Monday, June 10, 2013

On ambition, feelings of inadequacy, and cross-stitching

I attended two defenses today -- an M.A. thesis and a Ph.D. dissertation.

Both went well, and both sufficiently impressed me. I thought both speakers seemed eloquent, articulate, professional, happy, and pretty much every other positive adjective. I was wowed.

Because I am shockingly interested in myself, I took these defenses to not only listen to my friends and colleagues demonstrate great work, but also to do some reflection about myself, and how I feel about graduate school.

I really like graduate school. I really, really like the program I am in. I like the instructors, I like my classmates, I like the freedom of the department I am in, and the amount of support given to me to explore my own scholarly interests.

But because I like graduate school -- and my particular program -- so much, I occasionally feel like I'm not focused on the result enough. I generally don't think about what kind of "adult" scholar I want to be. Sure, I'll think about how to improve my seminar papers, my comprehensive exams (about a year and a half away) and about what seminar papers I want to submit to conferences, but that's really it. The idea of not being a student and being a professional in this field terrifies me.

I've just started the program - so I have at least four years left of being in my graduate student cocoon - so perhaps this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.

But I do very often feel that most other graduate students have a personality trait that I am suspiciously missing -- a nearly insane level of drive, ambition, zeal. Sure, I have some ambition to be The Best Scholar Ever, but on a daily basis this ambition rarely sees the light of day. Just having the emotion of wanting to be a really, really good scholar frightens me. I could fail!

It's easier for me to function not thinking about how I'd like to Become a Really Good Scholar and instead think about I Need To Write 25 Good and Interesting Pages on Moses Mendelssohn. I'm very deliberately not seeing the forest due to the trees.

When I do have sudden burst of ambition -- when I feel that I should feel good about myself and think that I can really make it in this field -- I immediately feel so overwhelmed that I push it back down again. I then refocus my energy on other emotional pursuit, specifically crushes.

Once I was talking to an old adviser of mine -- an Arts Administrator (I have a B.F.A. in Theatre Management) and we had the following conversation:

"Well, the dating scene at the Jewish Theological Seminary is pretty weird. Nobody wants to date me. It's awful. What gives?!" I exclaimed, unceremoniously wiping some hummus from the falafel I was eating on my jeans.

"Maria, you just told me you were feeling so overwhelmed by all of your coursework. How do you even have time to pursue dating?"

"Well, I probably don't have that much time to date. But I always seem to find the time to lament my single status and develop intense crushes on people. I find the time."

I almost invariably find the time to sleep, relax, socialize, develop crushes on people, spend too much time thinking about feelings, blog, instagram. Other graduate students seem much more willing to sacrifice these things in pursuit of their ambition to Be A Great Scholar. (Especially sleep.) I'm only very rarely willing to sacrifice sleep, friends, or thinking about attractive people in order to have the best graduate school career I can have.

And on a daily basis, this usually does not bother me. I have a great life! I even recently became single again -- through my own volition!!! -- so this gives me even more time to think about my favorite topic, Why Don't More People Want to Date Me? Don't They Realize How Awesome I Am? and Once I Get a Really Amazing Partner, That Will Show Them All.

But then I attend two amazing defenses, and I feel like the wind is knocked out of me. The ambition To Be The Best Scholar Ever, generally so carefully guarded, came out.

I want to be good at this, I found myself thinking to myself. And I can probably do it, if I work hard enough. Some day, that will be you up there. You're actually pretty smart, you know, Maria. You can totally do it! 

So I came home. Did I spring to action on my papers?

No, I took a nap. In my defense, I was really tired.

When I woke up, I sat on my couch and thought about how impassioned I had felt about my studies earlier that day.

I can maybe do that, maybe I will succeed, I thought to myself. And then, immediately, No you can't. You're just lying to yourself. You're not as smart as those other people, and you never will be. You're a fraud. You shouldn't do anything today. You don't deserve to work today, you're such a disaster. It's too late for you anyway, you would have had to already read about 5,000 more books than you have read in order to be successful. My heart beat increased, I started chewing on my lower lip, my hands started sweating.

I irritably watched some television, and then picked up some cross-stitching. I started cross-stitching the word that best exemplified how I was feeling.

This will be a swear word, and as you can see, it begins with "F" and "u." I felt doomed.

While cross-stitching, I started to feel a little bit better. The rhythmic nature of cross-stitching is soothing, and I eventually began to think that I maybe wasn't doomed. I want to write a blog post, I realized to myself. There was a small voice inside of my head that said, This is EXACTLY why you won't and will never be a successful scholar! Successful scholars don't have hobbies!!! And you're going to blog about a hobby? That's a hobby on top of a hobby. How many hobbies you need? I hate you so damn much, Maria, but I managed to squash it down. Nope, I told myself, I really want to write a damn blog post. And it's going to be great.

And now I'm feeling much better.

I mean, all I really have to do this week is to finish writing 25 good and interesting pages on Moses Mendelssohn. Plus, I'm going to a state park with some of my amazing friends on Wednesday! 

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