Saturday April 24th

Lopsided Stools and Tenacity

I attended the CRA Grad Workshop for Women 2021

  • This weekend, I not only attended but I presented a poster at the CRA Grad Workshop for Women 2021, which was virtual.
  • It was awesome. Not only did I speak with a mentor during a 1:1, join a Slack group with 77 plus female PhDs, but I also benefitted from great advice, motivational words, and encouragement.
  • We had several panels, including breakout sessions with Dr. Rodger, Dr. Gini, among others.
  • Dr. Gini inspired us to not be wooed by the companies who realize that we are talented, smart and driven, and although we should get the perspective of the internship, we should come back to complete our degree. It was so refreshing to hear and encouraging, particularly as about two weeks ago, a friend of mine who works at one of the companies was teasing me and telling me “these companies are testing your commitment to your completing your degree”, and my advisor said “they’re trying to get you to quit”. I understand that this varies from person to person, but particularly if you are from an underrepresented group and have made it this far, you can find yourself being pulled in multiple directions.
  • Also, for those who are not getting such opportunities, they may be less sympathetic, and retaliate in ways that aren’t helpful to understanding that this is a genuine problem you need help navigating, not an opportunity you are using to brag. It can be very frustrating, because you may find you have these problems and there isn’t anyone you can speak with because your peers may think you are bragging or rubbing it in their face if you ask them for help. And that’s unfortunate.
  • Dr. Morris also had a 1:1 session with me, and another panel talk later on, in which she said that it is in fact prestigious to be asked to review for conferences. Someone had told me that I was only getting these opportunities because “no one wants to do them”, which is not true. The environment can be cutthroat because other persons want these opportunities, so they try to convince you that they aren’t worth much and diminish the value of results that should be celebrated. Grad school has a lot of that, so you have to learn to figure out when what someone is telling you is a lie, and you have to be smart about whose advice you consider, and reason about whether the person is trying to help you or trick you. It’s like you’re in a real world version of Prince of Persia or something; don’t drink the poisonous potions or fall onto the spikes if someone convinces you there is something worth looking into that really leads to a death trap.
  • What is worse is that based on how I was raised, the next iteration of disbelief upon realizing someone is attempting to sell me a lie, is often anger, that they have assumed my ability to accept lies, as though I am a fool. This usually results in rage. How can you attempt to deceive me; do you consider me a fool, and by extension, of inferior (emotional) intellect to you to recognize this ruse?
  • These are both not ideal reactions; taking the onus of negative projection, or a response in anger, because it is an inability to recognize that an attempt was made by someone with (fairly) limited power to control or have power over you. Losing control of your emotions or losing your sense of self only gives them more power. And being in the Academic space is all about manipulation and power game or strategic plays.
  • It’s been a really strange experience for me personally because I have been in spaces where I will talk about the news and lots of people will congratulate me and celebrate my achievements, and in others where I only receive passive-aggressive, negative and diminishing remarks. One of my mentors laughed and told me firmly just a few weeks ago “they’re jealous”. I didn’t grow up with a lot of people like that, so it was a revelation to hear her say that. I needed to hear that and realize that it wasn’t me; they were projecting insecurity onto me and making me feel like things that I achieved “weren’t so great” was a way that they could feel better about the fact that they did not earn (as my mentor reminds me; it’s not earned this and you work very hard!) these accomplishments.

The Legs of the stool

  • Dr. Margo Seltzer gave this amazing talk on finding balance during grad school, which she described as having different legs of a stool so that when one breaks (for example, your paper that you’ve been spending months on is rejected), you can find support in other legs such as your friends, family, or sports or other activities you may enjoy outside of just work.
  • I’ve thought about this a bit since she gave this amazing talk, because I think that it’s especially a problem for the kind of person who would choose to pursue something like a doctoral degree. Or run a business. Or pursue a Hollywood career. They tend to be very driven, focus-minded, goal oriented people who are set on achieving this one goal, and are absolutely broken if this doesn’t pan out. So I’m really happy she gave this talk.
  • It’s interesting because when I think about stools, the first thing I think about is Glenn Gould, which I understand is a weird thing to say, so hear me out. I took a class at Cornell in my last semester of Undergrad, where I learned a lot about his music, including listening to his 1955 album of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Later, I bought several books on him. He was absolutely fascinating because he was one of those obsessive “one leg of the stool is longer than the others” (if there even are other legs!) types, and what is even more interesting is that he often performed with a custom stool in which a few inches of the legs were sawed off. He was adamant that they (the legs of the stool) could not be as is, so they were essentially lopsided, often creaking during recording sessions, and he was obsessed with these custom chairs. To me, it’s a great analogy for the type of personality type or level of commitment of certain types of people who pursue achievement of goals at certain levels in society.
  • I finally got into LA LA Land. It was one of the films I always wanted to see, but just never managed to attend one of the screenings when I was in Los Angeles. There is a line in the movie when Gosling tells Stone, right after she has given up on her acting career, thinking that it will never happen for her, and receives a callback for a role she eventually gets for a movie in Paris, that if she gets the opportunity, she has to put her all into pursuing it (including sacrificing their budding relationship). It’s like the lopsided leg of the stool, but to be honest, it’s all people with that personality type (which highly resonates with myself) can think of doing; we don’t half-@$$ anything.
  • It reminded me of my dad, who said a few weeks ago that when he was doing Economics work in Latin America decades ago, he would sometimes get up in the middle of the night with an idea or something that he processed in his sleep. I guess we are just wired that way; we become consumed by things that are our passion, and it’s very difficult to find that balance. So the “legs of a stool” analogy is fascinating.

Friends without balance

  • I don’t think I’ve had many friends who are balanced, to be honest. I don’t think that persons I have met who have that balanced personality type stick around.
  • My friends are usually high-achievers at the top of their careers, but they’ve worked very hard and have sacrificed a lot to get where they are. Good on them.
  • Often, they find this balance later on, after their achievements bring them perspective, through mentoring others in the things they are good at and have dedicated their lives towards honing. One of my professors said that as you get older, you start to accept the things that you can’t change, and you become more chill. I don’t know about that; some people might characterize some of my (even older) friends as pretty insane in terms of the lengths they go to achieve their goals, and that suits them fine because they really would probably really go nuts if they couldn’t do the thing they do. It’s a compulsion. This results in conflict sometimes because they will often get frustrated by others who don’t share that personality of being extremely goal-oriented and ambitious. I discovered this also within the sailing community. People on the outside think that sailing is this very fun, casual thing, but the people in that community are absolutely obsessed with sailing; it’s a way of life for them that includes how they see the world. And they become very frustrated if you hop onto their boat and don’t take the craft of sailing seriously.
  • This is also true of serious musicians or audio engineers. They take their craft seriously and you show up to practice on time, you run your cables to the board neatly and safely, and you label and pack things up like a professional. They are absolutely infuriated by others who treat their craft, the thing they have trained in and devoted their life to, that is their way of life, as this very casual, flippant thing.
  • It’s very common for many of my friends to be these firecracker-type, high achievers, or to be these persons who are driven by these obscure ideas that they talk constantly about, until it becomes obvious over time why they were so fascinated by it. I think that that is reflected in the languages that I am most interested in, and the tech communities I’ve derived the most pleasure from hanging out within. We aren’t just doing this for fun; it’s part of who we are.
  • Many of the languages and topics I am most intrigued by in tech tend to be very specific, and persons have gotten into very heated debates about the specificity of certain aspects. Years ago in our Haskell Meetup, one of the things that excited me about our local Meetup was that it was the first programming thing I had been to where people were having heated debates about how to solve a thing, or about the syntax. It was so engrossing. Things mattered.
  • These days, I’ve been really enjoying my professor’s Maths Cryptography class. It’s so engaging and it’s one of those spaces where things do matter. My professor has given us a couple opportunities to research and write “Impress Me” papers in which we can go down into a Cryptography rabbit hole, and even though we can technically write a couple pages or so, all of my reports have been at least 7 pages because I just find myself getting lost in the material, at 4am, wanting to learn more. The community is also pretty amazing, and fun, too, and they have convinced me to get a tablet, since it’s the closest thing to doing Maths in a virtual, shareable way that isn’t a blackboard.
  • I joined a cryptography group this week with some really awesome people, and now I’m in a Telegram group with them. And I’ve found myself staying up at 4am working through and reading things, and writing code, just because it’s fun and I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else with my time. But I have to be wary of burnout. Many times, it’s not the work, but the negativity and gaslighting by other people that burns me out.

Balance is still important

  • I experienced a bit of calm this week after I came to the realization that a group I was in would never acknowledge any of my achievements. Having a particularly strong sense of fairness (shared by my family), I wasn’t bothered by it, but I was on principle. It would always be the case that anything I achieved was never acknowledged, and even diminished, while the smallest of those by others would always be celebrated. And for the longest time it bugged me.
  • I believe that it is intentional and by design; it is a way to instinctively tell me that my place is that of someone who should accept obscurity, invisibility and feel inferior relative to that of my peers. I was struggling with how to deal with this, because there is no way I can internalize this kind of nonsense.
  • Not the me of many years of pedigreed schools, who topped her class and went on to set goals and to achieve them. Pushing back on that is instinctive, but I needed to learn how to be more strategic about the way I pushed back on something I knew was a lie, when systemically, there wasn’t necessarily something I could do to change it.
  • This week, I was able to find some peace on that, and it started to bother me less. My head was just in a different space. I realized that it may also be their way of dealing with their insecurity and a lack of ability to measure up. And that has nothing to do with me, so I should not channel my energy in taking it personally. Instead, I should focus on channelling that drive into my work, and in continuing to stand out, because long-term, that would be the most optimal investment / smarter choice. As one of my mentors says “people can’t be happy for you if they aren’t happy”. That’s not really the kind of world I grew up in, but certainly given the one-upmanship culture I’ve been exposed to in Academia, I understand now. I unwittingly make some feel badly about themselves, but I don’t see that as my problem.
  • I think that that’s an important lesson to learn, or rather, it was for me to learn, because those things can eat at you, and poison you, especially if you only think about unfairness in a short-term capacity. Something may be immediately unfair, but over time, there may be a correction. I responded mostly by being a smart@$$, and essentially responding by saying that I saw through the malarkey of what they were trying to do, and while they were able to get away with it, they should know that I did not accept it. It also allowed me to step up this week and also stand up for something else I felt was unfair, and actually feel vindicated by the person’s response, which was unexpected.
  • I think that maybe I will never be one of the most balanced persons just because I am one of those persons who pursues goals furiously and with everything, but finding some semblance of balance in another leg allowed me to channel unfairness in a productive way; through my work and in my positive relationships. So that’s what the legs of the stool mean to me.

And that’s it

Written on April 24, 2021