How an Urban Studies course taught me that my “friends” were wrong (and I wasn’t an idiot)

Forrest ChristianCoaching, happiness 2 Comments

It’s odd how some of us get stuck in a rut of not understanding who we are. Being told to go in a direction that is antithetical to our core, we work where what we have is not what they want. For most people, this is probably nuts. If you aren’t one, maybe a tale from my past will help.

I came into university as an Engineering student because that’s what smart people did in my family and in my social milieu. My high school had almost gone bankrupt, so I lacked experience with the books and topics that my peers had at Trinity University, down in the heart of Texas. The other kids in my freshman seminar course quoted Plato and discussed Kierkegaard like they knew him. I kind of knew who they were, but only from television (thank you, PBS and Warner Bros. cartoons) and high brow jokes on old records from the library.

But that was okay because I was going into engineering, a real major for people who can do math.

Except that after a semester, I had already slid out of that program and into a Physics major. I learned important spreadsheet manipulation skills, which I still use, but I really didn’t enjoy the classes. And I wasn’t spending my time with Engineering students.

Within a year I had slid out of my Physics major due to sliding math grades. By the time I got to Differential Equations, I was in failure territory. I would sit in the class, watch a truly brilliant lecturer who looked a bit mad scrawl on the board, and have absolutely no idea whatsoever what he was talking about.

I felt awful. I was clearly a terrible person. I spiraled through a pretty strong depression. I had lost who I was. I didn’t know where I was going.

And then I took a City In History class with my physics major friend, Howard.

Howard could not understand why I couldn’t just plow through the physics homework. He saw my struggles as a sign of laziness. “You just have to ______ ,” he would tell me.

But I was acing a class I was taking pass/fail and barely doing the reading. I only bought the books, weeks into the course, after beginning to feel guilty because I was enjoying the lectures so much. All the while, Howard was studying constantly, doing all the reading — and the recommended secondary reading!

“This class is taking all my time!” he moaned. “I don’t even understand what he’s saying!”

Howard sounded like I did about my engineering, math, and physics classes. He was working so hard but struggling to even pull his B-.

I wasn’t doing any work at all and had an A.

The professor was one of those instructors who would say things like “I don’t want you to just regurgitate the facts on the exam” but “Show me that you have assimilated the material by doing something new with your answer.” I loved that. Free from worrying about getting a D, because that’s all I needed, I went crazy. Asking to compare and contrast two 19th c. Russian peasants, one who immigrated to New York and worked in a American factory, and his friend who stayed on the farm and was forced to work in one of the non-urban Russian factories. By the time I was done, I had created stories for both of these gents, with emotional flourishes about cows, showing how their families’ circumstances differed after a generation: the one who stayed also stayed in his role; the one who left, adapted and founded a line that included a college professor. (Always good to ingratiate.)

I realized that I could do things that Howard couldn’t. He could do things I couldn’t. I had been living in his world for years, but didn’t belong. When I stepped into a world that wanted what I had to offer, it was easy, as if everything I had been attracted to in learning was useful to build something new.

I had a similar experience at about the same time when I came into my first social science course. It was Introduction to Social Psychology and taught in a big lecture hall. (Big for Trinity, famous for tiny classes.) I had been sitting next to a “returning student”, a woman in her early twenties who I was entirely crushing on. We had gotten into the regular chatting phase (simpler times, friends, simpler times) when the first exam hit. I studied hard for this one, spending hours on my notes and the re-reading the manuscript that was our textbook. The class after the test, I retrieved my grade and was dismayed. I looked over at my lovely friend with the south Texas accent, hoping a little shared suffering would further my efforts toward A Real Date.

“I got a C!” I moaned. “And I studied for this! I can’t believe I got a C!”

“So did I,” she said, “I don’t know what I would have done without the curve.”

“Wait, there’s a curve?”

I looked up at the blackboard where a distribution had been written. A score of 60 was an “A”. I had a 75. I was the outlier threatening to ruin it for everyone.

(She never spoke to me again.)

All this to point out a big truth that I still struggle with: I can’t be who I’m not. “Think Different” is a slogan, not a credo to live by. I need to go where I generally think like the other people in the profession because that is where I can succeed. Not will, mind you: simply “can”. If I stay places where no one wants what I have to offer, I will never find success.

Warren Kinston says that when you and your job do not “fit”, you will struggle and seem to make no progress. But when you what you are aligns with what the job is, success will come easily.

Or, as my brother once said, “You can only do what you don’t want to do for a job for so long, before your subconscious rises up and bites you in the butt.”

If you are struggling to succeed at work, and you are the type of person who has read this far, it’s probably because you are in the wrong job. Find the people like you, then go do that the jobs they succeed at.

Comments 2

  1. A provocative read. Lots of reflections on life.

    Academic fields was your focus for this essay.

    I thought of Kinston’s domains. I was a mis-fit in the private sector, kind of almost happy in government, and a great fit in the not-for-profit sector

  2. Post

    I’m always surprised about how important fit is. Jaques nailed the importance of having your personal time horizon match the role’s work level, and I think he did a disservice by shrugging off what people too easily lump into “personality”. For the individual in a “have laptop, will travel” world of no long term employment, one should probably start with thinking style fit to find careers, then find hiring managers who feel like a Real Boss. That said, I might prefer working somewhere I don’t fit personality wise but do work level wise, over the reverse.

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