For the majority of my life, I’ve just kind of stumbled around doing whatever was easiest. I’m lucky that I’m smart enough to stay out of trouble and get by in school, but unlucky enough that I can do it with minimal effort.
When I was a kid in the second 1st or 2nd grade, I had a weird teacher. For some reason, she really didn’t like me. Me specifically. She would intentionally lose my homework, punish me for things I didn’t do, and a number of other terrible things I won’t mention because it’s pretty painful to remember. I realized very quickly there was no point in trying to do any school work because I wouldn’t get credit for it anyway. When my grades weren’t great, she tried to tell my parents I had a severe learning disability. Luckily my parents didn’t believe her and took me to a learning consultant to be tested for learning disabilities.
I was smart enough to realize this test wasn’t connected with grades that I needed but dumb enough that I didn’t realize how important this test actually was to my life.
I’ve tried to forget this part of my life for a long time, but a few things stuck with me. I remember speaking with the learning consultant for a while and then she had me take a test. At this point in my life, I had stopped caring about tests in school, and I wasn’t even at school. I remember thinking how ridiculous this situation was, and why would anyone actually put effort into a test that’s not actually at school. I was smart enough to realize this test wasn’t connected with grades that I needed but dumb enough that I didn’t realize how important this test actually was to my life. I remember she put a story in front of me that was a paragraph or two long. I looked at it and looked at the questions and answers and realized it was multiple choice. Perfect, no thinking required. I picked a letter and asked to go to the next page so we could finish earlier. The learning consultant immediately realized what was going on. She asked me if I read anything. I said yes. She asked if I was lying. I said yes. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing how much of a pain in the ass I must have been. Dr. F., I’m sorry about my behavior that day. She asked me to read the story out loud. She was good…I read the story out loud, and when I was done, she asked me to read the first question, and pick an answer. I read the question out loud, but didn’t read the answers–I just picked a letter. She very politely asked me to read the answer to the question I picked. She had trapped me. I looked at the answer, realized it was wrong, and changed my answer to the correct one knowing I had to actually put some effort into this or I was never getting out of this boring office.
I later learned that my parents were gearing up to sue the school and this was all they needed to show that something was wrong with the teacher.
I don’t remember much, but I remember that my attention span only lasted so long. I got a bunch of questions right, and she stopped asking me to read my answers. She had a lot of faith in me. More than I deserved. Eventually, she trapped me again. There was a true or false question and I answered C or D or something like that. She wasn’t thrilled, but she had the patience of a saint. We went back to reading everything. Eventually, our time was up. The report to my family was something along the lines of, “He doesn’t have a learning disability at all. At the minimum, he has a very high IQ, but I can’t get him to take the test seriously and we don’t have enough time to finish.” I later learned that my parents were gearing up to sue the school and this was all they needed to show that something was wrong with the teacher. My parents requested that this teacher be audited for a week to see if they could spot any issues. After a day or two, the auditor reported back to the school and to my parents that this teacher shouldn’t be around boys, especially me. From that moment on, she was required to have a teacher’s assistant with her at all times, but she was still able to teach. I got sent to another class away from my friends and she was still technically teaching. I felt that there was no justice.
So why am I telling this story? This is where my laziness began. From this point on, I just didn’t try. Why bother? It’s not like it mattered. I barely tried and I got by. If you did try, someone would be there to hold you back and they wouldn’t experience consequences, but you’d be punished.
From this point on, I just did whatever was easiest for me. I could get by in school by just doing the tests, so every semester I would get in trouble for not doing homework or not having my notebooks in order. When I got into more interesting classes in junior high and high school, I started to excel in math and science because I enjoyed it. I didn’t always mind doing the homework, so I did enough to get into honors classes. For everything else like history and English, I did enough to stay out of the remedial classes because those were boring enough that I couldn’t stand them.
When it came time to pick a college, I picked the one that had the shortest drive from my parent’s house. My laziness, stupidity, and arrogance knew no bounds. Once I started attending college, I just did whatever I felt like, and barely passed non-science classes. I was pretty good at science, specifically anything biology-related. One day, I was sitting in an empty classroom reading one of my genetics textbooks for a test and my professor walked by. She stopped in and told me that I was really smart and that she wanted me to do research in her lab. I didn’t go to a great school, but this professor had the research lab everyone wanted to be in. She told a number of my friends that they didn’t work hard enough to be in her research lab, and she came up to me and asked me to be in it. Again, stumbling backward through life with a shocking amount of luck. After doing research in her lab for a while, I asked her what I should do to get a job.
What’s next after I graduate? She told me I should apply to be in a Ph.D. program because I’d be miserable in a low-level lab tech role. I applied to a couple of local graduate schools. Nothing too far. I didn’t want to move or drive too far. What an idiot… I was certain I wouldn’t get into one, but even if I did I wasn’t sure I’d go. That sounded like a lot of work. I accidentally graduated college a semester early. How, you ask? It certainly wasn’t because I tried to. It was a combination of a number of things I never thought about. First, I had a bunch of AP credits for the science classes I took in high school. Second, I ended up taking more credits than I needed to in order to take the science classes I wanted. This had NOTHING to do with me trying to accomplish more, it was solely so I could take the cool science classes. Third, I was taking a class or two over the summer because my girlfriend (now wife) was an RA and I stayed with her. I figured I might as well take a class while she was working. Finally, my prestigious and well-organized college made a clerical error with my credits in the registrar’s office. My records showed I had less credits than I did, and I never bothered to check because I was lazy and didn’t care. Once again, I stumbled backward into life.
I got a tech job right out of college and I realized my professor was right. This WASN’T what I wanted to do for the next decade. I asked everyone at my job what to do to get ahead in commercial science. They all said to get a Ph.D. When my acceptance letter to a Ph.D. program came in, I thought, “Well… this will be much easier to stomach than a boring job.”
I want to assure anyone reading this. It sounds like I’m arrogant and ungrateful. I was just really lazy and lucky, and just smart enough to pull it off… and probably a little arrogant, and very ungrateful.
I’m not proud of anything I did. Looking back on my life, I want to apologize to all the people that were so frustrated with me because they saw so much wasted potential. I write things out because it gives me perspective and forces me to accept uncomfortable truths. When things are written right in front of you, it’s hard to deny them if they’re true. Writing this is extremely difficult because it makes me remember and deal with a lot of memories and issues I’ve tried to hide. It’s therapeutic for me, and hopefully, people can learn some lessons from my mistakes.
My Ph.D. program was a trainwreck. The research was so easy. The classwork was consuming, but not terrible. The politics were crippling. I was TERRIBLE at politics, and it cost me. I am fairly intelligent in a lot of different ways, but my emotional intelligence was next to zero. I also didn’t put effort into doing things I didn’t want to do science-wise.
I had a bunch of opportunities thrown in front of me, but I threw them away because they didn’t appear fun. I was more than capable of doing so many things, but I just did whatever was easy and fun. Writing this hurts. It’s making me realize how much of an asshole I was to so many people that saw so much potential in me. People offered me things or told me I needed to do things because they believed in me, and I spat in their faces when I decided not to follow up.
Eventually, I broke down. I still remember it. I was in my apartment with my wife. We were in the kitchen and I was complaining about how life wasn’t fair. I got mad and punched the inner part of the door frame where there’s a solid 2X4 right behind the drywall. I didn’t go through the wall because of the 2X4, but I left an imprint of my fist. What an idiot. I was going through life with a horseshoe up my ass, constantly stumbling into good things, and I was complaining that things weren’t working for me. I wasn’t trying to do anything, yet how could I possibly expect to do anything?
Eventually, I realized playing politics was easier than being an asshole, and it was required to graduate. I smiled and agreed with my thesis committee so I could graduate. After I got out of grad school, I struggled to find a job. In retrospect, it was because I was jaded and difficult to like. I also lacked a few key things that would have made me very competitive because I threw away those opportunities in grad school. Once I got a job, it was the same thing. I kind of dug myself into a hole and I refused to get out. I was frustrated and lost. I was good at my job. I got tons of compliments on the science I did. Politically, I could have been better, but people liked working with me because I did so much work and I did it with unyielding quality. I was still lost.