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Am I a Successful Person? (Reflections on Self-Esteem)

Updated on July 29, 2014

My Recent Reactions to Failure

This is more personal than the stuff that I usually post here on Hubpages. But this post has been lingering in my head for months now. So in addition to getting some things off of my chest, maybe some of you will be able to relate:

A few months ago, after almost fourteen years of teaching history as an adjunct at multiple community colleges, I had my second job interview for a full-time position. There are plenty of excuses I can give for why I am still a lowly adjunct teaching at three or four schools at a time. I can also give a list of reasons for why I have only managed two interviews in fourteen years. But I'm not really interested in making excuses right now. Instead, I want to talk about my emotional reactions to this particular interview experience and the nagging thoughts and feelings that have lingered ever since.

When the interview was finished, the school district did me a favor, you might say, by not leaving me in suspense for too long. Within twenty-four hours, I received the generic rejection email. Psychologists, apparently, often talk about the seven stages of grief. I did not bother to take the time to look them up, and yet I could see myself going through the process fairly quickly at first. The anger/denial/excuse-making phase did not last very long. So after spewing some anger for a few hours about all that is wrong with the world (and the American education system specifically), I shifted quickly to the, "Where did I screw up?" phase, going back over the interview in my head to see where I might have gone astray. It seemed that things had gone pretty well, and it is always difficult to figure out exactly what a particular group of interviewers might be looking for, so after a couple days of this, I concluded that replaying the past was rather pointless.

But even while still indulging in the painful exercise of rethinking my entire interview, a sadness phase was sinking in, and this one would not fade so easily. As I spent a few days in a mild depression funk, I started asking myself why I was feeling what I was feeling. Eventually, it became clear that I was mostly suffering from a self-esteem problem, the feeling that I was some sort of an educational second-class citizen who had just been rejected by the powers that be. As someone who tries to be a rational person, I knew that I was not a better or a worse teacher on the day after my interview than I was on the day before. I would not have suddenly become a better teacher (and human being) if they had hired me. However, if they had hired me, I would have gained more than a cut in driving and teaching time, higher salary, and a chance to more fully become a part of a campus community. I would have also felt better about myself as a human being, a fact that I am embarrassed to admit.

I have always been a person who claimed that he did not care too much about what other people think. I have always recognized that there is far more to life than a career, and I often mock or pity those who seem to get their sense of self-esteem from all of the crap that they own or the praise that they receive from others. My sense of self-esteem comes from within, and so long as I have friends and family around - the people who really matter - and enough students tell me how much they like my classes, then screw everyone else. Apparently, however, I need more external validation than I previously thought, and there is a big part of me that looks at myself as I think that others are looking at me. And even if my self-esteem was not wrapped up somewhat in the opinions and actions of others, the simple fact is that I want to make more money and teach five classes at one school instead of six or seven classes per semester at three or four different schools. Whether or not that ever happens, however, is somewhat out of my hands.

Now, there is a danger that I might go through this process again. In fact, it may have already started. About a month ago, I published a second edition of my American history book, a book that pulls together about four years of writing. But more than that, it is the culmination of about twenty years of teaching American history, my life's work put into a package. On a practical level, it did not make a lot of sense to write this book. If you take the money I am likely to make from selling it and divide that by the number of hours invested, this was probably not a wise use of my time. I realize that the only people likely to buy it are a few friends and the students in my classes. The biggest problem, however, is the emotional risk involved. It can be quite an emotional slap in the face, after all, if you publish your life's work and no one is interested in buying it.

Still, I plunged ahead until it was done, partly for the fun of it, partly for the intellectual exercise, and partly for my students. Because if this does nothing but make me a better teacher, then it was probably worth it, right? A big part of me, the rational part me, says, "right." But there is also an emotional, impractical part of me that wants to sell a bunch of books, give lectures like the one I gave at our church a few weeks ago (see link below), and have all kinds of people tell me how much they learned from this book. For one of the few times in my life, I decided to take a shot at an impractical dream. But if this dream were eventually realized, would I be a better writer than I am now? And more generally, is my success as a teacher, writer, and human being determined by the reactions of others? Or should I be able to keep listening to that internal voice which says after a lecture or after proofreading an essay, "Damn, that was good."

In the end, I seem to be wrestling with two basic (and related) problems that afflict all of us humans. First, other people, to a certain degree, dictate whether or not I can achieve my goals. I cannot get a full-time teaching position unless someone hires me, and I cannot sell any books unless people buy them. And in a world that often seems messed up and unfair, being subject to the whims of others can be extremely painful and frustrating. And second, I am struggling with the definition of the word success. Because no human is an island, all of us are influenced by the opinions of others. So when I strive to achieve goals that I think will make me happy and successful, are these really my goals? Or have I bought in to other people or the general culture's definitions of success? And if I fail, never achieving my life goals or doing anything particularly unique with my life, is that okay?

I'm no religious scholar, but one major tenet of the world's great religions is that we must learn how to face and deal with the fact that we live in an unjust world, subject to people, events, and forces that we cannot control. And in this unjust world, we must find some degree of contentment, striving to do what is right whether we get rewarded for it or not. That's easier said than done, but I guess that I have whatever is left of my life to try and get better at it.


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