Today I fumbled a second round job interview which could have positioned me to do something that I am madly passionate about for the rest of my professional life. With a few gaffes in the opening moments the whole shebang was practically over before I knew it. On the way out of the room one of the search committee members told me that I had recovered nicely, but I knew that the stakes were too high for any failure. I was right.
Driving home it dawned on me just how devastating my performance had been in terms of sheer economic loss alone. For example, if I were to quantify the amount of cash that I lost per bungled syllable, I would estimate that the brief 45 second exchange cost around $50,000 in salary next year, and roughly a million dollars over the span of a hypothetically tenured career (and that’s not even factoring into the equation all of the health benefits). Compared with the $2,500 (per course) that I currently receive as a visiting adjunct, the gross earnings squandered in that brief moment of opportunity makes my stomach churn like a damp sweatshirt caught in the spokes of a roaring Harley.
To be honest, during this period of infantile retrospection, I wanted to blame everything and everyone other than myself. I thought about the questions that I should have been asked. I wondered about the time I should have been given to explain myself. How couldn’t they understand that I am the one who deserves this job?
As this energy faded into impotent frustration, I had to turn my attention to more cosmic suspects. I began to think about how this personal disappointment must be God’s plan. Why else would I drop the ball at the touchdown line? It must be God’s will that I failed. Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to think? Isn’t this what having faith is all about?
Not surprisingly, this line of discourse also left me feeling confused and helpless. So next I turned my protest to Fate. That’s it. The stars were not aligned right. Why else was the interview conducted at 2:00 pm instead of 5:00 pm, like last time? Why was it held in a room that felt too bright and businesslike? Why could this not be more like last time?
After playing this blame game for a few more hours, I decided to act like a rational being with agency. In that moment of decision I remembered a wonderful teaching which first came to me in the form of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and the philosophical school of Stoicism. It states that to take responsibility for your successes only is a cheap and pathetic type of moral determinism. In that clear moment of realization it occurred to me that I could not continue to function while immersed in such a toxic methane like atmosphere of blame and cowardice. In that moment of clarity I saw how I was literally gasping for the pure oxygen of genuine freedom.
It was not the search committee who stopped me from succeeding. It was not the time of day which held me back. It was not the decorations on the walls which distracted me from rising to the occasion. It was not the constellations above nor Lucifer’s minions below. It certainly was not God.
I am free because I am responsible to accept my failure as my own possession. I can hold onto it or let go of it. However, I am only free to accept my failure as a controllable possession when I do not hold accountable other people, powers, principalities, and probabilities for what happens to my life. That is the great trade off we make for freedom. We are actually free to be responsible (able to respond) for ourselves.
That being said, perhaps one of life’s cruelest yet most important ironies is that we can take very little credit for our birth, education, and fortunes in the world, but must accept our mistake alone.