Wednesday, October 7, 2015


When I was in high school, my band director's constant battle was to get us to practice more. I've been thinking recently about one particular spiel.


Doubt - twenty one pilots


The spiel:

You're all smarter than me in this room. I could never have gotten the grades you get in your classes. You're so academically gifted that in class, most of the time, you don't need to work too hard before you get it. You can probably teach the material to other students by the end of the class period.

That's great. But it's entirely neglecting the skills you need for playing music well.

Playing music is hard, and you need to practice, but that's hard too--not because it's complicated, but because it's uncomfortable. When you practice, you are faced with your weaknesses. Learning to play an instrument means committing yourself to hours and hours of mediocrity. You've got to be okay with struggling, with not being good for a while--maybe a long while.

And that's hard, because you're used to things coming easily. You wrestle with a topic for an hour and then you get it, you do some problems and you master it. But practicing isn't like that and improving is never over. If you stick with it you'll pass from bad to okay to good, even beyond. You'll like how you sound again. But you'll never be satisfied, no matter how good you get. And getting good is a hard process in the first place.

So you've got to practice. You have to learn to put in the hours, even with your weakness, your inadequacy, sitting at your side.


I'm taking more technical classes than I have previously this quarter, as part of the new normal that comes with being an upperclassman in an engineering major. It's not going as well as I had hoped.

Not that I'm doing poorly; I'm just not good yet. I'm ignorant and unobservant and lack the boundless curiosity and sharp intuition of my friends. All I have is hard work and writing skills, and I'm increasingly insecure about the depth of my knowledge. Impostor syndrome is real: I'm convinced I'm just not as smart as my friends are, that I am below average.

But so what?

Carol Dweck has done a lot of research on attitudes toward intelligence, and on the difference between a growth mindset and an aptitude mindset. Aptitude means you think intelligence is a fixed quantity; growth that, predictably enough, you can improve yourself. People who were often told as children that they were smart tend to adopt an aptitude mindset and get defensive about their intelligence. I'm one of those people and I'm trying to break that mindset.

I don't want to get comfortable with my inadequacy; complacency is always my worst enemy. But I want to be able to work in spite of, because of it. I want my inadequacy to be a thorn in my side that pushes me to action and improvement and growth, instead of paralyzing me.

As I currently am I will never achieve greatness. I will be too comfortable, too afraid of responsibility, too easy to throw off guard with a criticism. But it's not where I am that matters so much as my trajectory, and what I need to ask myself is, am I improving? Am I less of a coward, less of a layabout, less of an ignoramus, less of a fool? Am I working hard on something worthwhile? Am I learning? Am I doing what I ought to do and am I giving it the attention it deserves?

Honestly, I wanted to be brilliant. I wanted to stroll into my engineering classes and unleash heretofore unknown reserves of intellect and insight, casually to exceed all expectations and stun my peers. I want to be good, but I must become good.

I'm struggling, not terribly, but struggling. I can't back away. I can't give up. What would that do to my confidence, if I caved under at age nineteen? I need to think of future me and give them reason to be proud. I need to give future me precedent, such that when the going gets rough for them, they can point back and say, "I learned a lot then. I was a useless lump but I became steadily less useless. I proved to myself, for then and for now and for the future, that I can transcend myself, that I can improve, that I can always do better."


Sophomore year of high school I got serious about euphonium. I practiced almost every day, got shouted at in class almost every day, dug my way out of mediocrity. Dug. I have no wings, no latent flight; I have to get my hands dirty.

I'm not smart enough, now. But I can't abide this inadequacy, and I need to step up my goddamn game.

1 comment:

  1. Sophomore year is when I had a lot of academic agony. Overloading on technical classes early on is a surefire way of burning out in an undergrad engineering program. I remember seething because it would take me at least twice as long to do my physics homework than my roommate did hers, but also breezing through mechanics because it just came easier to me.

    Not that your really have time now, but one way of keeping yourself sharp is by taking a humanities class that is truly challenging. While I may never understand upper division EE or CS, one of the things I like best is teaching back material I learned in my History or Environmental Ethics/Philosophy class to my friends, and discussing the concepts...and then learning about the humanities classes that they are taking.

    Late freshman year/early sophomore year is the trench of STEM education. Muster up some of the underdog narrative and you'll find it easier to handle.