The stories we tell ourselves

8 January 2017

When somebody asks me how I got to where I am, there are a few words I use generously: luck, serendipity and kind people. I want to give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge the people who helped me and supported me to get to where I am. If I’m honest, it also makes for a better story, too.

Part of me wants that tale I tell to be engaging and modest-sounding (I’m British! Boasting is Terrible). But that mythology I find myself trying to build up is probably harmful to others as well as myself.

Telling a story of finding a job in Berlin through luck, settling in here through the help of kind people, being in the right place at the right time through serendipity - that all gives a much easier impression of my career, of not trying too hard but finding my way. It’s charming, but not threatening. It’s also an incredibly gendered approach to talking about myself.

I realised this recently when a friend told me recently how she ended up with the job she’s in. It involved her reaching out to someone she didn’t know, but saw online was getting interested in a topic she had been working on. She offered to buy him coffee and chat about it, and a couple of weeks later, when he found out he had a grant to work more on that topic, he got in touch with her to see if she had some time free to work on the project.

I said: “Wow, that’s so lucky!”

She said: “Well, I put myself there.”

She’s right, and my comment totally missed the mark. She was rightfully owning the work she did to put herself in that position, rather than letting it be labelled as something she had no control over. She did have control over it, and she exercised that control.

So how else could my story be told?

A more accurate retelling of my own story could include years I’ve actively looked out for opportunities to write in outlets in my spare time, or given talks at events on topics I’m interested in to give me an opportunity to research those topics and a potential ‘in’ to working on them more in the future. I could mention prioritising getting better at writing by spending every Sunday evening for 2+ years, writing on this blog, giving myself time limits for posts, and writing goals.

I could talk about how I made an effort to get in touch with Data & Society as soon as I learned about them and their work once I realised it was a space I would one day love to be a part of, years before applying for the fellowship (admittedly, I didn’t expect that to come so soon!). I might mention that some of that serendipity I love to cite was in large part engineered on my part - tweeting, reading extensively, quoting people’s work and letting them know I follow them and admire what they’re doing, getting in touch proactively, building those relationships so I’m on their radar for when that ‘serendiptious’ occasion might arise.

That story is very different to the one I’ve been telling for years, but it’s what I’m going to try and do from now on.

It’s unrealistic and unfair to ignore all that work - to myself, and others. Citing luck and serendipity gives the impression that people in positions of influence will somehow magically find out about you and your interests and reach out to you - they (probably) won’t. It implies that if you’re doing this right, opportunities to work on things you want to be working on will just pop up out of the blue. They won’t (okay, unless you’re part of some exclusive Alumni association, cough Bullingdon Club)

It’s also doing myself an injustice to not acknowledge all the effort and thought that I put into making things happen. Though some other kind people did play a pivotal role in my career, so did I! Acknowledging that may well go a long way towards addressing that long-dreaded imposter syndrome I worry about.

That said, in reality, most of those efforts at ‘generating’ serendipity will probably lead to nothing. They also require time and effort, something many people don’t have going spare. I’m not sure how to address that clear inequality in this space… but until then, I want to be more fair to myself, and to others, about the stories I tell myself.


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