Idiot 12/22/22

Recollections with Richard Bleil

As strange as it may sound, I really needed to go to the bathroom when I was in graduate school. The reason still kind of freaks me out. When I first started graduate school, I actually had two advisers, and in principle I worked with both of them. This means that every week I would meet with each of them to discuss progress, or lack thereof, on my research. Honestly, I struggled, which is not a surprise since that’s the point of graduate school but having been raised with a complete lack of self-confidence, it meant that I “forgot” a lot of our scheduled meetings. Yes, it was dumb. But the problem was deeper.

It seemed as if every single time I went to the bathroom, Dr. Lin, one of my advisers, whose office was on a different floor than mine always seemed to be in there. It didn’t matter which bathroom I used, or what time it was; he was always in there. So I held my drink. A lot.

He called me on the missed meetings one day. I was embarrassed to admit what was happening. See, they started me on several research projects (I think to see if one really took off for me, or maybe they were just gauging my strengths and weaknesses). The first step, of course, was to look up the article that inspired the suggested project. Then, to look at the key publications that were in the article bibliography. Then the literature search for related articles beyond the bibliography.

These papers are written very densely. Every word had significant meaning, and even if you recognized the language as English, it certainly didn’t hit the brain as such. It would take weeks of reading and re-reading before the articles finally felt familiar enough to not seem completely alien, and more time to actually be able to make sense of it to a practical level. And I explained to Dr. Lin this struggle.

“It makes me feel like an idiot,” I wrapped up my discussion.

“That’s good,” he replied in his thick Chinese accent. No doubt he has been in America for many years, but, in my ignorance and, I’ll admit, bigotry, I replied, “I’m not sure you really understand what the word ‘idiot’ means.”

He just smiled. “Of course I know what it means,” he replied. “But it’s good because you know that you are not an idiot. So when you feel like an idiot, it simply means that you’ve stumbled into an area where the potential for growth is maximum.”

Holy hell. I’d never heard anything so deep in my life, and I’m not sure that I have since.

Many of us, and perhaps all of us, have a habit of underestimating our potential and abilities. I hear it frequently, every time somebody says to me, “I could never do what you do” when they discover my chemistry background. And inevitably, I respond, “yes you could.”

The people who say this to me don’t lack the intelligence or the ability. They are, no doubt, as intelligent as I am, but what they may lack is the curiosity. A lot of the drive for me to learn what I have learned comes from my interest in chemistry, which drives my desire to learn more about it, even today (hence my continued research). With the lack of interest, or at least sustained interest, what they’re really missing is nothing more than the experience, the years of research and study hunched over in a fluorescent lighted office pouring over the articles that made me feel like maybe I’d made a mistake with my life.

Should my friends pick it up now? No, probably not. It’s years, stubbornness and interest that drives such devotion and dedication. I took an interest in pursuing a career in chemistry in 1975 when I was 12 years old. If you do anything for fifty years, you’d damned well better be good at it. So can my friends do what I do? Yes. If they wanted to.

And I’m no better. I want to learn piano and guitar, but I really am no good at it. I listen to my friends and become disheartened because they are so very good at playing these instruments. Should I? Honestly, no. They have been playing for years, so of course I won’t be as good as soon as I pick the instruments up. My artist friend in Scotland, when I compliment her work, will sarcastically reply, “Thanks, it took hours of practice.” And yet, in her hands, the paintbrush seems to dance on its own with effortless skill and talent, while in mine it just collapses and dies leaving a death stain on the canvas.

Believe in yourself. If you really want to learn something, pick up a skill, create a masterpiece, it takes time. It takes patience. It takes practice. It takes belief in yourself, so believe in yourself.

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