I like school. That’s probably clear from reading my blog. I enjoy learning about science and mathematics, and the school system is one that I’ve learned to navigate with ease. Sure, I sometimes have complaints and suggestions for improvements, but on the whole, I enjoy going to school.
That being said, there is one part of school that I think doesn’t prepare us well for life outside of education. It’s about learning how to pick yourself.
What does this mean? Well, think about an activity you enjoy doing, or want to do in the future. Are you doing it right now? If not, what’s holding you back? Many of us in school are hoping that at some point, a person will look at our performance in school and choose us. In the meantime, we just need to work hard and do well at school, because everything else will be taken care of. It’s as if we believe doing our work in school will somehow make people decide to choose us, and then we can finally do the work we want.
Here’s a radical idea though: what if you just started now?
All by yourself, without the blessing of others. What if right now, today, you decided to finally start that project you wanted to do? Instead of waiting to be picked, you decide to do the work the work that’s important to you.
I first heard this idea from writer Seth Godin on his blog (so don’t give me any credit for it, I didn’t come up with it). He writes a lot about doing the work that matters to you and not being afraid to start. When I read this idea, I realized that this has big implications for how we conduct ourselves in school.
Think about it. We go to school, study in order to get good grades, and then hope that we will get the right internship, or be accepted into a prestigious school, or get to work on a big science experiment. Throughout our education, the lesson is clear: work hard, and wait to get picked. The system of applying for grants, scholarships, and schools reinforces this message over and over. Work hard, give us proof, and then wait to be picked.
This was an important realization for me, because a lot of the things I want to do with my life aren’t things that I need to wait to be picked. Instead, I can choose to take initiative and start.
My particular interests are in writing here on my blog about science and mathematics, drawing my webcomic Handwaving, and teaching/researching. Those are my main interests, and the great thing is that I don’t need to be picked to do these. I’ve written on my blog now for over two years, and I’ve been drawing consistently for my webcomic for nearly a year. I didn’t wait until someone told me I was good enough to write or draw ideas about science and mathematics. I chose to start on my own. Even for teaching, there’s nothing stopping me from teaching. Sure, I might not be a college professor at the moment, but that doesn’t stop me from taking other opportunities such as with tutoring or giving presentations. I can still do this. I can pick myself.
Of course, I want to be clear that this doesn’t work for all interests. If you want to be a miner, you’re going to need access to a mine. There’s no way around that. But more and more, the kinds of interests that people have are ones that require creativity, but whose investments in terms of cost are minimal. This is particularly true for a lot of science-related activities, such as science communication. We have better access to tools than ever before. If you want to do science communication, all it takes is for you to pick yourself.
It’s such a simple thing, yet I can imagine the immediate retorts.
“But no one is going to hire me to do this work I love!”
“Okay, I want to do science communication, but no one will listen to me.”
These are valid concerns, but they are tangential to my point. Picking yourself isn’t a guarantee that you will be hired by the organization of your dreams or that you will have an audience. Chances are you won’t have anything, at least not at first. But the key is that this doesn’t matter! What’s important is to start. Everything starts from there. When I started writing on my blog, I had nobody reading my work. Two years later and over a hundred thousand words later, I still have almost no one reading my work. Does this mean I haven’t made any progress? Not at all. First, I’ve improved my writing skills just by showing up every day to write. Plus, my work is still there, waiting to be read. It’s not going anywhere. I’m slowly building up my portfolio of work that proves how serious I am about writing and explaining scientific and mathematical ideas. As such, when someone shows up to my blog and sees the huge backlog, they will be more likely to stick with me. I’ve shown that I’m here for the long haul, even if no one is reading quite yet.
I want this to sink in. I’ve shown up week after week for about two years and I have no “results” to show for it. I don’t have a huge following that reads my words, but that’s not what picking yourself means. Picking yourself is about saying, “This work is important enough to me that I will do it even if no one else sees it.” My strategy for this blog is simple. I will keep writing until pure stubbornness sees me through. And then, once I’ve gotten to the point where people read my work, it won’t be a fluke. It will be because I chose myself many years ago, without anyone else.
This is my message to you. If there’s something you want to do, particularly if it has to do with spreading your interest in science and mathematics, please don’t wait for someone else to pick you. I know this is what you’re used to, because it was what I was used to through school. But the truth is that waiting for someone to pick you is a losing strategy. Some may get lucky and be picked, but most won’t be. Instead, my suggestion to you is to think about something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, and just start. Don’t overthink it. Start with the equipment and resources you have. More than anything, don’t expect big results. People won’t care about your work, at least not at first. That’s not part of the deal when you pick yourself. The deal is to decide that this work is important to you, and that you will do it no matter what.
I started thinking about this in the context of where I am in my education. I’m finishing my undergraduate degree and looking to go to graduate school. I can’t help but see a lot of my education as jumping through hoops just to get the chance of doing research. There’s a lot of work involved just to get the opportunity of being picked. I’ve been wondering if there’s another way, or at least a different road I can travel for my other interests (such as writing). This is why I started this blog, and it’s why I chose myself instead of waiting for someone else to do it. I’m still travelling down the academic road (it’s what I want to do), but I’m also making choosing myself in these other areas.
Picking yourself sounds scary, because it means you’re committing yourself to something. You’re taking a stand and saying, “This is important to me.” However, the truth is that it’s so liberating. Instead of worrying about others choosing you, the choice is on you. Yes, this means you won’t suddenly jump to stardom, but the slow burn is likely more sustainable anyway.
Don’t wait for someone else to pick you. It’s not going to happen, and it will just be an exercise in frustration. Take the initiative to pick yourself. It’s worth it.