Monday, March 07, 2011

Einmal ist Keinmal: Life as a Sketch

The stage is set and the audience is waiting; are you ready?
In the opening chapters of one of my favorite novels of all time (Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the narrator ponders whether he would be better off with or without his lover. The problem, he realizes, is that we can never truly know what we want because we only live one life. Without previous lives to consider, and previous choices to learn from, how are we supposed to know what will make us happy?

"There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, 'sketch' is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture. Einmal ist keinmal . . . What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we only have one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all."

This is pretty profound, if depressing, stuff, and I find myself continually returning to the notion that we live everything without warning, utterly cold, taking life's developments as they come.

Consider an interview, for example. We do our best to prepare and try to imagine what the employer wants to find in us. We run through mock questions and scenarios, wear our finest interview clothes, put a lid on any unpleasant aspects of our personalities that might crop up in high pressure situations, and try to be on our best behavior at all times. The curtains open, the lights come on, and we're live. Act one, scene one. GO.

After surviving a number of intense on-campus academic interviews for tenure-track jobs this semester, it dawned on me that only once the whole experience was over was I able to figure out exactly what the department in question was looking for. I had to go through the motions and perform cold before realizing, often days later, what I could or should have done to cinch the deal. This is not just one of the many perils of the job search; as Kundera points out, it's one of the perils of life as we know it. There are no rehearsals or second chances. This is it. No wonder we have so many dreams in which we find ourselves on stage, completely (and inexplicably) naked, not knowing our part in the play or our lines, not having a clue why we are there or what the point of it all is.

In many ways those dreams are simply preparing us for day-to-day conscious reality. They're in place to give us a fresh perspective on existence. Interviews work much the same way. We do our best but it's usually not our actual best. We don't have time to practice, other than in our safe and comfy homes. (Not the same!) With a thorough on-stage rehearsal before the main event we'd really be primed to land the job. Instead, we just have to hope that our impromptu performance ends up being one of the best the audience sees during the rehearsal. That's why sometimes you can end up landing a job even though you know you weren't your best. Clearly, in comparison to you, the other candidates folded under the pressure of the one-shot role. That's why impromptu anything is always great experience for job interviews. So my advice for job seekers: get out there and go on blind dates or do something, anything, difficult and off the cuff in public. This is your chance; but it's OK to blow it. Sometimes. Happens to the best of us.

*Speaking of second chances, if you believe in that sort of stuff, check out my interview with Ann Daly, a professor who gave up tenure to start her career over, at IHE today:

1 comment:

Anthea said...

Thank you for this posting. I do believe in second chances..and I enjoyed reading your article in the Inside Higher Ed which I read earlier on today. I think that it's important to jump at those second chances when they occur since life is short. A second chance means that you can put what you've learned from that 20/20 hindsight into action..and hope that the outcome that you'd like does occur.