Sometime this autumn, something in my head clicked. I finally stopped feeling shame about having left academia, stopped feeling like a failure, and mostly stopped feeling intense bitterness towards my old profession. Perhaps it just started to get ridiculous for me to keep feeling bad about myself. I have a job I love in a city I adore, I am married to a fantastic woman, I have two great kids, we are about the move into a home in a great community, and I have been in good health. All in all, I'm leading a good life, and with so many people out there facing worse problems than me, it's pretty silly to continue to brood Hamlet-like over the fact that I am no longer a professor.
Hearing this click has also allowed me to be much more sober and honest about myself and my old profession. While I still know in my heart that I got a raw deal and my labor was exploited, I also know that I prepared myself poorly for the realities of the current academic job market. I waited too long to publish, I studied an obscure topic that nobody cares about, I did not network at conferences (I am constitutionally incapable of the kind of social fakery involved in networking), and I squandered several job interviews through my own ineptitude. In a difficult market I did not do myself any favors.
I am also beginning to realize that I lacked a lot of things necessary for a career in academia. My specialization didn't really stick, for one. While I find nineteenth century Germany to be fascinating, I also know that my level of interest in the subject is not enough to sustain itself as the focus of my life's work. It's been months since I've read a book on the topic, and I am finding myself a great deal more interested in American history. Being a teacher allows me to still be a student of history, without the pressure of being an expert on an obscure vein of knowledge that few actually care about. That suits me just fine.
My academic career also just wasn't consistent with what I wanted out of life. When I finally landed a tenure-track job it was in an isolated East Texas town where, had I stayed, I would have been an outsider for the rest of my life. While it had a few charms, I felt painfully isolated there (apart from some great friends) from day one. In any case, my beloved spouse had no interest in moving there, and she was right. My love of being a professor just wasn't deep enough to sustain me living in a place I did not want to live, and to live apart from the person I loved the most on top of it. I know the ivory tower alone is enough for others, but not for me.
In fact, it's only since I have left academia that I have realized how uncomfortable I felt there from the beginning. I forced myself to learn its bourgeois modes of sociability alien to my rural upbringing, I learned to bullshit on things I knew little about, and I learned to bite my tongue around the large number of arrogant jerks one commonly encounters in that walk of life, especially at conferences. Even worse, when I landed my tenure-track job I found myself in an institution that did not follow the normal rules of the profession, yet replaced bourgeois affect with macho bullying.
That said, I met many fantastic friends along the way, and I feel like my studies made me a much more intelligent and interesting person. Unlike a lot of others, I look back on grad school as some of the best years of my life. I was poor but young enough to endure it, and living in a town cheap enough to support it. I had many tremendous comrades, and I enjoyed spending my days immersed in knowledge. I also know that I did not direct my energies in the right directions in those years, and that what came after grad school was a horrid descent in depression and disappointment, only mitigated by meeting some more good people.
When I face all these facts today I no longer have bitterness, jealously, and shame swirling inside me, as I once did. My inner peace comes from the fact that after a long and difficult journey, I finally feel like I am finally where I am supposed to be. The dream of being a tweed-clad professor writing books respected by my scholarly peers is now long dead, but I won't be shedding any tears.