Friday, February 18, 2005

The hardest thing I've ever done

A year and a half ago, I went to a job interview.

--and yes, that is what the title of this entry refers to.

The interview was for a professorship at a small college in Halifax. I was one of three on the short list. Each of us spent a couple of days at the department, giving a talk about our research and being grilled by each of the faculty members in turn about our qualifications and interests.

Applying for the job was up there on the list of the hardest things I've ever done. I had to really think about what I was doing with my life and why, and whether this whole physics thing was such a good idea after all. At that time I was also considering applying for a job as a consultant with McKinsey or some other evil company like that. Clearly I eventually decided against that option; but the process of deciding was one of real soul-searching: all the different options I was considering would be very rewarding, but in very different ways, and I had to decide what kinds of rewards I wanted to chase. The conclusion I came to then was along the lines of, "Well, I'm not entirely sure that I'm A Physicist--but I seem to be pretty good at it, and I love the idea of being a professor...and although I have my doubts about this sometimes, there's nothing else that appeals to me in the same way." Maybe not the most ringing endorsement, but it's a lot more clarity than I usually have about most things. So I put together a decent talk, and a plausible line about future research interests, and put all my worldly posessions in a red spotted handkerchief and set out to seek my fortune in Halifax.

I spent the next two days beating my fists against an invisible wall.

I talked to each professor in turn. From all but one of them I got the impression that they weren't even really sure why they were talking to me: that they had already decided that I wasn't who they were looking for. Having convinced myself, at least, that my proposed research nicely filled a gap in their department's offerings, I was baffled. I wanted to reach across the desks and shake them by the shoulders and shout "Why aren't you listening?"--but I ultimately decided that that would be counterproductive. Coming out of yet another office, I would become aware of the contraction between my shoulder blades and spend a minute breathing into it --open, open, open -- before walking into the next office. [side note: is it ludicrous for a would-be physics professor to talk about the heart chakra?]

I'm about to do the same thing again. A similar position is being advertised at a university in Vancouver, and I'm a shoo-in for an interview, if not for the job itself.

I keep coming back to what Georgia O'Keeffe once said: "I've been terrified every single day of my life. And it's never stopped me from doing one goddamn thing I wanted to do."

This is what I have to do. It scares me half to death, and sometimes it takes all my strength to keep putting one foot in front of another. But I'm going to keep on walking until there's a compelling reason to stop.

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