We’ve previously determined that since Aaron is already practically perfect, he gets a bye on having to make any New Year’s Resolutions [although I might nominate something along the lines of: Try not to get so annoyed with Martha when she does something (a) dumb, (b) messy, (c) dumb and messy].  But I, to use one of those match.com-overused colloquialisms, remain a work-in-progress, and I’ve got some big ticket items for 2013.  Looking ahead, if I can avoid crumpling in a corner, 2013 in going to be a monster year: I’ve got work travel to Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Thailand, Australia, Minnesota, and Iowa (and that’s just through July 2013).  Potential trips to Myanmar and France as well.  If I’m not totally exhausted/out of shape from all this travel, Aaron and I are tentatively thinking of joining the Blue Train in June to the Black Hills of South Dakota for my first 50 miler (Aaron and the rest of the gang can do the 100).  I’m also considering making a major career move back into academia as a tenure-track assistant professor (of Biology), although I’m still waffling on that one.

I know that a 50-miler seems like peanuts to most of the WUSsies.  But I, for reasons I have explored in previous blogs, have a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between self-perceived and actual capability (with the former being substantially lower than the latter).  This incongruity has become increasingly apparent in recent years, in large part because Aaron is there to continually point out to me how out of touch my self-perception is with reality.  And I’ve only recently begun to realize that this phenomenon is quite rare and particular to myself — that other people actually tend to experience the reverse effect, developing inflated self-perceptions.  Psychologists refer to this as the ‘better-than-average’ effect: the vast majority of people think they are better than average, when of course that statistically is impossible.  As the classic example, an impossible 93% of US respondents described themselves as better than average drivers.  A year ago I went to a talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Hallinan who described this phenomenon in depth.  Over-confidence is a plague of human existence, leading not only to traffic fatalities but also a plethora of high error rates in other categories — from the surgery table to identifying suspects from the police line-up.  Tragically, these error rates could be dramatically reduced if people didn’t way over-estimate their own capabilities and allowed for greater measures of uncertainty.  As I sat in the audience, I was amazed by how different it must be to experience life through the eyes of someone with over-confidence — to be the guy who hits on the woman way out of his league at the bar, or who dashes out in the lead of a road race only to consistently fall to the middle of the pack, or to be the med student with enough self-assurance to think Yes, I’ve totally got the stuff to be a brain surgeon, to CARVE INTO PEOPLE’S HEADS. 

I thought that the easiest way I could gain self-confidence would be to achieve things I previously considered to be impossible or greatly challenging, over time eroding my sense of self-limitation.  For example, when I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in 2002, overcoming this challenge should have boosted my confidence in an area I had always perceived to be a great weakness: climbing up hills.  Instead, my sneaky brain decided it was way easier to change my perception of the outside world than of myself: rather than giving myself any credit for the climb, my mind switched it around and concluded that summitting Kili was actually a fairly trivial physical endeavor that anyone and their spunky grandma could do.  My mind did the same thing about getting a PhD (trivial!), running a sub-3 hour marathon (just don’t go out too fast), or anything else that at one point had seemed like an insurmountable challenge. Much easier to change my perception of the external world than myself.

Anyway, the reason I have been probing into this issue of self-confidence recently is because I need to understand how it factors into an upcoming major career move.  As I start to consider ramping up my professional intensity by joining the tenure-track rat race, I’m determined to make sure that my reservations about the move are only related to lifestyle trade-offs and my reluctance to leave a current research position at Fogarty I’m very content with, and don’t stem from my lagging self-confidence and doubt about my ability to cut it as a professor.  Because I should know by now that I’ll be fine, that I always think it will be much worse than it really is.  There might be golden opportunities ahead at Georgetown University and at other divisions of the NIH, where I could have my own lab and little post-docs to boss around and do my work for me — and all I have to do is beat down that self-doubt hard enough until it’s too late to turn back.

~                ~                  ~

There is much about oneself that cannot be pinned on parental influence, and many traits that are largely independent of upbringing.  But self-confidence is one domain where parents figure mightily into and are greatly responsible for cultivating in a developing child.  Recognizing the origins of low self-confidence is crucial for beginning to reconstruct a sense of belief in oneself.  The absolute key here is for parents to inculcate in children a frame of mind where failure is not a reflection of lack of self-worth.  You can’t always make your kid be the winner, but you can surely teach them how to lose in a way that the failure doesn’t weigh them down like a giant scarlet F hanging from their neck.  Now I can think of one area where my father was actually a  spectacular success in teaching me to accept failure as a part of learning: skiing.  In stark contrast to the reviled tennis court, the ski slope was this wild, free place where I have no recollections of my father ever being disappointed or overly critical.  There was no scoreboard, no lines, no winners and losers, just big wide open hills to bomb down and enjoy.  I had skis on as soon as my feet were big enough to fit into ski boots, and pretty soon I was going down black and double-black diamonds, absolutely fearless.  My father had a rule that I should fall three times every day I skied — otherwise I wasn’t pushing myself and taking risks.   Normally kids will make fun of others who fall or fail, but my ski school instructors always created an atmosphere where huge face plants were celebrated with cheers.  The healthiest life lessons of my childhood were surely on those slopes, where falling on your face was greeted with a high-five and an outstretched glove to pull you back up, brush the snow out of your ears, and send you back on your way.  If only all of childhood could have been like that.


In sum: 2013 resolutions

(1) Run a 50-miler.  Try not to barf.  Okay, if you do barf, try to cut yourself some slack.  Faceplant, baby!!

(2) Explore career options.   Try to talk yourself up a little during interviews, even if you think you’re over-selling yourself.  Try to use ‘I’ instead of ‘we’ when giving job talks, even if you consider the work to be a group effort.  If you decide to stay put at Fogarty, do it because you love taking off Thursday night to drive to Canaan Valley for snow adventures and don’t want to be tied to the lab, not because you think you’ll be Professor Suck Ass.

(3) Gain back your ‘god i’m so stressed over job applications!’ 4-5 pounds you lost.  Aaron’s totally going to trade you in for someone with a little meat.  Oh wait, Aaron doesn’t like meat.  But you do — so get yourself some T-bones, dammit!





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