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    Turning Down the Imaginary Car (Advice from Actors to Academics, Part 2)

    I blogged earlier about how the academic job search can be framed like the search for an acting job (where the odds are incredibly steep, rejection is pervasive, and the stakes feel deeply personal). Today's post is a second installment of advice from Robert Cohen's classic Acting Professionally, a very career-specific book of advice that I have found applicable to other careers. Cohen's maxim that "Children are rewarded for being good" while "Adults are rewarded for being useful" has stuck with me and proved invaluable. So has his point about what I will call Turning Down the Imaginary Car, a thing that plagues budding academics as much as would-be actors.

    Cohen writes that many acting students begin (or once began), with a fairly naive and juvenile fantasy of acting success leading to vast fame and fortune. Hollywood! Broadway! Ten million dollars a picture! A hundred million fans! Marrying Brad and/or Angelina! And that's perfectly natural. Even people who never set foot on a stage have that Hollywood-star fantasy, and of course people motivated enough to pursue an acting career seriously usually started out with that fantasy. The question is how you mature out of it.

    So, Cohen writes, many acting students (and here we're not talking about undergrads, but people in competitive graduate programs) move past that initial fantasy to a point where they say that they could be happy without fame, fortune, and international stardom. They just want a good living in the theater, just steady work in some repertory company. They just want to practice their craft in interesting ways. This looks like a realistic lowering of sights, but in fact it is -- as Cohen points out -- another fantasy. "Just" making a living by acting is winning a huge brass ring. As Cohen puts it:

    Too often the actor who "rejects" Hollywood thinks that by dint of that rejection regular repertory work will materialize somewhere else. It is as if scorning an unoffered Mercedes-Benz somehow entitled us to a Honda Civic.

    Turning down the imaginary car disguises itself as a realistic adjustment of expectations, so the person doing it doesn't have to face actual reality. But in fact, it is the form as magical thinking called bargaining: "if I give up daydream A, I will magically be given daydream A-minus." It is a way of conning yourself into thinking that you already deserve something so that you don't have to earn it.

    The graduate student/job-seeker version of this is to say, "I don't want a job in the Ivy League. I'd be happy with a job at [Michigan/UCLA/Williams College/an R1 university/on the tenure-track with a 3-3 load/on the tenure-track]. Not aiming for a gold medal doesn't guarantee you a silver or a bronze. In fact, everyone who wins silver or bronze does so by striving like hell for the gold. 

    You will not get a job because you view that particular job as humbling, or because you view yourself as humble for being willing to accept it. That unglamorous job in an unglamorous location may have "only" 175 other job applications, instead of 300. But that hardly makes it a consolation prize. You may think that you're not asking for much, but hundreds of other people are asking for the same thing as you are, and most of them are at least a deserving as you are.

    The most pernicious effect of imagining some jobs, any jobs, as automatic consolation prizes is that it leads you to underestimate those jobs' actual requirements. The most common version of this problem is to lowball the amount of research that a school doing the hiring expects. Telling yourself that you don't need to publish more because you don't want one of the fancy jobs is self-destructive. Telling yourself that the two book reviews you've published should be good enough for a place like Unglamorous State is a huge mistake. The research expectations at every school, from the top to the bottom, have risen steadily over the past decades, and that school you think of as humble doesn't hire people who won't publish enough to make tenure there. 
    In fact, even if the amount of research a university expects you to do for tenure is low, what that means is that some of the people competing for that job will already be close to having enough published to get tenure, maybe more than halfway to the local standard. That's a nice proposition for the hiring committee. If you're really a place that doesn't prioritize research, but (for example), expects two peer-reviewed articles for tenure, and some of the applicants for that job already have two articles ... well if they hire one of those people, the school doesn't have to worry about them publishing enough for tenure. And it doesn't have to make time for them to keep publishing. That beats hiring you without any articles, giving you course releases, and crossing their fingers that you'll get across the finish line.
    If you think that you shouldn't need to have publications just to get a job at X State, then you are turning down the imaginary car. The question isn't what you think should be expected of you. It is what your competitors for that job are already offering.
    On the flip side, if you're coming from a high-powered PhD program with a load of publications under your belt, and you get a whiff of the big, shiny jobs, that doesn't mean schools further down the prestige chain will be grateful to have you. They're not your consolation prize, either. If you get interviewed by an Ivy that doesn't hire you, that doesn't mean a "lesser" school will be grateful to have you. A school full of big shots might be more willing to hire a promising researcher with less teaching experience, or less experience teaching low-level classes. But when you apply to X State you will be in a pool where other applicants are almost as well-published as you are but have much more teaching experience. Less glamorous jobs are often different jobs, with different demands.
    The lesson, which actors long ago had to learn and academics have begun to learn the hard way, is that any gig is hard to get, and precious. They all require hard work and good luck. You have to take them all seriously. And if a job doesn't seem flashy enough for you to work hard for, there are people more talented than you are who don't feel that way. It's not about the dream job. Making a living at your calling is living the dream.


    The advice here is timeless, I just think the situation has gotten a lot worse since it was written.  You could make a living doing equity theatre,for example, more easily even two decades ago than you can today.  People aren't turning out as much anymore.  Expenses are up, revenues down.  You used to be able to make a living as a mid-list author.  Or, you could be a mid-list author and also teach at a college that would be happy to have you.   And, about those colleges and universities...

    We don't seem to worry so much about the hollowing out of the creative and thoughtful fields but they have not been unaffected by what happened to American manufacturing.  Heck, the lack of reasonably well compensated tradespeople who might want to take a course in Shakespeare at night or see a play or buy a book might be a big part of the problem.

    You're describing reality very well.  Beyond this being a time where hopefuls have to get over their delusions and pretensions, I think it's fair to say that these are bad times for culture.

    Thanks. I don't mean to deny that there have been terrible and wrong-headed structural changes to these professions. And I certainly don't think this is the way things ought to be. But these posts (which aren't mostly aimed at the main Dagblog readership) are aimed at people trying to navigate the ugly academic job search as it currently exists.

    I think this is a bad time for culture, and more broadly bad times for the educated middle class. The mania for reducing labor costs has long since reached the professions; white-collar workers are being squeezed just as blue-collar workers have been. So it's tough out there for lawyers. But that means, as you say, that the educated middle class which provides most of the audience and many of the artists, is going hungry.

    Practicality and being clear-headed about your options is always an asset.  On the other hand, isn't some amount of delusion necessary for anyone trying to get ahead in any profession but particularly in show business?    Knowing that you have to work hard and have more than a bit of luck in order to succeed is all well and good, but the actor is dealing with people evaluating his looks constantly, and most often what he has to offer is rejected.  How does an actor continue on, if not by employing some delusion?  How does a boxer get back into a ring after a devastating loss without a measure of delusion?  They tell themselves the loss was due to some extenuating circumstance, not their personal lack of ability.   How else can ordinary humans continue on in their day to day lives?  Most must dredge up some small level of delusion.    It is human nature, not to fix permanent blame for our defeats on ourselves and / or our inadequacies.   How else can anyone go on?   We all strive and most of us, at some point in that striving, have lost.  How do we get back up and go on other than to tell ourselves that next time we will succeed.  That next time we will do things differently.  That this failure was the outlier, not the norm.  That this Broadway defeat is okay, because there is always Summer Stock.   It's not a substitute for hard work, it's the imaginary carrot that keeps the cart moving down the path towards success.  

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