Insecurities: Grad Student and Otherwise

Insecurity, I have learned over the past few years, is part of graduate student life. No matter how hard we resist, we can’t help but measure ourselves up against one another: have I read enough as her, does he have a more interesting project than me, etc. For instance, I learned the other day that a dear friend of mine recently got done with her minor field, and while my mouth said, “That’s great!” my mind was saying “Bitch. We should kick her in the shins. C’mon, legs, do it!” Fortunately, my legs didn’t get the message and my friend’s shins went unharmed. My ego, however, was not so lucky, and I once again felt inadequate to the task of graduate studies.

But over the winter break, I developed another, broader, and more terrifying insecurity: that I’m not just a sub-par graduate student–I’m also not a smart enough person. Reading about some of the great minds of the past 20, 30, 40 years, from Foucault to Eric Alterman (oh, I’m sure he’d love that comparison), I can’t help but think that I am not now nor could ever be–and that’s the killer–all that intelligent. By “intelligent” I mean creative, a wide breadth and depth of knowledge, a quick wit, etc.. Original. I’m pretty sure I don’t have that going for me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been struck by my own limitations. It’s somewhat like the moment I had watching the NCAA men’s basketball playoffs when I was a senior in college: it occurred to me that I could never, ever be as good at basketball as those guys. As a kid, I could watch sports and think, “If I just worked hard enough at it, I could be as good as that guy,” “that guy” being Michael Jordon, Joe Montana, or Will Clark. But when you realize that the athletes you are watching are younger than you are, that hope sort of slips away. A few years later, I realized that becoming a rock star was also no longer in the cards; Noel Gallagher had already written Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, toured the world, and had dozens of classic rock star moments by the time he was 28, whilst I only had two coffee shop performances and a hack-job of a self-produced CD, and no rock star moments. So, no superstar athlete and no rock star. But that was okay. I hadn’t really worked all that hard on those things, I told myself; if I had, things might have been different.

But I had worked damned hard on my brain. And yet intellectual superstardom, or even the sort of intelligence that friends remark on and strangers notice, doesn’t seem to be in my future. I am, in a word, mediocre, and I’m not sure that any amount of work and effort–the only things I think I do reasonably well–will change that.

Ugh.

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2 thoughts on “Insecurities: Grad Student and Otherwise

  1. An observation: most of the grad students I know who think they’re “mediocre” are some of the smartest people I know. Don’t sell yourself short — a lot of “brilliance” is really just about being in the right situation. I was reading about Alfred Thayer Mahan today, and apparently he was a mediocre seaman and scholar before he got a job at the Naval War College and became the preeminent American writer on naval theory. So much of this is just luck.

    Plus, I don’t think Foucault’s all that smart. But that’s just me.

  2. Cheers and thanks for that Jeremy. I hope that I’m smarter than I think I am…but then again, if I can’t recognize my own brilliance, how observant/smart can I really be? In all seriousness, though, your point about being in the right situation is very interesting. The challenge then becomes how to get into that right situation, or (if getting there is a matter of luck, as you say, which sounds about right) recognizing and then grabbing hold of the opportunities of the situation. And that is a matter of hard work, which, I think, I can do.

    As for Foucault: I’m with you. I was more just in it for the aesthetic and political humor of putting his name next to Alterman’s… Ahhh, geeky grad student humor.

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