Intimidating Success 8/28/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

My body of accomplishments over the years would come with mixed reviews if there were such things as life critics.  Academically, I’m not very successful.  I have a few research publications, a couple of books, written some programs, but most people with my kind of education will publish literally hundreds of papers, get dozens of research grants and give scores of presentations.  My record of such academic achievements are meager in comparison.  On the flip side, I’ve done a lot that would seem very impressive to people who are not in academics.  I’ve been a tenured full professor, director of a forensic program, dean, worked as an industrial chemist, crushed a tanker truck, owned a few businesses and have a lot of bizarre successes that frankly don’t amount to much of anything beyond a few amusing stories.  So, am I successful, or not?

At the drive-in theater, I work with a young lady who just started her senior year in high school.  What’s interesting is that she decided last year that she wants to be a chemical engineer.  We desperately need more women in the physical sciences, so I’ve been chatting with her about chemistry and science and telling her some of my stories.  She is very quiet, seemingly shy, but she also strikes me as particularly intelligent.  She has a bright future ahead of her, and I’m very excited to see what kind of life she builds for herself.  The reason I’ve been telling her my stories is because I’m hoping that she becomes excited about the possibilities in the life that she has chosen and sticks with her decision, but I may be doing more harm than good.

It occurred to me not too long ago that maybe I’m doing more harm than good.  I try to be well spoken, and a lot of people mistake my experience and mannerisms as intelligence.  Am I intelligent?  Well, maybe, I’ve never taken an IQ test (at least not a legitimate one) and I’m not a psychologist, but maybe.  But the reality is that I certainly don’t feel particularly bright.  What I do have is a passion for chemistry and the sciences, and many years of experience.  My curiosity has had me reading various scientific disciplines, and I have been fortunate in making connections through that breadth of reading.  But that just means that I’m experienced, not intelligent.

And here’s my young friend, right on the precipice of adulthood and starting her career, and I’m telling her about how luck helped me to realize that the active ingredient in wintergreen is a chelating agent with iron.  She doesn’t know what chelating agents are, and there’s a good chance in hearing that story she could be thinking that she’ll never be able to figure out things like that just because she doesn’t know what it all means right now.  The reality is that she can, and she will if she gives herself a chance. 

My background looks very impressive to others (maybe not my fellow academicians), but to me it is just the pathway my fate has taken me.  Other people’s experiences seem impressive to me.  I can’t imagine becoming a father and raising children, so to me, that’s very impressive.  Honestly, if you are a chemist, you probably aren’t so impressed with my background. 

I suppose that whether or not somebody is impressed with another person’s background depends a lot of their personal experience.  People with rudimentary knowledge of chemistry might look at what I’ve done, and it seems very impressive, but like a chemistry show, it’s all from chemical demonstration books.  It’s more impressive to actually be able to develop the demonstrations rather than simply following the recipe from a demonstration book, but when you’re performing those demos in front of a group of third graders, it certainly makes you look good. 

Is that all I really am?  Yeah, I guess I am.  I’m just the guy who stands in front of others and looks like I know what I’m doing.  I’m hoping that she realizes that.  Just like the demonstrations I used to do I couldn’t do those things without a reference book.  What I have done I’ve accomplished because of the reference I’ve gained from my experience.  She doesn’t have that reference yet, but as time goes on, she’ll gain the experience she needs to realize that, frankly, I’m just a dink who happened to get lucky.  One with enough of a sense of humor to make it sound funny and impressive.


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