t standing still look bad on my CV?’
Of course, this is just one of the many trains of thought I have had the privilege of following in the context of this subject. This final piece of writing could just as easily have been a dozen other, different pieces – each just as applicable and personally worth writing. So, closing out I want to share with you my plans for the immediate future. In the spirit of loitering, I have registered another blog under my own name (Angus Baillie) where I plan to continue indulging and writing out the kind of ideas and thoughts I have had over the past semester. I will be working on my own voice – my own narrative – over the next 6 months as I take time off before I begin honours in 2017. In many ways, that blog will be a far more accurate summation of everything I have gained from the semester I spent in this class, with all the interesting people I got to talk to whilst I was there.
That’s all I plan to do for now, and I can honestly say that thought makes me excited and happy. If nothing else, I hope I have helped encourage you to find something that makes you feel the same way. Or, at the very least, I hope I helped you feel like less of a failure for not meeting the impossible standards echoed throughout the bullshit world of professionalism.