Thursday, March 4, 2010

Surprising myself

My sense of hindsight is excellent: I am quite skilled at seeing and analyzing things I've done in the past. If only the same could be said about my foresight. Is this common?

In speaking with other folks who are living through graduate school programs of different stripes, I've concluded that I'm not the only person who does this, especially when it comes to projects like, say, a thesis: the process convinces us that we, folks who are pretty smart and have accomplished some tough academic tasks in the past already, cannot do this thing.

Some grad school programs seem to pride themselves on destroying the confidence of their students. (Law school is particularly cruel: IF you survive, THEN you get to take a multi-day exam which covers a million things you didn't learn in your three expensive years and which you will probably fail.)

Combined with this culture, I have a chronic tendency to think I peaked in the past. When I was in high school I honestly thought that my intelligence had spiked in seventh and eighth grade, because those were years I qualified for the regional spelling bee. Spelling skills, folks. That was my smart-peak. Then, in college, I looked back at high school and thought that then - then! - was when I had reached the pinnacle of my brilliance. I competed in mock trial all four years. I wore a suit and argued a case in front of real judges at seventeen! Can that be topped? I think not.

I realized this the other day, while I was procrastinating from editing my thesis proposal. I was picking up some items at the little health food store next to my workplace, and I heard my least favorite store clerk lecturing two undergrads about something or another (he lectures. Hence he's my least-favorite). Mr. Lecture said: "You're in school now - you're the smartest you'll ever be. It's all downhill from here."

Oh, my God. Really?

And I realized there's a part of me that has always subscribed to that point of view: it's all downhill from here. You'll never be smarter than this. The peak, you dolt, has already passed.

The inevitable thought that is born from this line of thinking is: why bother doing anything else then?

A day later I sat down with my draft thesis proposal and, upon reading, realized that it is actually kind of good. Imagine this: in different ways, I've been working on parts of this document for at least a year and a half, and at this point it's not horrible. My hindsight kicked in and I saw myself working on my pilot project last spring. Even though that was a large project crammed in to a totally unreasonable timeline, I managed to complete it and do so fairly well. Then I saw myself researching for the rest of the literature review as it now stands, this past fall, and I recalled my professor telling me it was "outstanding". I thought she was being nice... and then I remembered that she is actually a fairly tough evaluator.

So where was the peak? Because of course it's already passed, right? Because there is a peak, isn't there?

I decided to go ahead and submit my draft proposal to my advisor, so she could give me suggestions for things to fix. She contacted me three days later and told me I'm ready to defend it as it is. I met with her exactly a week after I sent in the "draft", we talked about it, and she approved it. Now I'm working through all the human subjects research protocol before I begin actually researching and writing my master's thesis.

Maybe this can be done. Maybe, to stop using the passive, I can do this.

Wouldn't it be convenient if my foresight was as sunny as my hindsight? Have you ever thought you peaked in the past?


  1. You're always as smart as you are going to be. The only difference between now and high school is that you know more, you're more experienced. It's not the brilliance that's the perspective.

    The thing that Commander Lecture misses is this: You might not feel as smart as you did in college, but you're not dumber. You're just not being stimulated and introduced to new ideas on the same basis you are in a school. In college (particularly undergrad where the specialization isn't as narrow as that of grad school) you're exposed to the largest variety of ideas, thoughts, facts, and perspectives that you'll come across in your life; the true purpose of college isn't education, it's choice. And how can you choose unless you're presented with options?

    You'll never know your peak: experience will always balance out the physical deterioration of the speed of your synapses.

    Or, if you still want to look at the empty glass remember this: even if things are headed downhill, at the bottom of the mountain is basecamp.

    And they have hot chocolate.

  2. Greatest. Comment. Ever. Thanks, man.


Be nice, now.