S09E11: Bittersweet

Just one topic this week. I need to talk about this, and it’s difficult for a few reasons, so I’ve not got energy for anything else. I am coming up against the first real professional failure of my career, and it’s hitting me really hard. Worse than that, I’m trying to work out how to talk about it without causing hurt. Please forgive me if, despite my best intentions, you’re hurt anyway.

I was the first person in my family to go to university.

That’s partly because I’m the eldest: all of my siblings went to university too. And that’s not to say my parents couldn’t have gone to uni: both of them are successful, interesting, brilliant people.

But still. I was the first person in my family to go to university. There’s some expectation there.

Out of university I joined the Civil Service’s incredibly competitive graduate scheme on my first try. There’s not a lot of people that do that. A little bit more expectation.

I’m currently on temporary promotion. More expectation.

Hope may be the thing that kills you, but expectation’ll fucking bury you.

There’s a weird clash, when your expectations – when your self-estimation – comes up against other people’s estimation of you. Sometimes it’s a good clash. Someone says, in passing: I wish I were as relaxed as you when you speak. And that’s nice, because before you speak your heart rate climbs to 120 and your lungs are crushed from the pressure. Sometimes it’s a weird clash: people like us. Suddenly you realise your estimation of who you are and this person’s estimation are miles away, but you wonder how they’ve come to that estimation.

In this case, though, my estimation is that I’m ready for promotion. Four different panels of people have, with varying kindness, velocity, and tone, given me their estimation. And their estimation is: no, you are not.

And this is where it gets bittersweet. For many of these roles, I’m simply not getting feedback. I don’t know what I still need to learn, or achieve, or do. I’m frustrated, and I think in part it’s because I have expectations on myself that are not fair. There are roles I could have done, and things I could have sacrificed, to get this promotion. I’ve purposefully chosen not to do those things, with the (white, male) assumption that things would work out nonetheless – that the rules would simply be bent for me.

Things have not worked out, and I find myself sitting here surprised and surprised by my surprise. I am astonished that my actions have (negative) consequences, and then astonished that this is at all surprising to me. My privilege sneaks up on me in the weirdest ways.

So I’m going into a new role at my old grade. The team are great: I’ve worked directly with some of them and admired others from afar. The mission looks interesting and technically complex, with plenty to build a strong technical CV on. The money is excellent. I’ve written ‘The money is excellent’ because that’s the sort of thing I understand people care about. It’s not really what I care about.

What do I care about?

Cyrano z Bergeracu • NT Live | Aerofilms
I love words that’s all

Did you see Nannette by Hannah Gadsby? I did. I love it. It’s a singularly brilliant piece of performing.

Did you see Hannah giving her TED talk about where she mentions the minute she stepped onto a stage, she knew she was supposed to be there? That she liked stand-up and that stand-up liked her?

I did. I love it. It is literally a masterclass in speech and writing.

I know what that feels like.

I love to speak.

Do I want to be promoted just to speak?

I don’t think it’s just that. I’m good at other things. I enjoy more about leading a team than speaking. And I don’t like being the centre of attention – or rather, I do enjoy being the centre of attention, in a specific role with specific guidelines and social expectations.


This has helped. Thanks. Really.

Same time next week?

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