As I have already noted on this blog, I’m not the brightest bulb in the pack. In fact, I’m quite mediocre compared to most of my graduate student colleagues and many of my students. Part of that mediocrity, it occurred to me yesterday, stems from my upbringing. Unlike many of my students and some of my friends, I am not the first person in my family to graduate from college. My dad went to university, as did his parents–one went to Stanford and the other to Berkeley, for pete’s sake. So the fact that I am now pursuing a PhD is hardly remarkable. And despite my family’s collegiate history, I also did not grow up in a notably intellectual household. The TV was always on; my mom listened to oldies, not NPR; the first “opera” I went to was actually Phantom of the Opera. As I moved through the stages of academia, I came to know more and more people whose youth was spent in much more sophisticated environments–hosting guests in the parlor, going to the theatre (note the spelling), finding stacks of The New Yorker instead of Sports Illustrated in the bathroom, etc..
This particular life path has contributed to my mediocrity. Unlike first-in-family students, I am not driven by a sense of family pride and purpose, the sort of relentless I’m-going-to-show-the-world-what-my-family-can-do motivation that I see in some of my friends and students. I also don’t have the pressure of expectations that might come from growing up in an intellectual household; no one will be disappointed if I never publish a book or get a university job. And so I float along, knowing that my family has given me every opportunity possible, but not entirely sure what I should do with those opportunities.
And that’s why I’m so frustrated: because I lack the imagination and creativity to do something remarkable with the freedom and opportunities I’ve been given. I’m not constrained by family poverty or family expectations; I’m constrained by my own dullness. That’s the source of my mediocrity, and I’m not sure how or whether I can get past that.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s not some earth-shattering problem. I do my work, walk my dog, love my spouse: life is good. Most of the time, that’s enough for me.