Synergies and Satisfaction: Performing my Professional Self

Exactly one week after finishing my exams, (and a celebratory dinner of pho), I enjoyed a spontaneous fancy-dinner, went home happy, sleepy, and full of delicious wine and beautifully arranged small plates. I was deeply grateful. And also full of dread: I knew I had, at best,  a mere 3 hours of sleep ahead of me before my early, early morning airport shuttle. I had a 5:20 AM flight  to Denver.

I did not know that flights took off that early.

There were many things that could have gotten me down about this trip, but I felt quite eager to get on route to Boulder, CO. I was attending the 20th annual Critical Geography Conference, with keynotes by Richa Nagar and Alvaro Reyes. I also was going to catch up with two old friends: one of whom is working on her MA in human-environment relations at CU-Boulder Geography, the other, a previous roommate, co-worker, co-conspirator, and fellow educator.

From a professional standpoint, this conference allowed me to explore my new research direction. The talk was not an argument, not an explanation of empirics. I presented a theoretical framework for critical geographers to engage with the nonprofit sector outside of a limiting, negative, critiquing framework, and instead encouraged a perspective that is more open, more interested in learning rather than judging, and that performs a politics of possibility rather than limitations.

I felt nervous to give this talk, initially. Drawing on the work of Gibson-Graham, I knew my work might draw criticism that it wasn’t political enough, not grounded enough, didn’t have clear enough methodology, or wasn’t going to be relevant or scalable. Not to mention, I only had one week in which to prepare this talk, practice it, and feel confident speaking about my work.

Lucky for me, it turns out my committee and I were thinking on the same page. One of my exam questions dovetailed nearly perfectly into the substance of this talk. I had previously outlined the talking points (months ago!), but didn’t know how I would populate it.

And then, a moment of synergy. Whooosh! Snap! Shhhhhwop!

I had written about applying Gibson-Graham to my dissertation project, and what I might learn through that application. I wanted to prepare a talk about how geographers could theorize the nonprofit sector in new ways. I decided to outline how geographers have theorized the nonprofit sector, what a Gibson-Graham inspired analysis would include, how I’m envisioning mapping that engagement onto social justice philanthropy, and what other parts of the nonprofit sector critical geographers could engage with.


I only had a few days to prepare this talk (because, let’s be real, my brain was 60% mush for 4 days after my exams. I didn’t get started on this until Tuesday, and I left for CO on Friday). I started writing out a scripted paper to read in Boulder.

Except that this supposed stress-reliever proved to be anxiety-producing. I do not read papers when I give talks. I talk. Conversationally. To engage the audience. To translate outside of academese. Reading from a paper would have confined me to, well, reading. If I go off script, what then? I’m lost.

So I took a deep breath and reminded myself of my strengths. I know this stuff. I just wrote about it for three days straight, and have been thinking about it deeply for months. And I like presenting and talking, and making audiences feel engaged and at ease and curious. I scrapped the working paper and went back to my roots. Bullet points, talking points, images. I blocked off conference rooms at Office Nomads and practiced the talk a few times. I wore high heels. I paced around and performed my professional self (to an empty room).

Fast forward to Saturday, when I gave my talk. The whole weekend, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction with my professional identity. The Critical conference marked the first conference I’ve presented in since realizing that I can be (and am) more than a graduate student. I’m a professional interested in creative philanthropy, a politics of possibility, and  re-politiczing the nonprofit sector.

Being able to represent myself in this multi-modal capacity was so… liberating. I wore my multiple hats proudly throughout the weekend. When people asked what I did, I thought, “Yeah, you know what? I do a lot of things. My graduate work is but one aspect of how I engage with these things.” When fellow grad students asked what is on my horizon, I said, “You know what? I don’t know. And I feel comfortable with that. Because I love to teach, I love to research, and I know I have skills that transfer across multiple paths. I will probably end up designing my own hybrid career, but I know I will continue engaging with the nonprofit sector and hopefully teaching and researching as well. Maybe I’ll end up consulting.  Maybe I’ll teach. Maybe both!” And when I responded to questions after my talk, it was with a confidence and clarity that I haven’t quite felt before in academic settings. People asked me things because they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. And I had things to say, because I’ve been living and breathing this for years! It’s not to say that I’m an expert. It just felt… comfortable. For one of the first times (and hopefully not the last!)

When I say ‘performing my professional self’, it is, for the first time, a positive thing. I wasn’t miming or pretending. I was performing within a  comfortable role, albeit it a new one. I felt like an understudy to my own professional life who finally got the chance to take the leading role and expand into it. I added my own creative flair to a role that had previously been modeled to me, but never felt my own.

What a huge gift. A relief. I am filled with gratitude for having the space to think deeply, try on and perform this professional self, and find a deep satisfaction with the ways I’m choosing to engage, share and act.

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