last week I was unpacking some boxes that remained closed since I moved to our new house. Opening one of them, I was greeted by my degree, my PhD and some medals for having been a blood donor and a fanfare member for quite a while.
I don’t know exactly why, but that sight gave me a chill.
Was it because I don’t play in the fanfare anymore? No, I left it by choice and I still play my favourite instrument.
Was it because I feel a thrill every time a needle breaks my skin when I donate blood? Nope, did it this morning for the 42nd time and I felt great and proud about it.
Was it because I don’t work in physics anymore and I feel like a failure? Not for a second, physics is more a way of looking at the world than a profession, and you cannot unlearn that. It is what gives me a relief when I read about the most common human psychological biases in books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational or The Black Swan: I worked hard a whole life to avoid them (yet I still fail many times, but that’s another story) and it is truly rewarding.
At last, I got it: I felt a chill because they are a trap. One of the worse kind: silent, deadly and persistent like a curse.
That kind of honour is what makes you think that you are good enough. “Hey, you are good enough to get a degree/medal/souvenir!” Sounds great and comforting, but so what? You look at them everyday and you still think you are good enough. And you are good enough, right? It’s written on paper, carved in metal, right?
You are good enough only if you perpetuate the spirit and keep up the good work that brought you there, you are good enough only if you try to grow every day, you are good enough only if you think that you’ll never be good enough. By the way, enough for what?
Luckily enough, a great man already said everything about this kind of situation:
I don’t like honors. I appreciate it for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize.
I’ve already got the prize.
The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me; honors bother me. Honors is epaulettes; honors is uniforms. My poppa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it; it hurts me.
Future trying and failure are, for me, preferable to past achievements.
Until next time, hide your epaulettes.