Friday, April 16, 2010

Front loading

Wednesday and Thursday (and Tuesday, I believe) a friend of mine from college was on campus interviewing for a position in my department. Catching up with her was quite a treat--and one that makes me wish I could go to the 10 year reunion in a few weeks. I'm amazed at how well we still know each other, in spite of not keeping in touch for so long. While she was speaking her mannerisms were at times distractingly familiar in a way that made me feel almost like I was back in Blacker. But, of course, we're not at tech anymore; we've moved on in our lives.

She is, I suspect, almost exactly where she wanted to be right now, with the possible exception of not having a tenure-track position (though that's a little out of control, since apparently there haven't been any tenure-track planetary science positions available essentially until now). She's written a number of successful grants and published many papers, one of them in Nature Geosciences. Not only is this friend wildly successful by academic standards, she's also engaged to a guy who is apparently similarly intellectually gifted, so (at least from my perspective) it looks like she's really living the dream.

I am excited things are working out so well for her. I'm totally unsurprised by her success because it's always been obvious she is going to make her mark. She's passionate about her research, about education, about science in general; she works really hard and is ambitious and charismatic. She is an amazing scientist and I really do feel it's a privilege to know her and to count her as a friend (long lost though she is).

I am envious only in that I look up to her as an example of what I wish I were more like. Comparison is a deadly thing and I should shun it, especially when it comes to my old tech friends. Even so, it's hard to see all the wonderful, exciting things my friends are doing and look at myself and think I should have done something equally impressive. But I haven't. I'm lazy; I like to blog instead of work (like right now, for instance). I like science, but I am not passionate about it most of the time; I often feel like an idiot as I struggle to understand papers I should easily understand. I just don't know if I can hack it. Some of my happiest moments are when I'm working on my science, when I feel that passion fill me to overflowing, but then some of my deepest despair comes too from the daily failures and worthlessness of much of my effort. Science is such a big part of my identity at this point, but not always in a positive way. I wish I could see a path that would let me change that.

I heard Ira Glass (of This American Life) talking about how all stories tend toward mediocrity, how it takes real effort to make something good instead of just blah. ACB was happy to diagnose the current state of my career as resulting from my front loading my family life while she front loaded her academic life. She was also happy to predict our trajectories would converge within a decade. It would be lovey if that were to happen, though I fear my natural tendency toward mediocrity is the real thing keeping me back.

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