Friday, December 26, 2014

Pomegranates and Imposter Syndrome

I'm tempted to put on music, loud, dance-type bachata that drowns out thought and pulls my brain toward trying to translate it, but it will only tease me with the seductive beat of the songs. Music is emotion recorded, and it's easy to fall into the musicians' states of mind, pretending to have company. Instead, I stand, alone, in almost complete silence with my hands in cool water, methodically breaking down a pomegranate. 

It's the type of task that should be boring to me but isn't, and that leads me to wonder whether I am suited for grad school, in a theoretical field of all things. Over and over, I am told, imposter syndrome, you can do it, just work hard. And so I do. I study, I sit puzzled, I ask questions, I write code, I break my code, I ask my adviser to break my code, he sends me back to fix my broken code, and the cycle repeats. Adjust the equations. Ask more questions. Read more, be more confused, be less confused, be ecstatic when my code runs, crestfallen when my initial conditions or matrix breaks it again, despairing when it's the night before my meeting with my adviser and hopeful when I do leave his office. Rinse and repeat (otherwise, no one will want to sit near you). And so the cycle of a researcher-in-training. It is peppered with hope, doubts, early mornings, long afternoons, late nights, and imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome. I'm told the symptoms are one's feeling of inadequacy when one is perfectly capable. I'm starting to figure out the difference between acquired skills and raw intellectual ability. Acquired skills are the ones that I spend my days learning now, where my capability is truly lacking. My intelligence and creativity (that I'm working on believing I have!) is the reason my adviser took me on, despite my inexperience in pure math. Both skills and intelligence can be developed, though. I'm firmly in the camp that believes that while some people have more mathematical reasoning or kinesthetic ability or tend to like it more, everyone can learn. For some, it may take an unrealistic amount of time, particularly if they have no interest, but it is still possible. Without this sustaining belief, I probably would have dropped out to bake for a living by now.

When I'm done with the pomegranate, I eat the seeds with my fingers. I wouldn't be a food blogger if I didn't comment on how much I love the perfect little sweet-tart garnets, but endless blogs out there have done the same, with beautiful photos. Consider that previous statement my meta-comment for the day. I could have used a spoon, but I like the feeling of being really connected to each little pop and crunch. It reminds me of my lines of code, all nestled in logical statements that turn my matrices into plots across my screen. If you wanted, you could fit each little seed back into its prior resting place, but to me, it's an exercise in futility. In research, you can always push a little farther, add a little more to this paper, prove another theorem. Sometimes, it's enough to recognize that your seeds are ready, and you will enjoy them as much grasped messily from the bowl as if you ate them daintily with a spoon.

It seems a little fitting that I start again with pomegranates. Last time I posted, I was just about to start grad school. Now that I'm a year and a half (!) in, it's as good a time as any to get back into it. In a way, it's a little like coming home, and knowing that this is still fun.

It's been an insane year, and I suspect the insanity will not be over any time soon. Luckily, though, I still have this space that is completely controllable. See you soon!