Academic mastery vs. real world mastery.

I like ‘The Big Bang Theory’. I can see myself in the main characters of the show (not Penny as much, but I’m not an attractive blonde girl from Nebraska who sometimes turns out to the be smartest one in the room when it comes to life in the real world). 

Which brings me to the point of this post (which again, I’m sure has been hashed to death by others in a more engaging way). 

There’s an episode ‘The Friendship Algorithm’ where Sheldon talks about learning how to swim over the internet. He later learns to rock climb by the same method. 

When Sheldon does attempt to actually rock climb, he makes it part way up the wall until he realizes he’s ‘high up’ (5 feet, at most!), gets really scared and can’t move up or down. And eventually faints and falls off the wall…’hanging there like a huge Salami’ as Barry Kripke describes it. 

Funny scene, but also speaks to an issue I know I struggle with. Being in my own head too often. And when confronted with something practical I need to do, I freeze in fear. If it’s something new, it needs to be studied to death first (it is kind of amazing that Sheldon gets anything done, but perhaps because he’s a theoretical physicist, his work truly is all in his head and he just needs to write it down in publishable form). 

I may be doing better but I’m still too perfectionist for my own good. It’s hard to separate striving for excellence with trying to be perfect. Obviously, the former is fine, the latter is crippling. Jason Moore shared this series on academic perfectionism addresses the issues I definitely still have- almost at an unconscious level. I do it automatically with writing, it’s part of the reason I write here. to get over it (it’s partly helped). I haven’t read the whole series, but the first installment nails the problem…I can’t wait to read the rest of it. It is targeted towards faculty, but think the issues apply equally to grad students and postdocs. 

The level of certainty I seem to need in things is higher than for most other people. Like Raj on ‘Big Bang’, I have trouble talking to women (at least ones that I don’t know..I’m OK w/ female friends). It’s perfectionism + needing certainty of outcome for me to proceed. 

Trying to live purely intellectually is what I’ve done for so long that it’s hard to learn a new way of doing things. Or to do what Sheldon doesn’t, try to get over fear, get out of my head into the messy uncertain world and try as many new things as possible. It’s where my resolutions are centered this year. I have no doubt I’m in for a world of mistakes.

Lifehacker was once again helpful with a timely post about taking small steps towards addressing anxieties and fear. As I do with this blog, I guess it means exposing myself to the real world. 

So this year, I am working on being the master of my academic work, but also to not be as paralyzed by the real world either. Through small steps. Let’s see how I do…


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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