quick follow-up

June 8, 2009

Having just had a brief and agreeable exchange with a couple of readers about the previous long post, I’d add the following points. These are not universally valid for all professions, of course, but are aimed at intellectuals in the humanities.

*In some ways, you can give yourself a free pass on your 20’s. Your mission at that time is simply to get your homework done to a sufficient degree that you’re actually learning and not moving backwards. But if you have an unhealthy relationship to your own work in your 20’s, it’s quite typical, forgivable, and need not lead to any lasting harm.

People in our line of work show what they’re really made of in their 30’s. That’s the point at which some of the self-destructive procrastinators find themselves and start to blossom, while others don’t develop at all and thus begin to fall into an intellectual death spiral as soon as the youthful fire starts to fade.

Also, the people who are great successes in their 20’s in this business (the category of “star students”) fade into insignificance in their 30’s surprisingly often. The reason for this is simple: the skills needed to be a highly successful graduate student have only a partial overlap with the skills needed to be a highly successful independent intellectual further down the road. Professors always forget this, and always overrate the students who ace every assignment in graduate school, which generally entails nothing more than spitting back everything your professor said during the semester with a few minimal, non-threatening modifications added to it. (And the type of personality capable of this is not always capable of better things. As a rule, I found student judgments of other students to be infinitely more discerning –though often infinitely harsher– than professorial judgments of the same students.)

So, as a corollary, you have to learn to trust your own assessment of yourself rather than the assessment of you that is made by your professors. This can be hard to do, because up to a certain age they seem ultra-powerful and all-knowing, but in fact they see only the merest surface of what’s inside of you. Mess up a couple of seminar papers for the most fleeting and accidental reasons, and they may needlessly write you off as a head case. No need to worry about that, because no one will ever remember those papers. You just have to make sure that you don’t internalize the negative feedback.

Other recommendations for your 20’s, in this profession:

*read widely and as you please; someday you won’t have time to do it anymore

*don’t get too depressed

*don’t take the dissertation too seriously

*in my opinion, it’s best to choose an advisor not based primarily on subject matter, but based primarily on basic trust and respect; if you end up with one of those “mind games” advisors just because you like his/her area of research, you could be in for psychic damage that will take years to recover from; rule of thumb– if you feel worried about whether or not your advisor respects you, then most likely they are withholding respect deliberately as a mind-control technique, and you need to get the hell out of that relationship just as quickly as if it were an abusive love relationship


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