The promised long entry

I get fidgety and petulant whenever I think about academia, or someday having to become a professor. People ask me why and I never have a good answer.

They: “But don’t you like grad school? Don’t you want to do what you’re doing?”
I respond with something like: “I don’t know… It’s so… I don’t like… I don’t know.”

Well, there’s another whole long entry coming on that subject — not liking academics — that I wrote out the other day and haven’t typed up yet. But I do think I’ve finally come up with an answer to that question, or at least part of the answer. I’ve been pondering on this for a couple of weeks, pulling in observations and bits and pieces here and there, and on Saturday night I finally sat down and wrote this out:

What Insecurity Makes Us Do
I thought about it a lot this weekend and I’ve decided that one factor that really motivates a lot of us is the need to prove ourselves. Or, to put this another way, we’re all trying really hard to become the kind of person we want to be, and we’re all very eager for other people to see us that way also. Yet another way to say this is that most of us are not, as the yogis advise, content to be who we are in the moment, and we’re always grasping for new ways to improve ourselves into someone else.

There are several ways I’ve observed this happening. First and perhaps most visible is in our consumption habits. Without getting into this from a food angle, which is much more psychological and therefore would take more explaining, I can tell you about this from a point of view of clothes shopping – something I’ve been doing a lot of lately! People buy clothes to suit the kind of person they want to be, or the kind of person they want people to think they are. This was made very clear to me recently when I was watching “What Not to Wear.” This is one of those makeover shows in which two style mavens take a sadly style-lacking person under their oh-so-glam wing and bring them to fashion enlightenment. What was disturbing and fascinating about this particular show was that you could see firsthand how attached people get to their pieces of clothing, even if they’re hideous to everyone else’s eyes; the fact that one woman owned a furry orange anything isn’t even the unsettling part, it’s how reluctant she was to part with it.

“But this is me,” she pleads desperately with Clinton and Stacy. “I don’t dress like everyone else, I have a special style!”
“You look like you’re in seventh grade,” they respond without mercy.

Of course, she does, and her makeover is wonderful and she’s tearfully bowled over by it in the end. But what made me so uneasy with this was that I recognized myself here; I do the same thing, not only with my clothes but with other items and habits. I suppose Stacy and Clinton would ridicule my crushed-velvet cloak, and I admit that it would be less costumey if it were heavy wool felt instead of crushed velvet, but I hang on to it because I like it and, I acknowledge with a little hanging of my head, because I feel like it makes me seem different. At the heart of it, my deep need to prove that my taste is better than and more unique than anyone else’s blinds me to actual aesthetics.

Then there are the career-related considerations: school and work. I think our proving-selves motivation comes out in two major ways here: very hard work, and not very hard work. I don’t think desire to prove ourselves is the sole explanation for why we work the way we do, but I’m coming to believe that those of us who are especially anxious to prove ourselves find our work habits affected by this desire. For example, some people – and I could name one certain person I know especially – are so insecure about their position that they just throw themselves into their work body and soul, as if by thoroughly succeeding in the established system they’ll manage to find whatever approval it is they’re seeking. Then there are the others – and I suspect I am one of these – who take an opposite route, who slack off because they need to disclaim their allegiance to the establishment as desperately as the other type need to claim their devotion to it, who derive great satisfaction from thinking themselves somehow above the establishment, or otherwise enlightened enough to see beyond it. This is akin to clinging to a furry orange sweater (or a crushed-velvet cloak) because “I’m different than everybody else!” I don’t work all that hard, because I am (I like to think) opposed to academia on high moral and philosophical grounds, and I believe myself extraordinary enough that I don’t have to follow the crowd in order to succeed.

… I don’t particularly like thinking of myself as a member of this latter group, but it is somewhat a relief to have an explanation for my aversion to academics and academia… anyway, I don’t slack off blindly just because I need to prove my uniqueness; on a purely dispassionate intellectual level, I really do think the current academic system is much flawed and I’m not particularly interested in being a part of it. But that is neither here nor there. What remains is that I’ve pieced together a pretty decent explanation for why I and many others do the things we do.

I used to think, when I was younger, that once I became an adult I would start to have everything figured out. I think it was only after I turned eighteen, then twenty, then twenty-two, that I gradually came to realize that – alas! – we never really reach that point of knowing it all. I think that a lot of these insecurities stay with us for many years, that the facets of our personalities or our talents that bothered us when we were kids keep on bothering us even when we’ve reached adulthood. But I also think that part of why grown-ups (and I think I can actually count myself among them here) seem like they know it all is that they’ve reached some kind of peace with themselves about who they aren’t and what they can’t. Either we master certain things to such an extent that we’re no longer needing to prove our proficiency in them – like public speaking for me, or baking – or else we resign ourselves to the knowledge that we’ll never be who we want to be where these traits are concerned – like tall and slender for me – and therefore should stop trying so hard to act like we are. This is one of the comforting things about growing older: that we’ll never have to be young again in that particular, desperately-trying-to-fit-in way that we are when we’re in middle school.

You know what else is interesting about this theory of mine, is that beyond explaining how we think of ourselves and try to present ourselves to the world, it also explains how we relate to others, particularly those most close to us. You see this a lot with parents and kids, or members of couples. For example, a kid reaches adolescence and starts to feel that he is not cool. Then he looks at his parents and starts picking on them for the “dorky” things they do. The reasoning behind this is: hey, look at how uncool they are! No wonder I can’t be cool, when I come from parents like this! To go still further, the unconscious thought is: if kids are like their parents, if my parents stop being so dorky, I’ll become cooler too. I think the things we get most irrationally annoyed about, which bother us most persistently and deeply, are those things that would seem to upset our notions of who we are. The teenager really wants to think of himself as cool, and so, when it transpires that he isn’t, it hits too close to home for him to examine his own self; instead, he takes it out on his parents. It must be their fault he’s not popular. For an example even more close at hand, I’ll tell you frankly that I like to think of myself as fairly sophisticated, and since I build myself up in my mind to be that way, I highly resent any hints that I might actually be pretty small-town and naive. Occasionally I find myself getting irritated at Erik for some little thing that even I recognize isn’t really his fault, something he should in no way apologize for but which still bugs me to no end. What I realize now is that this is probably because I feel that his fumbles reflect badly on either my own sophistication, or the success of our relationship. See: if we are a happy couple, that’s because we go together; if he is nerdy, then if I chose him and am happy with him, then I must like nerdy guys, and must therefore be nerdy myself. Thus I am irrationally irritated when I feel he’s being nerdy; it’s because I’m unwilling to recognize and accept that corresponding nerdiness in myself. Until now, I guess. Think of this next time you think your partner’s “dragging you down!” Is it them, or is it you?

What I still haven’t figured out, though, is what to do with people like Erik, who seem to cope with things, and these proving-self desires in particular, in a wholly different way. It’s not that he’s so much more comfortable with himself than I am, but he definitely doesn’t take it out on his clothes or his socializing habits or his feelings about his work (or his feelings about me). So where does it all go?

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]