07 October 2006

Don't tell me what I can or can't do!

The title of this blog post is a reference to a quote from the TV show Lost. In the episode "Walkabout," John Locke, a former paraplegic, says variations of this phrase when people put him down.

Ever since I reached college age, I feel increasingly pressured by the ever-growing cacophony of voices telling me to do this or that. When I got into graduate school, it seemed like everyone had an opinion on where I should go. One professor wanted me to learn his specialty, so he pushed me towards the school best for that. Some people thought I should go to a "brand-name" school to maximize my marketability. A few people apparently didn't seem to think I was very bright, since they didn't really encourage me to apply to top schools. If I had to do it over again, I'm not sure I would have told anyone where I got it unless they had some useful advice. As one of my friends aptly said, "I am not a democracy. You do not have a vote on where I go to school."

Career advice, I can partially understand that. But I see so many other areas in life where people are ridiculously obtrusive. For instance, I used to have short hair up until a year and a half ago when I just stopped cutting it and let it grow. A few months ago I contemplated cutting it and I felt so much social pressure not to. My roommate said, "I know it's tempting, but don't cut your hair!" I get noticed by men much more now that I have longer hair and it makes me feel like I must have been less of a woman when I had short hair. (If you're wondering, I've decided to keep my hair long for now, so I can get more experience with the situation before making a choice.)

Something that really annoys me is when people tell me I work too much. I talked to all my friends who have gotten good jobs in physics and they all worked like crazy. No one can be successful in science without working long hours. I often feel like I have to cover up my working habits as if I were an alcoholic. It is true that there have been times when I've worked to escape from personal problems, but mostly I have had very good reasons for working. I studied very hard in college and I have no regrets. It was like intellectual first love; I didn't want to lose time when I could be learning something beautiful. Now that I look back, I was right. I can't go back to learning Nyquist's theorem or the Schrodinger equation for the first time. The question is not what do you want to do with your life, but what do you want to experience (as Steve Pavlina says).

I think about what I could be doing besides physics and I can't see that the alternatives are any better. Lawyers work really long hours and a lot of that work is apparently boring. Doctors have trouble running profitable practices due to the rising costs of malpractice insurance. Being an engineer in a high-tech company seems really boring. One of my friends ia biomedical engineer and she showed me her workplace -- a maze of cubicles. Frankly, her co-workers seemed un-interesting and lethargic. I can't imagine being a bright, creative person stifled in that type of environment, having to do what is expected. Everyone has a different focus in life. Some people want to create a wonderful family. Some people want to buy their own island and yacht. Some people want to "save" the world (charity work). I want to work in a creative, meaningful craft (at least that is what I want now). Some people want it all - a great family, great work, and money!

What really bothers me is who's telling me what I should do. One group is my peers. "Don't play video games. They're addictive." (My response: "Well, they make me happy because I feel like a kid again!") "I'm almost 30. I'm getting old." (My response: "Speak for yourself. No one's stopping me.") How can a 25 year old claim to be old?! The other group is parents and elders. I suppose that an occupational hazzard of growing older is wanting to tell younger people what to do because 1) you no longer have the opportunity to make those choices and 2) a sense of entitlement. I don't believe that older equals wiser. Many people don't get wiser; they just reinforce the same beliefs they've had since they were 20 years old. I don't see why a 60 year old person who treads a narrow path should be respected more than a 30 year old person who has tried to make the most of his/her short time on this earth. I refuse to be put down anymore. Don't tell me what I can or can't do.

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