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Honesty is as honesty does

In the past six months I’ve left a job because it wasn’t a good fit and stopped writing for a publication to pursue other interests. Yet after reading Walt Crawford’s post about honesty, I feel it oddly necessary to say, no, really: in my case, in this situation, that’s just how things went down. He wasn’t talking about me — it was just an uncanny coincidence that the wording and examples were so similar — and I shouldn’t worry about it, but his post did make me think.

Walt frames his post as a discussion about honesty, but it could also be framed around our comfort levels with disclosure, because there’s one more crucial option beyond being honest or dishonest. It’s not necessary to lie; you don’t have to say anything at all.

We don’t owe it to anyone else to underscore when we’ve really screwed up or what our skeeziest qualities are. I buy jeans that flatter me, rather than buying jeans that make it obvious that I am not only short but longwaisted in an odd troll-doll way, and I appreciate how turtlenecks cover up those lines in my neck. I think of this minor editing as one woman’s modest contribution to the global mise en scene.

I remember reviewing a cover letter written by a new librarian who listed why she wasn’t qualified for the job she was applying for. “No, no, NO!” I told her. Oy! Everyone has limitations, but if you want a job, start by telling the employer what you can offer them. Best foot forward is not a lie.

Yes, I tell you when I get turned down by a writing retreat center, or when I have three more rejections, but that’s par for the course; if I’m not getting rejected, I’m not sending stuff to good places, and as for that writing center — well, all I can say is they just don’t know what they’re missing. (I also did not win the Nobel Prize, but Doris Lessing, as she points out, is very old, so I completely understand.)

But the wheels of life are made smoother by strategic omissions, such as “What a baby!” and “Everyone raves about your book!” If you want to state quite simply, “I am no longer at Elysian University, and I’m looking for work,” that’s all right. If you want to share, that’s all right, too. Though set it aside for a bit, if you can; time has a way of making setbacks taste less bitter. In an essay I’m revising, “Falling In,” I set the immortal words of one military training instructor to free verse:

The Screaming

You don’t get it toGETHer

Yer ass gon’ be on ROLLerskates

Right outta LACKland

— Sergeant Santera, Lackland AFB, August, 1983

I can laugh now, but at the time, the idea of getting tossed from Basic Training terrified me; I had already failed in other parts of my life, and I was one of the many lost souls looking for what felt like a last chance.

Sometimes a little less honesty is a good long-range strategy. More than a few times librarian friends have asked me to review letters of resignation. I always encourage them to let it all hang out; to say exactly what they think; to list every significant thing wrong with their workplace and their boss… and then to take that letter home and hide it away, and write a polite note thanking the library for the opportunity to learn and grow, and so on and so forth. (The impolite letter can be very helpful when the shine wears off your new job; pull it out and remind yourself that your FPOW wasn’t perfect, either.)

To start with, whether or not you list them on your forms, your former bosses are your next reference. It’s really a small profession, once you boil it down to people with your skills in your specialty and your time in grade and preferred geographical locations. Be smart.

Not only that, but sometimes you are wrong and they are right. I look back at disputes and differences with former employers, and much as it stings to admit it, with benefit of experience, in some cases I can see their point. I imagine I’ve tried the patience of many a boss who decided to take a deep breath and focus on my strengths. So a little papering-over is not only smart, but sometimes kind, in a collective let’s-take-care-of-one-another way.

Oh, and it gets better — because that issue of “fitness” is key as well. We make choices based on “fit” all the time. (What’s matchmaking about, after all?) Most of us, reviewing job opportunities, consciously or unconsciously toss 95% of them in the reject pile. All of us have the potential to do many things, but we have to pick carefully. That’s my classic half-century lesson: at 50, I’m aware that time is a non-renewable resource.

If you don’t like your job, leave open the possibility that just maybe, you’re unhappy because you aren’t where you should be. I left the military over “fit.” I was competent, I had a good career path ahead of me, and it just wasn’t right. I left a PhD program, walking away from a fellowship, over “fit.” And this year I left a job over “fit,” even though I felt competent in the position, was learning a lot, made good money, and liked many of the people I worked with.

(At this point every gay or transgendered person reading this post is nodding in recognition, because we know the short-term cost, but the long-term gain, of living life by our own equations of the heart.)

Most of us have a lot of guilt buttons about employment, and deciding that you’re leaving for no other reason than your happiness can be tough; yet in every case, when I had made the decision to leave, the 800-pound-elephant got off my back. [Mixed metaphor! That would be small, by elephantine standards] But sometimes, you don’t realize why you were so unhappy until long after that elephant has lumbered away… so leave open the possibility that “It’s not you, it’s me” is not just a comfortable social fiction, but the hardcore truth.

And the hardcore truth may set you free; but whether you should share it with several billion of your closest friends is a call only you can make.