On being the right choice.

I write fiction in my (increasing amounts of) free time and I submit my short stories to a variety of magazines, all of whom have rejected me recently. I also applied to take part in a six-week writing workshop called Clarion West this year, because this year’s instructors were too good not to apply! I also got turned down for Clarion West.

Only one of these actually stung and it was the one where, rather than thinking hey, that story wasn’t right for that venue, I had to accept that my writing hadn’t been up to the level of the 16 very talented writers who did get in. I’m an academic so being rejected from conferences is part of my job (as is being told that I’m wrong and, occasionally, told that I’m right but in a way that makes it sounds like I stumbled over it.)

And there is a difference because one of these is about the story itself and the other is about my writing, although many will recognise that this is a tenuous and artificial separation, probably to keep my self-image up. But this is a setback and I haven’t written much (anything) since the last rejection but that’s ok, I’ll start writing again and I’ll work on it and, maybe, one day I’ll get something published and people will like it and that will be that dealt with.

It always stings, at least a little, to be runner-up or not selected when you had your heart set on something. But it’s interesting how poisonous it can be to you and the people around you when you try and push through a situation where you are not the first choice, yet you end up with the role anyway.

For the next few paragraphs, I’m talking about selecting what to do, assuming that you have the choice and freedom to make that choice. For those who are struggling to stay alive, choice is often not an option. I understand that, so please read on knowing that I’m talking about making the best of the situations where your own choices can be used against you.

There’s a position going at my Uni, it doesn’t matter what, and I was really quite interested in it, although I knew that  people were really looking around outside the Uni for someone to fill it. It’s been a while and it hasn’t been filled so, when the opportunity came up, I asked about it and noted my interest.

But then, I got a follow-up e-mail which said that their first priority was still an external candidate and that they were pushing out the application period even further to try and do that.

Now, here’s the thing. This means that they don’t want me to do it and, so you know, that is absolutely fine with me. I know what I can do and I’m very happy with that but I’m not someone with a lot of external Uni experience. (Soldier, winemaker, sysadmin, international man of mystery? Yes. Other Unis? Not a great deal.) So I thanked them for the info, wished them luck and withdrew my interest. I really want them to find someone good, and quickly, but they know what they want and I don’t want to hang around, to be kicked into action when no-one better comes along.

I’m good enough at what I do to be a first choice and I need to remember that. All the time.

It’s really important to realise when you’d be doing a job where you and the person who appoints you know that you are “second-best”. You’re only in the position because they couldn’t find who they wanted. It’s corrosive to the spirit and it can produce a treacherous working relationship if you are the person that was “settled” on. The role was defined for a certain someone – that’s what the person in charge wants and that is what they are going to be thinking the whole time someone is in that role. How can you measure up to the standards of a better person who is never around to make mistakes? How much will that wear you down as a person?

As academics, and for many professional, there are so many things that we can do, that it doesn’t make much sense to take second-hand opportunities, after the A players have chosen not to show up. If you’re doing your job well and you go for something where that’s relevant, you should be someone’s first choice, or you should be in the first sweep. If not, then it’s not something that they actually need you for. You need to save your time and resources for those things where people actually want you – not a warm body that you sort of approximate. You’re not at the top level yet? Then it’s something to aim for but you won’t be able to do the best projects and undertake the best tasks to get you into that position, if you’re always standing in and doing the clean-up work because you’re “always there”.

I love my friends and family because they don’t want a Nick-ish person in their life, they want me. When I’m up, when I’m down, when I’m on, when I’m off – they want me. And that’s the way to bolster a strong self-image and make sure that you understand how important you can be.

If you keep doing stuff where you could be anyone, you won’t have the time to find, pursue or accept those things that really need you and this is going to wear away at you. Years ago, I stopped responding when someone sent out an e-mail that said “Can anyone do this?” because I was always one of the people who responded but this never turned into specific requests to me. Since I stopped doing it, people have to contact me and they value me far more realistically because of it.

I don’t believe I’m on the Clarion West reserve list (no doubt they would have told me), which is great because I wouldn’t go now. If my writing wasn’t good enough then, someone getting sick doesn’t magically make my writing better and, in the back of my head and in the back of the readers’, we’ll all know that I’m not up to standard. And I know enough about cognitive biases to know that it would get in the way of the whole exercise.

Never give up anything out of pique, especially where it’s not your essence that is being evaluated, but feel free to politely say No to things where they’ve made it clear that they don’t really want you but they’re comfortable with settling.

If you’re doing things well, no-one should be settling for you – you should always be in that first choice.

Anything else? It will drive you crazy and wear away your soul. Trust me on this.

A picture of a tree standing in a field.

You, too, can be outstanding in your field.

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