Great Expectations

‘Oh wow, I bet you’re clever!’

You Must Be the Best!

I think it is safe to say, and I say this without trying to sound pompous, that I am above average when it comes to academic ability. I have a first class master’s degree in particle physics from a prestigious university, and I have published a scientific paper. The usual reactions of people when this comes up in conversation are generally one of a few things. These reactions can range from the automatic assumption that I am socially awkward (which, being honest, is probably true), an arrogant know it all, or am deliberately trying to confuse people. I don’t mind any of that, every specialism comes with it’s stereotypes and niches that the general public don’t understand. And, people will always pass judgement without knowing the full details. That’s just human nature I suppose.

However, the most common reaction, by far, is the automatic assumption that I am of superior intelligence. Now, a degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you are intelligent, or even educated for that matter, but that is not the point I am making here. The point I am making is that the assumption of one’s intelligence automatically has certain expectations. If you are intelligent, you are successful, wealthy, competent, absolutely brilliant at quizzes, and knowledgeable of every topic in the universe. This view is as understandable as it is illogical, but it imposes a unique kind of pressure. If you are smart and you are not the best at what you do, you have failed because that is what you are supposed to be. Of course, thinking like that is incredibly unhealthy, mainly because there will always be someone better than you, and there is always more to learn. Hence, you will spend your entire life chasing an unreachable goal and battling with imposter syndrome.

But What If I Don’t Want to Be the Best?

It sounds a little bit like a humble brag, moaning because other people think I’m rather clever. But, for me, it’s had real implications on my life. Whether those implications are the result of rational thinking or not is irrelevant, the point is that they exist.

I’m the first person in my family to achieve a master’s degree, let alone a science and maths based one (or ‘math’ for my friends across the pond). And, I did my degree purely because I am interested in physics. During the last year of my master’s, I was offered a PhD place. However, about one year in to the PhD, I decided I hated it, and the only reason I was still there was so I could eventually slap a big fat ‘Dr’ in front of my name. I wouldn’t consider myself an egotistical person, so having a title doesn’t really mean anything to me. So, to put it simply, I quit and got a job. About a year and a half later, I’m far happier. Thinking about it in hindsight, I’m not even sure I wanted to undertake a PhD in the first place.

The kicker here, is that when I talk about my years in education, The bits that are remembered or spoken about are the bad bits. Mostly, this involves people asking the questions: ‘So you don’t regret the decision to leave your PhD then?’ or: ‘Why would you leave that amazing opportunity? You could’ve become a tip top scientist, travelled the world, gone down in history, discovered a new way to sit on the loo!’, to which my answers are usually variations of ‘no’ and ‘because I don’t like sitting on loos’ respectively. The fact that I have managed to obtain such academic acomplishments doesn’t even get considered. Why? Because those achievements are expected of me. I’m the smart guy, the nerd, I must succeed at all costs, anything less is a catastrophic failure. The fact that I am much happier now in my current position doesn’t matter, because I quit an opportunity that ‘most don’t even dream about’.

So What is My Point?

This post probably sounds like a massive, irrational rant. It is quite probable that this great pressure to succeed only exists in my head and the thoughtless comments coming from self absorbed people – ‘You must do and be whatever I think you should be! Anyway, what are you doing at the weekend?’. These comments don’t mean anything to them, but they mean a great deal to me.

Anyhow, It got me thinking. We, as people, place a huge amount pressure on ourselves to be certain people and do certain things. This is exacerbated by the fact that we, at least for the introverted members of our society, overthink everything to the nth degree. But the point is, most people could not care less about what we do with our lives. Sure, they may make an undesirable comment that we remember for the rest of time, but that very same comment is forgotten by them almost as quickly as they spouted it out of their big stupid mouths.

So, to end on a bitter-sweet note, from what follows a rather negative post. We can all be whatever or whoever we want to be, regardless of what other people think. The world is full of opinionated people telling us what we can and can’t do or what we should do. But we all end up in the same place in the end, so go easy on yourself.

As always, and until next time, I thank you for the read.


Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

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