The notion of ‘Fine’ and professional confidence

I submitted the second version of my Fellowship Portfolio last week, less than two months after the first attempt was rejected. I cannot thank Kate Robinson enough for everything she’s done for me. Short of picking me up and carrying me (which she pretty much did in a virtual sense), she’s the reason that I felt able to press the submit button again.

There was some reaction to my previous post on professional failure. I have been contacted by a few people who were a little…concerned. I was keen to reassure everyone that I was fine and that things were moving forward again. I mean, there was the day that I and went and sat in a toilet cubicle at work and couldn’t face unlocking the door and going back out again because everything felt too difficult. There was the day of the terrible job interview, where even before I went into the interview itself I was told by the person giving me the library tour that I really, really didn’t want to work there (talk about putting you off your stride; I hope they did it for the right reasons) and I walked out afterwards thinking ‘Please don’t give me the job’ (They didn’t.) There was the day where I ran a marathon without meaning to. I listened to I’m Still Standing by Elton John and Run the World (Girls) by Beyonce (Homecoming live version) repeatedly. Other than that, all fine. Nothing to see here.

Kate kept saying to me: ‘Why aren’t you showing off about everything you’ve achieved?’ I honestly thought I *had*. I won an award in 2017 and when I went to accept it the Director of the organisation presenting me with the certificate said ‘Jo is so unassuming but she does all of this amazing work’ and I thought ‘No, I’m such a show off really’. Or all the times I assume that people who I’ve met previously won’t remember me and when they do I feel like an idiot (one doesn’t like to assume…)

My immediate family are kind, humble, quiet, hard-working people. They’re not given to boasty posts on social media. They quietly accumulated qualifications but don’t discuss them. I don’t know what my Dad’s golf handicap is (I have asked, he doesn’t tell) and I didn’t know until recently that he once ran a sub-three-hour marathon. My sister got a significant accolade last year, but she asked us not to talk about it anywhere.

According to my children you’re now allowed – no, expected – to show off about your achievements to your peers. When I was at school it was incredibly uncool to be clever and social death to show off about it. Once you were labelled a ‘Boff’ (short for Boffin – a 90s Bedfordshire term?), it was game over for your credibility. I learned to play everything down. To make myself invisible. To not put my hand up when I knew the answer. I stopped taking up space. I turned self-deprecation into an art form as a survival mechanism.

At university and until my mid-twenties I became a bit of an arrogant sod. I’d learned to combine my clever academic stuff with the ability to dance until 3am in a sweaty nightclub and be the ringleader of the social gang in my part-time job. I achieved a promotion in my second library job with the caveat that I had to promise not to be as arrogant as I had been in the interview (I didn’t think I’d get it, so I went in like an absolute baller with nothing to lose.)

Having children really dicked with my professional confidence. There was the sense that I was lucky to have a job, that I didn’t deserve to achieve anything, that I should concentrate on the babies and stop having notions about ambition. Some of that came from within but there were some external forces at work too. It comes to something when, after all of this, you’re on the receiving end of a lengthy pep-talk from one of your children telling you to show off more, be brave, do the scary things and tell everyone what you’ve done and why it’s important. Essentially, everything I’ve said to her over the course of her life. Turns out that your children actually do listen to what you say after all…

There’s a disconnect between how I feel internally (I’m bloody excellent, obviously) and how I project myself on paper and in person (depending on the context, of course.) I’m now at a point where, professionally, I need to change that if I want to move forwards. I had to swallow quite a lot of awkward feelings when I re-wrote my FCLIP evaluative statement because it felt utterly alien to be writing about myself in such as self-aggrandizing way. I can big-up my library and my team and my colleagues until the end of time, but I simply can’t do it about myself with any conviction.

Once I’d pressed the Submit button on version 2 I felt curiously flat and oddly ambivalent about the whole thing. I maintain that the real achievement was pulling together a portfolio in the first place (even though version 1 was crap) so I don’t know how I feel this time. At some point (if/when I pass) I’ll write a constructive post full of advice to FCLIP candidates, but I don’t have it in me right now. I have picked a few CPD things up again: LwL is back next week, Mike and I are pulling together our workshop for the conference, and I want to reconnect with the wider profession in a fun way via LwL @ #cilipconf19. I don’t really know what’s next, but I’m already looking for the next mountain to climb.

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