I’d like to tell you a story about the last few years. A story about anti-victory.
I was feeling good: I had left my job at a marketing agency in order to go to graduate school full time. I blazed through my master’s classes. In just a handful of semesters I knocked my coursework outta the park. I was set to finish my degree quickly, and then go for a terminal degree in my field. I planned for a career in academia. I had a great plan in place. I was pursuing a dream to get my master’s.
While I worked on the classes required for my degree, I started freelance work in marketing communications. I figured freelancing would give me a flexible schedule and room to focus.
So as I worked on classes, I also grew my freelancing work, which grew my income, which grew my business skills. Although working for myself was challenging, I had happy clients and forward momentum.
Then, I walked off a track just a few feet from the finish line.
The track: grad school.
The finish line: graduating with a master’s degree.
With classes complete, I was ready to work full-time on my thesis—the culminating document for my degree that would take at least two semesters and lots of hours to complete. I had no classes to attend and no one to report to, and I believed that sort of academic flexibility would work perfectly with my flexible freelancing. I was confident that I just needed six months or so of focused time to research and write the thesis, and then I could earn my degree. The flexibility of freelancing and unrestrained research would empower me.
But all that flexibility turned into a neglect vortex. I didn’t realize how all-consuming working for myself would become. As I focused on freelance work, week by week and month by month I lost sight of my thesis work.
So here’s what I did over the next three years:
Freelanced, built a steady and fruitful business
(Ignored thesis research and writing)
Joined a startup
Got laid off from the startup
(Continued to ignore thesis work)
Joined a high-growth company
Changed careers from marketing to business development
(Realized I was no longer enrolled in the grad program)
Hired an executive coach
Reapplied to grad school, on the urging of my executive coach
Got back into grad school
I stepped back on the track. I had to do a couple extra laps to make up for my time away, but I’m back in the race. But it doesn’t feel as victorious as I might have thought. Stepping back on the track feels a bit shameful.
Well-meaning family and friends tell me I’m in the home stretch. But I don’t feel like it. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like it.
I still fight resistance, impostor’s syndrome, and shame, including but not limited to the following types of moments:
Not finishing something I started
Having to answer “How’s your thesis going?” one more time
Failing to meet expectations (mine or others’)
Disappointing loved ones
Being my own saboteur
But, I’m doing more laps on the track right now. I have:
Finalized my committee, which is made up of three interesting (and challenging) scholars
A regular weekly study night
A monthly study date with other grad students
A whole bunch of loving people holding me accountable
Still, finishing my degree no longer holds any luster.
The possibility of completing my thesis—and thus finally finishing my master’s degree—doesn’t look like success. It looks like… completion.
I’m often thinking about how I define success and failure. And frankly, I’m not sure that there is a difference between winning and losing. If there is a difference, it’s ever so slight.
I doubt I’ll feel victorious when I finish my thesis. And I’m okay with that.
It will feel like an anti-victory.