September 30th, 2012


if science was like sports...

I was doing some reading up on impostor syndrome based on a comment in another private lj entry I wrote (of course most impostor syndrome entries are private... that's how it keeps GOING AHHH) and ran across this interesting thought on what impostor syndrome could learn from sports. It's got some good points.

I've always hated how our culture encourages kids to separate themselves into "good at math" and "not good at math" at the age of, like, six. And if you're in the not good group, you can get high-fives in bars over it because everyone jumps in with the "oh me too I don't get it woo hoo for us outsiders". And we have this idea that to choose a science career you must be one of THOSE science minded people, who have a special magic genetic pre-disposition, it's like career calvinism. It's so bad that even those of us IN the industry sometimes wonder if we can really cut it... that's what impostor syndrome is.

if only it were more like sports! sports has a couple cool things going for it:

1) Even the truly gifted fall... a LOT. We watch it every weekend. We see incredibly talented people lose. They pick themselves up, chalk it up to the game or a learning opportunity, and move on. In contrast, science is all about who can be the next Einstein or Bill Gates... the infallible, who we know very little about except they were geniuses who did not need anyone else, ever.

2) Even if you're not going to be a pro-football player yourself, you can still follow the game and appreciate the sport for what it is, based on a few early years of experiencing it for yourself. You can read news stories about it, look forward to the Next Big Thing that's going to happen. Mediocre talent doesn't have to mean total uninvolvement. When someone at a party brings up football the conversation doesn't immediately turn to who sucks at football... that's irrelevant, let's talk about what's going on.

I guess the big thing is that those of us in science/engineering need to feel okay sharing our stories of failure or mediocrity. I think I've talked about it before, about feeling like I didn't get math until I was at least a sophomore in high school and it started changing into a different form. multiplication tables were not my specialty... geometry proofs on the other hand were kinda nifty and TOTALLY different. (I also enjoy banana bread, but not bananas... one could draw a comparison).

We also have a funny saying at my work about how you should feel flattered when the designs you make end up in file drawers, never made into airplanes... that means you're on the edge, the company thinks you're smart enough to work on really new stuff. It doesn't mean you failed. Sometimes we decide not to make a design because it's just not the right time, or we were just exploring a concept for marketing purposes. But every smart long-time designer has that secret resume of stuff they worked on that ended up "archived". Meaning, it never flew. Or maybe it flew, but was never produced. In the industry we sit around, nod our heads and smile and remember the projects that took up months of our lives, then shrug. We chalk it up to the game. And no one ever knows.

Maybe all of this needs to be conveyed to kids a little more... it's not like your science class at school where every experiment has a clear objective and a "you get it or you don't" ending. Real science is more like sports... too bad you just have to take our word for it.