Scientiae post: Change is the only constant
I wasn't sure I was going to write for the Scientiae topic this time around, but I saw this article by David Brooks in the NYT and thought it was an interesting topic. I think I have written about this in various forms before, so in that sense, maybe my view has changed, or maybe it is constant. Maybe I am at least partly repeating myself. But the David Brooks article is full of fun factoids, anyway.
The gist of what he's saying is that previous generations were taught to be modest, specifically
a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me .
He says our culture has shifted towards thinking we're better than we really are.
Now, I find this particularly interesting.
I'm in my mid-thirties, so I'm not a college kid (the ones he says are particularly proud) and I'm not as old as David Brooks himself (presumably the more self-effacing bunch).
So where does my generation fit into all this? I feel like I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.
But allow me to explain.
I went to a very competitive school when I was growing up, and one of the things that the school best illustrated was that no matter how good you were or how hard you tried, somebody was better than you at something, but everybody had something they were good at.
So while we were taught to have self-confidence (or try to, anyway), we were taught to be realistic about our abilities (or try to, anyway). In other words, you're probably better at some things than you are at others.
I am pretty good at the bench, for example, but I'm not good at basketball.
And that is OK.
I think it is ok for me to be confident in my lab bench skills, because I have worked hard for a long time on that particular skill set. And I think it is ok for me to say "I suck at basketball" because I really do and nobody would disagree with me.*
Having said that, I have received very strange reactions, both on this blog and in real life, when I exhibit any form of self-esteem about anything OR express any self-doubt.
In other words, I should probably just keep my mouth shut!
But let me give you a couple of examples of "Damned if I do or don't".
I have worked with scientists who said I was "arrogant" if I pointed out why certain experimental plans would not work, citing the literature and technical pitfalls and suggesting alternative approaches.
I have gotten similar reactions on this blog when I said I think I would be good at running a research lab of my own. That is my subjective assessment and prediction. Sure, I might be wrong. All I ever wanted was a chance to try.
On the other hand, I have worked with PIs who said I lacked confidence if I expressed frustration of any kind or, god forbid, asked for any kind of help or advice.
Similarly, I have had commenters tell me that I am too negative, and that I am too insecure, because of things I wrote on this blog.
And I've been told that I haven't been able to get a job because I'm either
a) not as good as I think I am
b) not selling myself well enough.
You can see my conundrum. It's a fine line to walk, and it's something that affects any job search. I still have not figured out that balance of explaining what I'm good at, and where I want to improve, but that I'm still the best hire even though I'm neither arrogant nor openly admitting to be lacking in any areas of the job description (even though I am).
Yeesh, that's nearly impossible to do. Especially for someone who is as compulsively honest as I am.
Ideally, in academic science, you would have someone (maybe a few of your former PIs) saying how great you are, so everyone knows and you don't have to sell yourself at all. Right? Isn't that the ideal?
But we all know that was not what happened for me. Does it mean I suck? Does it mean my PIs are arrogant and/or insecure themselves?
Maybe. Maybe they think I'm not as good as I should be, and that I would make them look bad if they helped me get a job. Or maybe they feel like it would be too arrogant of them to brag about their trainee? Nah, that can't be it. They have no problems bragging about themselves! Even though they're supposedly of the earlier generations that were taught to be self-effacing. They are very good at self-promotion. But I can't just mimic them, because that would be considered arrogant from a person my age. Right?
Now, everybody knows it's entirely possible to be both arrogant AND insecure, but I feel like I have a pretty healthy concept of what I can and cannot do.
Maybe I'm completely wrong about that, but I could make a two-column list and tally up all the ways I am competent or incompetent at certain tasks.
And anybody who knows me is aware that quite often I will say I can't do something and then succeed at doing it anyway. I come from a long line of people who love to vent, and I have a stubborn streak. I will admit I have a hard time giving up and grad school only reinforced my belief that I can sometimes do the impossible if I just try hard enough.
Does that mean I lack modesty? I'm sure some people think so.
*although I am good at Wii basketball, but that doesn't count.