My Anti-Victory Story

Caligater - My Anti-Victory Story

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

Disappointing myself

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.


Immeasurable, immense gratitude to Sandy Grason (@sandygrason) for being the impetus and the driving force of this writing.
Thank you, @joecardillo, for your feedback.
Photo credit. 
  • Bravo! Cali-licious!!! I absolutely love the idea of “completion”. A very special mentor told me many, many years ago to make a list of my “incompletions”, he defined these as “anyone you might run into on the street & there would be things left unsaid” or “any event that you wish would have turned out different”. My list was very, very long, but there were a couple of BIG ONES. And taking care of those BIG ones, changed the course of my life. Thanks for sharing your courage and brilliance with the world. You inspire me! xoxox

    • Wow, Sandy. You know, your highlight of this “completion” framework is a new way of thinking for me (even if I wrote the durn sentence to begin with). It sounds like your mentor really put you to task. (And now, she/he has put me to task because I’m going to do the same exercise. *unfurls a scroll*)

  • Clare

    Let the record show that I deeply admire how hard you’ve been working, non-victorious as it may feel. <3

    • That means a lot. Your name will be on the dedication page of my thesis. If they let me have a dedication page. :)

  • Travis Parke

    That’s an interesting concept you touch on; the whole idea that completion and victory are two separate outcomes. I would argue that the difference between a victory and a mere completion is simply time. That assertion holds true for everything from marathons to masters degrees. In my opinion its the ones that stick it out and complete something long after its considered a victory that exhibit the most grit. The world could use more people with grit. So stay gritty Caligater, for the sake of us all.

    • Travis, I’ve never, ever, ever thought of grit-victory this way. Wow. You just blew my mind.

      (Thank you.)

      • Travis Parke

        I’m glad I was able to bring something to the conversation! Looking forward to weighing in on more of your posts.

  • Sometimes when I hear that often repeated developer’s phrase “done is better than perfect” …in my head it translates as done is what leads to perfect, or at least really good, important work. That momentum of completing things, growing, doing the work, that’s what really matters. Plus we all step off the track sometimes, whether it’s evident outside our own head or not. And like other folks have said, inspired by your courage and grace, too.

    • Huh. Well I like the way you translate that it in your head…. cuz that aint the way that I translate it. :)

      You’re of course right — I had momentum because I was Doing The Work, even if The Work didn’t include my thesis. The mysterious momentum of growth…

  • Kendall Ruth

    Victory implies winning. Winning has become a pop culture version of playing in the kiddie pool, thanks to Charlie Sheen and our celebration of the banal.
    You live far out of the kiddie pool, with all its warm, shallow water, and tend to swim in deep rough waters…and I say this knowing how much you hate water and swimming:)
    I have run many a race or long run. Time and again it is the runs I finish with a smile of gratitude, grateful for the gift to run in the first place, that matter. And nobody is judging my race because they are just as preoccupied with finishing themselves.

    • The water analogy may be one of the most poignant frameworks I could apply to this journey. Thank you. Also curse you. But mostly thank you. :)

      You’re right, “winning” is not a goal, but instead a trope — one that doesn’t often serve us well.

  • Alicia Jabbar

    I think the track just looks a little different. You have grown and changed. How beautiful is that?

    • So true, lady!

      In fact… it looks a LOT different. Your comment is a good reminder to appreciate that.