I’ve just been rejected from something cool that I applied to, and within half a second I’m beating myself up. Not in the sense of “damn, you should have tried harder”, or “your proposal wasn’t interesting enough”, but in a “you are demonstrably contributing negative value to this fragile planet and it’s cute you dreamt otherwise” kind of way. Because you see, what this rejection shows is that I’m falling behind. I’m slipping gradually away from a trajectory I’ve been silently plotting out for myself, starting from my teenage self and culminating with a flourish at majestic, crystalline success at some point in the increasingly-imminent future. Forget the ongoing pandemic; this rejection is the single most important event in the universe because it shows beyond any doubt that I have already failed and needn’t have bothered with anything.
This pattern of thought is all extremely melodramatic, but I can’t seem to stop it. It’s happened before (because let’s be honest, I’ve definitely faced rejection in the past), and it’ll continue to happen with increasing frequency unless I change something quite fundamental about my self-image. But what exactly?
People always talk about how you should have positive reasons for choosing a path in life. Do what you love; follow your passion; find your calling. I’ve tried my level best to follow this advice. While my love, passion and calling have thus far been rather vague in their messaging, I do know what sort of thing excites me. That’s the prospect of gaining a deep, visceral understanding of both the mind and the external world, and applying this insight practically to engineer both towards radically better states. I’m now doing a PhD in artificial intelligence, arguably the single most vibrant melting pot of unsolved mystery and latent, world-changing potentiality in the world today. On the face of it, I am following my curiosity and passion; I am doing what I love. But day-to-day, it doesn’t feel like this is why I’m doing it. Instead, the driving force behind a frankly embarrassing proportion of my moment-to-moment decision making is a brutal regime of comparison to some abstract version of myself who is relentlessly successful and smashes absolutely everything out of the park. Let’s call him The Omni-Maestro (
TOM is the Platonic ideal of innate, effortless polymathy, whisked into a soufflé of ludicrous productivity and daubed liberally across every field of endeavour for the benefit of all sentient life.
TOM is only six months into his PhD but has already kicked out a dozen top-quality papers.
TOM is learning French and German and Cantonese on the side.
TOM isn’t massively into football, but always scores a perfect hat trick.
TOM has never dropped a plate of spaghetti, and always gets the teabag in the bin with nothing but net.
TOM is Turing, Obama and Messi rolled into one.
TOM is typeset in monospace font, because he’s effectively a robot, but come to think of it he probably also loves deeply and unreservedly, and has thousands of impossibly close friends, and writes effervescent poetry, and spends his whole time partying on superyachts. Never in a million years would
TOM have had his application rejected. But I did.
When did this completely stupid point of comparison became so entrenched in my pysche? Why is it so effective at riddling any new project I start with a kind of enthusiasm-sapping barbed wire? How is it that when I learn about other people’s work on artificial intelligence, in books or journal papers or podcasts, it all sounds profound and world-changing, but when my own work plan is presented to me as a to-do list, it loses that quality and becomes a mere benchmark of productivity? [
TOM enters uninvited: “Because the work you’re doing is unimaginative and trivial, you idiot!”] Can I flip my incentive structure back from the stick of self-critique to the carrot of unassuming curiosity (which I’m absolutely convinced is just waiting to be re-ignited)? Is it even possible to just decide to make a motivational switcheroo like this?
I’ve got to this point in the writing process, and it’s already been relatively cathartic, but alas I have no simple answers to any of these questions. At least now I feel like I have a firm grasp on the nature of the problem.
TOM needs to pack his bags, and create room for plain old Tom’s suppressed passion for learning and exploration to re-emerge. This really, really can’t be a case of moderating my ambition (the idea genuinely sends chills down my spine), but rather re-focusing it on the object of my work itself, rather than its potential to furnish my ego. I must do things because I want to do them, not because I want to be the sort of person who can.
Live in the moment. Enjoy research for it’s own sake. Let yourself breathe.