Saturday, January 14, 2012

Aim for results, not accolades

The past two months have been relentless and exhausting, so much so that I could feel myself stumbling through life in a total daze, losing perspective, becoming ungrounded. First there was the conference in early December, then there was fieldwork, then there was the Christmas trip to see family, then there was a bout of bronchitis that hung on for weeks, and then there were my Ph.D. comprehensive exams.

Throughout the last six weeks the exams have been at the forefront of my mind, and I've been studying for at least a good five or six hours a day, if not more. Oftentimes my family would go to bed and I'd be up reading and taking notes. I'd get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and break out the books again. I took one day off - Christmas - but otherwise, I was loathe to give it a rest. In the short history of my department's Ph.D. program, no-one has failed their comps and only a couple of people have received conditional passes. I did not want to be the first person to totally bomb, especially because there were two other women in my program taking their comps at the same time, and we're all in the same subfield. That would be humiliating - to fail as they passed. All three of us worried about it. All three of us were freaked out about struggling through while the other two skated by. And all three of us were horrified at the thought of being compared to one another (we still are).

The exams started on Thursday of this past week. I knew they'd be tiring, but I felt ready. I guess I wasn't prepared for just how draining they would be. The question sets I received were doable, but they were also really long and challenging. I spent nine hours on the questions on Thursday, another three hours on a second batch of questions yesterday, and then had my oral exam yesterday afternoon. I did my best, but it's hard to maintain a high level of quality when you've been sitting there, thinking and writing, for an entire day. I know some of my responses were weaker than they could have been simply because clarity and concision fizzled away by the day's end.

I passed. My friends passed, too. I have mixed feelings about the entire experience. On one hand, I feel great that this is over (save for a critical paper review next week, but for some reason that seems less intimidating than the exam) and pleased that I got through it. I'm proud of the three of us as a group - three women in science, marching this long road together. The comprehensive exam is a big hurdle in the Ph.D. process - and we surmounted it.

On the other hand, I find myself ruminating on the things I missed or didn't explain well enough. They had told us that during the oral part, they'd focus on test answers that were fuzzy or incorrect and help us work through them. Of course all three of us had some fuzzy answers, but for some reason I felt really bad about mine. Why is it that I think I should be able to get all of the right answers, all the time? Why, after three decades, do I STILL believe that I need to be perfect? Why do I still want to be the best, the smartest? It's ridiculous, and I see that... The oral part actually went really well in many ways. They'd wanted me to get to a certain (and pretty obscure) conclusion on one of the written questions, but I hadn't, and so we addressed it step by step. Even though I showed them that I knew all of the concepts and equations needed to get there (even managing to remember some pretty complicated diagrams and drawing them on the board), and even though it led to a productive discussion about possible future research, and even though they seemed to enjoy the conversation and think I did well, all I could see was where I had failed.

There was even a part of me thinking, "They shouldn't have had to ask you ANY questions. They should have looked at you and said, 'We have nothing to say because you got it all right!'" Which is beyond ridiculous. It is a Ph.D. comprehensive exam. The point is to put you on the spot and test you and challenge you. And the question that I only "did okay" on was a tough one: the answer was elegantly simple but in all honesty I would have never, ever gotten there on my own - even if I'd studied for two more months - because I would have never been able to see the problem from the perspective my advisors wanted me to see it from. I needed their help to get there. I am trying to be okay with that - with not being able to get everywhere without help.

My only resolution for 2012 is the title of this post: Aim for results, not accolades. Or in the words of actress Helen Hayes, "My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that 'Achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that's nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.'"

I have spent so much time in my life worrying about what others think, trying to figure out how to gain their approval and be their "favorite." Looking back, that tactic hasn't gotten me anywhere. If anything it's held me back. How many times have I quit jobs or other endeavors because I wasn't the best, because I didn't win, because someone else did better?

Now I've found a field that I love. I get up in the morning excited to do the research I do. I could talk about it all day (fortunately for those around me, I hold back). Perfectionism will not be allowed to mess this up for me. I'm trying to forget about winning people's approval and focus on meeting the daily, weekly, and semester-long goals that I set for myself. I have high expectations and standards: if I meet my own goals, eventually I will get to where I want to go. Ultimately, that's what will allow me to achieve - not praise from other people.

At any rate, at this point I am relieved, tired, and - annoyingly - sick again. Antibiotics killed the bronchitis but they couldn't prevent this new cold virus that I seem to have picked up overnight. So now I'm going to spend the day resting, playing, and eating, and NOT looking at books, thank God.

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