Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

You’re Not As Special As You Think You Are

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In a few months I will complete my master’s degree. Clearly I have learned little since, instead of getting a job and making money, I have decided to begin a Ph.D program next year. But one of the genuine insights from graduate school–and I strongly believe that you learn this lesson only in situ–is that I’m not as special as I thought I once was. Smart? The world is full of intelligent people. Hard-working? I sleep, which makes me comparatively lazy. Ambitious? Observe a faculty member. Well-traveled? Yeah, yeah, you can’t get into school anymore unless you speak Bantu and have crossed the Empty Quarter. Alone.

At first the accomplishments of my peers left a void in my life. On September 12th, 2008, I was special, going to Stanford. On September 13th, I met 10,000 other people who were special, and going to Stanford. It was as if every one of my merits had become mundane. By last November, I was a meteor nearing the atmosphere, certain to burn on re-entry. But at some point I just stopped caring. I had eaten the apple, and the truth came to me slowly, but clearly. Conscious of my naked vanity, and I had no choice but to clothe myself and head east. And it was precisely at that moment that I experienced a freedom previously unknown. I could focus on my work, because it belonged to no one but me. I became indifferent to grades, because learning became the sole objective. I could speak openly yet quietly, as one who has been to the limit, but survived.

Parts of this truth came to me in writing, as many truths often do. Here are some important artifacts from the last year:

  • The Email Event Horizon – People ignore your beautiful emails not because they dislike you, but because they’re busy. You should be, too. So don’t spend your time writing and worrying about emails.
  • Failure happens in research – Don’t write and talk about what a failure in research taught you. Failure happens. So just get on with it.
  • You’ve got funding! – But so does everyone else.
  • Nobody’s going to tell you what to do – They’re busy. And if they knew the answer, then they would have already published it. So you had better learn how to spot problems and solve them yourself. As quickly as possible.

Written by Spence

February 14th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

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