Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Even Function

…?, Can You

Let me tell you what terrifies me.


Normally, it's a good thing when you can identify with a story's main character. Ex: if you are Percy Jackson you can breathe underwater, if you are Harry Potter you get to learn magic, if you are Aang you get to save the world and ride a skybison.

However, when the main character is one Rodion Romanych Raskolnikov, that empathetic experience can dredge up all sorts of awful paranoias.

The main character of Crime and Punishment is an intelligent young man who drops out of university, can't dredge up the motivation to find a job, descends ever deeper into poverty, and then murders and robs an old pawnbroker. Things get worse.

The big problem for me was that I identified with Raskolnikov. I could trace a lot of similarities--which may be universalities, I don't know--ennui, questioning of the point, irrational anger when proved wrong, etc--most of all, being a reasonably intelligent person at the start of their life, of whom several people seem to expect much.

I could not help thinking: what if I turn out like him?


I certainly cannot claim to be the only person wracked by fears of not being able to function in the real world, or who could benefit from solid advice on how to deal. For example, this top 6 list of programming top 10 lists* includes a high proportion of points that, cumulatively, advise staying humble and learning to work well with people.

*Some of the links are broken. McDonough's list is here.

I've been trying to pick apart the roots of this insecurity, because I suspect that 1) it's irrational 2) if I don't get quell it then it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy 3) I appear not to have any compunctions about discussing my emotional issues online.

Thus far, I think a big part of this insecurity is awareness of the huge mismatch between school and the real world. In school you're rewarded for being clever and doing what you're told, while people who care about their social status are labeled superficial. In general I've succeeded at school, and my fear of what might happen when I get into the real world stems from a fear that I've optimized myself for the wrong environment.

I know nothing of the real world save what others have told me, and the general consensus is not encouraging. Who you know counts more than what you know--shocking for someone who holds the meritocracy as an ideal. The smartest people aren't always the most successful--scandal!

For people who have been taught to identify themselves with their intelligence, these messages from the front are actually terrifying. Intelligence isn't enough--what more do you need? Can you learn it? How quickly? Has everyone else been acquiring these secret skills while your (let's be real--my) head has been inside a book?

Another factor contributing to this fear is more specific to my community, which is in a liberal and affluent part of California. That is, kids like me grow up in households where the parents are high wage earners, and consequently get used to a certain level of comfort, of not having to worry about money. Because of this comfortable, accommodating lifestyle, I haven't had to get a job or learn much in the way of practical skills. In short, I and others in my situation are untested.

This all reduces to a fear that, having trained for an intellectual race, we--I? Certainly there are others who fear growing up--suddenly find ourselves at a different competition altogether, one for which we are completely unprepared, with no data points from which to extrapolate, no past successes to bolster our confidence.

(I know little of sports; do not poke this analogy too hard.) This new competition is, perhaps, a team sport or a strategy game, one in which interactions with others are paramount and you can never be measured on your own merit, in absolute terms.


Enough whining.

I am willing to convince myself of things that may not be true, if the result is productive. Thus, I am telling myself that the skills needed for future success may be unfamiliar, but they are learnable, and it is not too late to learn and practice them.

On the soft skills side, I found my way to this site, which exists as a sort of remedial social skills course. For those of you who are snickering: I for one am grateful for a tool that can make me suck less at interacting with human beings. Is there any shame in wanting to improve?

Another article that I want to internalize as quickly as possible: a guide to salary negotiation. In school, we're taught that your work should speak for itself, and thus don't learn how to advocate for ourselves. In fact, we're more often praised for "modesty," which, contrary to true humility, involves downplaying yourself so that others can speak well of you and everyone gets brownie points.

When I swore two years ago to break the smiling mirror, what I meant mostly was to stop being a pushover concerned about what others thought of me. As I wrote in my notes at the bottom, it's an ongoing process.

When you're raised to believe that being polite will get you anywhere, asking for what you need doesn't come naturally. Asking for people to fix things for you. Think about the last time you got served a burrito or drink or something that wasn't what you'd asked for--did you bring it up? Or did you think, I shouldn't bother anyone?

(NB: I am all for being hella polite to people who work in the service industry, and I am all for not wasting food. But for non-consumable goods, definitely ask for what you want.)

I admit that I'm more fired up about this than I will be in a few days. Why? Recently I had an issue with my College Board account and I sent in three emails requesting that it get fixed. To no avail. Then this morning I finally got up the courage to make the simple, 10-minute phone call that resolved a problem that had been hanging over my head for a week. And I was infuriated with myself afterward because it was so damn easy. All my angst could have been avoided if I wasn't such a wuss about making phone calls.

For future reference: to get problems resolved faster, get the most human line. Going into some place's offices in person > calling > emailing > sitting at home sulking because you're not getting what you want.

Side note: along with developing practical skills, I'm trying to change the way I think about my functioning in the future. After reading this article, I'm questioning my self-identification as an introvert, because even though I am one, incorporating that as part of "who" I am will, I fear, make me defensive about becoming better at dealing with human interaction.


Raskolnikov kind of sucked. (Only kind of: he did give charitably, though out of a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige.) But he is definitely not the only character in Crime and Punishment, and at the end of the book, I had mostly stopped identifying with him.

Instead: Razumikhin. The reasonable fellow. Just as poor, just as much of a drop-out--but much more resilient, and with a much more promising trajectory. Razumikhin sought out work, was able to support himself, even had some start-up ideas percolating in the back of his head, stood ready to take opportunities that came his way, instantly gave the impression of trustworthiness.

I can hear the cries of "bourgeoisie sellout!" (for those of you who know me IRL: guess whose voice they're in?). But I know that I will only be able to make the contribution I want to make to the world if I evolve into a self-sufficient, responsible adult.

Lines and cubics are fun. However, given the choice, I'd rather even function.

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