Symmetry is good conversation over coffee.
One of the hardest barriers I had to overcome to leave academia and make a big life change was the incomprehension of some of the people I have always trusted and whose opinion I value.
Around this time last year, the news spread out in the family that “Marion was living her job.” Some said I was right to follow my heart. Some disapproved. And although I had been announcing my intentions for at least a year, others clung desperately to the idea that it came as a surprise.
For the record, I technically didn’t leave my job. Believe me, I would have loved to quit with great fanfare, shouting loud and clear what I couldn’t take anymore about scientific research, but I didn’t have the guts for this. The truth is that like most young academics, I was on a fixed term contract, which eventually expired. There was no possibility for an extension, which saved me from another hesitation, and I didn’t look for another academic position either because I wanted to do something else with my life.
I have never regretted this decision, not for a second. In fact, honestly, I’ve been congratulating myself every single day for taking it. I have spent a year learning and growing and along the way I have come to understand things I wish I had been aware of when I was still considering whether to stay or to leave.
I had never measured how spectacularly people filter what you say to remove anything they don’t want to hear. When I said I was unhappy, I was answered it wasn’t that bad. When I said I was suffering from contradictions between what I thought my job should be and what it actually was, I was told to be philosophical about it. When I said I only had a temporary position, people convinced themselves that there would always be another extension. When it became clear that there wouldn’t, they insisted that surely I could find another position. For one thing, it’s not that easy, but anyway, I didn’t want one. I didn’t want one. “Thank you for forwarding me this offer,” I wrote to my advisors “but at the moment I’m not looking for another postdoc”. Still, the same emails kept pouring in. “No,” I told people “I don’t want to look for a job in the oil industry”. “Yes, I understand” they said, “but then what? What? WHAT?”
Even though people had the best of intentions, these reactions had a devastating effect on me. Being faced with the involuntary but systematic denial of my problems or tentative choices made me doubt. I trusted these persons. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was wrong. But then I knew I wasn’t wrong. I knew I how felt. This perpetual contradiction was painful and paralyzing. I was unhappy and wanted a change but I was unable to think serenely about what else I could do.
I did have a bunch of ideas, but none of them seemed to be taken seriously. I remember mentioning sewing during a family meal.
“You have a PhD and you want to sew?” one of my uncles said affectionately.
“What’s wrong with sewing” I asked “it’s not a shameful activity, is it?”
He readily agreed.
Indeed, I’m sure, his question didn’t conceal any disdain for manual activities. But he meant, like others, that there are career paths to follow and that every new step must be the logical continuation from the previous one. I thought it was astonishing to see this generation think in terms of hierarchies between careers and standards for success that are set by social conventions they were once so prone to reject as outdated.
Career rules were even more overwhelming in the academic world I belonged to. Despite the well-known fact that the number of tenured academic positions is decreasing alarmingly, getting one remains the standard of success. Timing is crucial. Are you applying this year? No? No? Getting a job in industry is a very acceptable way out provided that it comes with a salary that ridicules academic standards. As a last resort, teaching is perhaps ok. But it’s the very last limit before decline.
I felt that unless one already had a lifelong calling for classical singing or something equally noble to go back to — or for women, the “excuse of motherhood” (!) — any move out of this world was seen as an unfortunate affair of nervous breakdown. I have been trapped by this kind of conception myself for quite some time. At some point, though, I had to admit that the accumulation of disillusions simply smashed these ideas to pieces. I had enough disagreements with this system to swallow my pride without to much difficulty.
What I’ve learned from this past year was hard to accept, but liberating: often, when people ask you what you’re doing, what your plans are, or if you’re happy, they don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They already have their own very precise idea of what your happiness should be made of. They have a whole theory about what you were made for. Fundamentally, they want to hear the confirmation that you are indeed on a track, this track you’re meant to follow, working your way up.
I’m the only one in the family to have a PhD, and I will always be infinitely grateful to have been encouraged and supported all the way there. I understand that people perhaps expected me to do something that provided secure employment and decent money. But I can’t believe they ever wanted me to resign myself to doing something I don’t like or want. I’ll admit that it would save them from worrying and wondering if I will end up starving if I had a well-paid job making atom bombs or destroying rain forests to pump more oil. But it wouldn’t make me happy. And I know that all they’ve ever wanted for me was happiness.
Sometimes, people who care for you worry so much that they urge you to give way to the very social conventions they’ve taught you to criticize. It’s perfectly understandable. But I’m glad to see that I’m learning to recognize these situations, and disregard expectations that aren’t mine. Making life choices that make me happy is up to me.
This weekend, I sewed another pillow case from an old shirt. Perhaps one day I will make a batch of them to sell. I don’t know. Who knows? But it made me happy. I am happy.
Dear Former Colleagues and Random Strangers In The Cafeteria,
You might have spotted me, sometimes, having lunch on my own in a corner. You’ve probably noticed that I often remained silent while eating with you. Of course it would be easy to classify me among the introverts and forget about it. Though I’ll readily admit that I am shy, I think perhaps we would all benefit from having a closer look at the situation.
Believe me, I actually used to talk a lot. I mean, a lot. All the time. The family archives attest it. Hours of video recorded by my grandfather prove it beyond any doubt – it’s almost embarrassing. And if you still don’t believe me, my brothers can testify.
But talking is one thing, and having a satisfying conversation is another. Probably because at times I have been lonely, I have an extra obsessive need of good conversation. Good conversation truly makes me happy. In fact nothing makes me happier than debating something so passionately with someone that we both lose track of time.
When I dig into my childhood memories trying to remember when I first felt this excitement and euphoria I associate with good conversation, I keep falling back around the coffee table. I always say that I started appreciating coffee itself much later than coffee time. I must have been about twelve when I started hanging around with the adults as they had coffee after lunch. While I couldn’t understand what they found so attractive about the dark beverage, I loved this moment. We would sit with family and friends, munching pieces of chocolate and putting the world to rights. The conversation was lively, we raised our voices, argued and disagreed – I thrived.
I have long thought that all conversations should be like that. I admit that I have been naive and arrogant. It probably has something to do with my socializing with philosophers and other social science freaks. You see, learning about things like theses and arguments really blew my mind. It opened a whole world for me outside of physics, and got me so excited I’m still trying to calm down.
But clearly, there is one skill I don’t have: I’m unable to produce small talk. I’m truly sorry if awkward silences made you feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t know what to say when I bumped into you at the coffee machine. Sometimes I preferred shutting up than hearing myself talking about the weather. I can assure you that I’ve been, and still am, working hard on it.
Despite my best efforts, sentences such as “let’s not talk about politics” still come to me every time as a slap in the face. I realize just how selfish and arrogant this can sound, but what I hate about small talk is that every time the conversation comes to something I’m excited to discuss, someone has to abruptly change the subject. I understand that the intent is to keep everyone comfortable, but these about-faces always hit me like a ton of brick. It’s like saying to me: “No. You won’t be happy.”
Yet thanks to you I have come to understand that in some situations, small talk is just appropriate, and I’ve learned to swallow my disappointment. I am truly grateful to you for showing me the value of smooth, pleasant social relations at work.
But then of course one cannot make big problems disappear by not talking about them. And somehow, political matters kept popping up in casual conversations. This mix-up drove me mad. Some problems just cannot stay in the realm of small talk, or we’re condemned to successions of snap judgments, clichés, and erroneous information. I remember some disappointing discussions we had about the situation in Greece last year. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we should agree. I just mean that some statements call for arguments. As physicists, you know how to approach difficult scientific problems with caution and rigor. I’m a bit mad at you for not showing the same rigor when it comes to problems about the human world.
I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the elections in Greece. Perhaps you discussed this again briefly. To be honest, I’m relieved I wasn’t there. This way you savored your lunch without being inflicted my disapproving frown, and I savored the news.
No hard feelings.