When you’re running in a race and moving with a pack, there’s a big difference between being at the front and being just behind the leader.
This might sound strange. After all, the two of you are basically moving stride for stride. Yet psychologically, it’s much easier to be following someone than it is to lead. That’s because you can “turn off” your brain while you run. You don’t have to think about keeping up the pace or choosing the best route. Your opponent is doing all of that mental work for you. And when the whole point of racing is to push your body to its limit, you want to dedicate as much energy as possible to running and not thinking.
Running behind someone takes the mental load off of you and places it on them.
A similar thing happens within school. Almost anything you want to do has to be approved by someone else: the classes you take, the assignments you have to complete, the time at which you do things. Having to comply with the wishes of others is the norm. You do things when your teacher expects them of you.
This may sound tyrannical, but I think most students would eventually admit that they like this way of operation. Sure, they might not have all the freedoms they would like, but on the other hand, it becomes easier to simply go with the flow of school. They don’t have to think anymore. Follow the instructions that the teacher gives and they will pass the course.
The problem is that students aren’t in school forever. They move on to different paths, including graduate school (where the focus on education shifts) and industry. Now, students aren’t only expected to be good at what they do, but they are supposed to be leaders, people who take initiative.
But their prior training reinforced them to do the exact opposite.
I’ve felt this in my own life. For a long time, I would do everything that was asked of me, completing work on time and studying for tests. If “best” was measured by the fraction of time I pleased a teacher, I would have been the best.
I did scientific research as an undergraduate, but even then I was following the instructions of others. I did everything my supervisor asked of me. I knew I contributed, but it was more in the way a cook contributes to the vision of a chef. I did the work, though I felt like I was simply carrying out instructions someone else came up with.
This extended into other areas of my life. I was interested in doing science communication, but it seemed impossible to get into. Who would give me, an undergraduate with no experience, a platform for spreading my ideas?
I was faced with this dilemma as I entered graduate school, where classes are only a small part of the equation. Another big part is doing research. Specifically, it’s about asking questions and investigating.
For someone who spent their life following instructions, this sudden demand to take initiative left me disoriented.
In my mind, I was lacking permission. I was waiting for someone with more authority to come down from above, tap me on the shoulder, and bestow me with permission to do what I wanted to do.
If the above sounds like a fairy tale dream, you’re on the right track.
The whole point of graduate studies is to shift from waiting for permission to giving yourself permission. This is a powerful idea once it takes hold inside of you. When you realize that the main person stopping you from doing what you want is yourself, many doors of opportunity present themselves.
During my last year of undergraduate studies, I decided that even if I was terrible at it, I would start making comics about science and education. Not because I had a contract that would pay me for the work, but because I believed in the idea enough to begin on my own.
Likewise, a few years earlier I began writing on this blog, posting various essays about topics I cared about. I just decided one day that I was going to start, and that would be it. I didn’t care if nobody read my work at first. I just wanted to show up without the blessing of someone else. I was giving myself permission.
Both of these endeavours were never sanctioned by others. I wasn’t given a grade in class to do them, and I didn’t receive recognition for them. They were just things I wanted to see in the world, so I took the steps needed to make them happen. Now, I have hundreds of thousands of words written on my blog, and over two hundred comics on Handwaving.
In terms of giving myself permission within research, I ask more questions now. I don’t just accept things at face value when told by people who have more experience. I follow my interests, and look further than the suggestions that my supervisor or others give me. I seek collaborations when needed, and I’m not afraid to give my own ideas. These were things I neglected to do when I was a younger student, through fear that I would seem like I was talking out of place.
In essence, I’ve learned to give myself permission to do things. It’s not always necessary to wait until someone approves what you want to do. If you believe in your idea and want to make it happen, that’s all you need.
The last few years have taught me that we have education backwards. We teach students to chase grades, do the work that is assigned to them, and bow to the wisdom of the teacher. But what I’ve found is that we need to do the opposite. We should be willing to go out on our own, make things that are both useless and interesting to us, and not care about seeking permission. The work that each of us can do is amazing, but it won’t happen if we’re scared to branch out on our own.
If you want to win a race, you need to pass the person you’re running behind at some point. Likewise, you need to decide that you can grant yourself permission, and that’s enough.