"A Position at the University"

"A Position at the University", by Lydia Davis

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a position at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me completely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

Lydia Davis from Almost No Memory

This is a beautiful short text that I found taped to the door of one of my colleagues at Harvard. Reading it reminded me of the importance of developing a grounded identity, a sense of self, that come from within and are not tied to an idea of oneself based on whatever denomination one carries at a given time. This can come from developing interests, activities that are not tied to your bread and butter, so called work-life balance, something I wish I had engaged a great deal more in grad school and that I am actively putting an effort to engage in now. When you others put you in a box, or you put yourself in a box, you begin to see the rejections (e.g. paper, grants...), the failures (bombing a talk/presentation, doing poorly in an exam etc...) as attacks on your sense of self. The truth is, you are not the rejections, the perceived failures. The process, the journey, that led you there-to the outcome, whatever it might be-are far more important and tell much more about you (I will write a separate post about process vs outcome and having a growth rather than fixed mindset).

Let us take a quick evolutionary detour into the allure of putting people and ourselves into boxes.

As a species, we are very good at building abstractions: knowledge and discovery stem from our ability to distill complicated phenomena into basic, simple, governing laws. The examples abound: Newton's laws, Maxwell equations (their simplifications into the circuit abstraction when one makes certain assumptions regarding wavelength), the discovery of the DNA and of the mechanisms of cell division etc...At the base of this obsession with abstractions is our (evolutionary?) need for being in control of the outside world, of our circumstances. For our ancestors, abstractions meant survival. Imagine if Wildebeests existed a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and one of our hypothetical super-smart ancestors had figured out the mating patterns and migratory behaviors of one of this particular source of food. All right, so now this super smart ancestor has figured out a way to guarantee a predictable source of food, and now you must figure out as a group how you are going to hunt. This is where the need for rigid denominations may have come from. If you picture a small tribe of hominoid, by rigid denomination I mean precise roles for every member of the tribe (who does what? in a hunting situation, in a situation when we are attacked, etc...). As an aside, I do not think this is a far fetched idea since, as early as a few hundred years ago, cultures around the world were organized around the principle that specific groups within a community had specific responsibilities. Just look at last names such as 'Blacksmith', 'Taylor' etc...I could give examples of African cultures where this is true, including my own, but this wouldn't mean much to most.

The denominations in and of themselves are not the problem, in my opinion. What would become of an army without ranks and denominations? The real world today is not as unforgiving as it was to our ancestors. However, because, our biology has grown to interpret the denominations as more rigid than they actually are, more rigid than is necessary in our time. I find that it takes a conscious effort to not fall prey to this natural instinct of ours.

Something funny and interesting has happened over the past few millennia: the rate of growth of innovation, of technology (through abstractions) has skyrocketed, giving us the ability for better (than our ancestors) automatic control of nature, thus reducing the usefulness of rigid denominations. In modern society, your being a blacksmith by trade is not tied to our survival as a species, or being a tailor by trade. Our biology, however, still thinks we're stuck in the past and has not realized that we've been moving on. It still thinks we're in 10000 BC. When it meets you, my biological self makes assumptions based on your title, assumptions that it thinks will make it feel safer. So we go around, putting others and ourselves in boxes, boxes in which we struggle to fit in.

And there in lies the danger for those of us in creative pursuits. When you are creating, you spend most of your time in what seem like dark alleys. If your are tied to an image of yourself, a denomination you must live up to, the hard times, the discomfort, become unbearable. They become a trial on who you are. And they should not. We can avoid this, and enjoy the process of creating by developing a sense of self that lives outside our accomplishments, outside others' idea of who we are.

Am I surprised that people are surprised when they hear I've got a position at the University? I used to be. I am not anymore.