Chasing after the Wind

I was brought up to believe that I am special. I was told that I am unusually smart and gifted. Whether or not this is true, it has given me a deep-seated expectation of myself to do great(ish) things, to achieve a bit more than the average Joe, to stand out from the crowd, to gain recognition.

Most people of course achieve very little that is noteworthy beyond the solid humble everyday victories of a quiet life. I’m sure that most people do not have a sense that this is in any way insufficient. I’m also sure that many of these average achievers have talent and potential far beyond that needed to live a standard life. They just don’t expect of themselves to do any more than the average person. I believe they are by and large content.

The skills and training I have are not much sought after. There is very little professional demand for me. This clashes badly with my grandiose ideas about myself. I achieve things that I am proud of on a small one-man-project scale, but few care, and I gain little recognition. I am frustrated.

So I’m thinking that maybe it isn’t such a good idea to tell your kids they’re anything else than just plain Joe & Jill. Because regardless of how talented (or not) they are, it is clearly possible to live a happy life without standing out in any way. It might be better for the world if every talented person were encouraged to achieve their maximum. We’d get more scientific breakthroughs, more great art and music, more just and competent leaders that way. But it is probably not in general good for people to be thus encouraged, since most will still not achieve much — only feel the expectation to do so. What good does it really do me, for instance, to believe that I should be a university lecturer and head projects involving thirty people?

Think about it. A child of sub-average or average talent will almost certainly not be happier if they grow up to believe that they should be able to accomplish great things. But nor will in most cases a child of above-average talent. Because smart people are a dime a dozen. There isn’t any great demand for them.


  1. #1 Lab Rat
    August 10, 2009

    Slightly relavent quote:

    “At school they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said “Happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the question. I told them they didn’t understand life.”

  2. #2 Martin R
    August 10, 2009

    Excellent! And 100% relevant.

  3. #3 Elena Karadjova
    August 10, 2009

    I love your post, Martin!
    At this stage in life I am facing and struggling with similar dillemas and have more or less reached similar conclusions. The result of this intensive mental effort is a huge professional swerve to match a new mindset.
    As my yoga instructor would put it “Mind has never made anyone happy!” Well, happiness was rarely on the agenda,that is until now.

  4. #4 Martin R
    August 10, 2009

    Professional swerve, yeah… If I ran out of money I’d of course have to abandon archaeology. But it’s feeding me OK, and I do have fun. It’s just not satisfying my ambition.

  5. #5 Elena Karadjova
    August 10, 2009

    Re ambition I found immense comfort in this couple of paragraphs in one of the Obama books:
    “In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlesness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me. It’s a flaw that’s endemic to modern life and one that is nowhere more evident than in politics…..
    (Reflects about politics)
    …I began to harbour doubts about the path I had chosen; I began feeling the way I imagine an actor or an athlete must feel, when, after years of committment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he realizes that he’s gone just about as far as talent or fortune will take him. The dream will not happen, and he now faces the choice of accepting this fact like a grown-up and moving on to more sensible pursuits, or refusing the truth and ending up bitter, quarrelsome, and slightly pathetic.
    Denial, anger, bargaining, despair – I’m not sure I went through all the stages prescribed by the experts. At some point, though, I arrived at acceptance – of my limits and in a way my mortality. I refocused on my work in the state senate and took satisfaction from the reforms and initiatives that my position afforded. I spent more time at home, and watched my daughters grow, and properly cherished my wife, and thought about my long-term financial obligations. I exercised, and read novels, and came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part.
    And it was this acceptance, I think, that allowed me to come up with the thoroughly cockeyed idea of running for the US Senate. An up-or -out strategy was how I described it to my wife, one last shot to test out my ideas before I settled into a calmer, more stable and better-paying existence.I let her take comfort in the long odds against me…
    (Decribes obstacles)
    I didn’t care. Freed from worry by low expectations, my credibility bolstered by several helpful endorsements, I threw myself into the race with an energy and joy that I’d thought I had lost.
    (Wins Senate seat and subsequently joins the presidential race)

  6. #6 Dave X
    August 10, 2009

    While growing up, my above-average potential starkly contrasted with both of my siblings’ lower than average potential (severe birth defects and not expected to live beyond months, 2 years, adolescence, mental retardation, continuing physical problems, etc…). At an early age this made me think that the world ultimately does not care what happens to anyone, no matter what level their talents, so striving to be happy with what you do well seems like the wisest course.

  7. #7 dveej
    August 10, 2009

    I know, you’ve heard this from me before, but: University lecturers, by and large, just are not happy. The majority of academic departments are nasty places to work in, full of these unfulfilled smart people you are posting about – except THESE unfulfilled smart people channeled their smarts into succeeding at the backbiting politics of departmental jockeying for power and prestige.

    Take an informal survey of people working in universities – I’m sure you know a few – ask them if they like their job and if they’d rather be doing something else.
    The results might surprise you, and might give you second thoughts about your dream of being a uni lecturer.

  8. #8 DianaGainer
    August 10, 2009

    As a failed uni lecturer whose parents expected more & better, I empathize. On the other hand, you’re doing what you enjoy & paying the bills. Not bad! Most folks I know are doing what they hate in order to pay the bills, doing what they like on the side or not at all.
    As a momma, I told my kids they were special not because of what they might achieve some day, but because I loved ’em. I’d rather they were happy, actually, than rich & famous.

  9. #9 Art
    August 10, 2009

    In my experience many of those who have been brought up being told they are special end up taking short cuts, cheating, and focusing on looking good instead of being good.

  10. #10 Martin R
    August 10, 2009

    Dveej, I’m not that picky, you’re very welcome to employ me as a finds specialist or managing editor of some pop-sci mag or web site.

    Diana, I wasn’t told that my achievements were a condition for anyone’s love. I was just secure in the idea that I was ace. And I’m not all that bad at what I do, actually. It’s just that nobody really wants me to do it.

  11. #11 Malin
    August 10, 2009

    On the other hand, being secure in the knowledge that you are smart and capable can help you do great things just becuase you do not *know* or stop to consider all the ways you can fail. I’ve also grown up “secure in the idea that I was ace”. And strongly suspect that because of this I’ve done better – on many occasions outside my core competencies and experience – than I would do otherwise.

    The thing is, *just* being ace will usually not help you enough to succeed in research. Luck — a suitable grant or position at a suitable time, the right reviewer or editor, the right review committee — and politics are needed as well. And a sound helping of sheer bloodminded persistence and the ability to work well also when stressed, ill or tired.

    My solution is branching out. For a limited time, do something else; start a new project/job, a blog, a book, (re)start singing in a choir, get a lead role in a theater play, sew a dress for a (male) friend or for yourself. And so on. I’ve done all of that and more during my PhD years, to keep sane and to keep my mind sharp during duller periods. But it is necessary to kill your darlings, for more than one side project at a time is not really viable … 🙂

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    August 11, 2009

    If you look around you, do you really believe that average people are happy? Many are cruel and small minded. They fill the emptiness in their lives with material possessions, food, drugs and/or sex. The world is not a bad place, but it is filled with a lot of misery and unhappy people even in situations of wealth and affluence. Even crazier is that for most folks they have to have a dog they can beat. Someone or some group that is the pariah group and if they get in power, that person or those people will pay dearly simply for some small insignificant difference. Frequently, although are totally without responsibility or control of the situation they will be led to believe it is their own doing that brought them to their negative straits. Personally, I don’t think it is so important that you tell a child they are special or unique. Ironically, what I’ve read indicates that dysfunction isn’t related to self esteem. High or low doesn’t matter…you can still be criminal or altruist. I think you have to find what makes you happy and use your talents in that area. Being special aside, or receiving accolades, awards or popularity is completely irrelevant, it is utilizing yourself, as a human being to the fullest extent you can, and hopefully helping others, or otherwise making the world a better place. Further, being told you are special isn’t what a kid needs to here. Being told to try and persevere is. The Little Engine that could, baby! i think i can…I think I can…I THINK I CAN…I THINK I CAN…Good luck Martin, ennui, slight depression can hit anyone…I hope you’re better tomorrow.

  13. #13 Jonathan Jarrett
    August 11, 2009

    I have some sympathy with what you say here, Martin, as must any aspiring academic, I guess, but I think there is a difference in life cycle stage. I think that during childhood and adolescence believing that you can more or less do anything and there are no constraints on you is probably a source of happiness; believing the opposite breeds resentment and feelings of inferiority. On the other hand, when you meet the real world and find out that the cake is a lie, it all grinds to a halt rather. Would you rather have your complexes now, with you having been determined enough to become good at something however unpopular and done something, perhaps, that only you could do—Camus would approve—or would you rather have been sullenly resentful of those with privilege and power all along and convinced you could never join them or do anything special?

    I think if there’s a middle road it must be in believing you are better than average but not the best. Unfortunately that’s roughly what I think and I wouldn’t call myself happy.

  14. #14 Martin R
    August 11, 2009

    Jon, I do call myself happy, but not satisfied. And above I am considering the Buddhist notion that if you are troubled by an unfulfilled wish, then the trick is to get rid of the wish.

  15. #15 Charlotte
    August 11, 2009

    I know that I’m special (and arrogant, but that’s beside the point). There just aren’t many people who can do maths as well as I can, which has opened up a whole load of opportunities for me. The thing is, the paths I had to choose from went in different directions – some would have been easier than others, some paid better, some involved long working hours. What is it that you want, Martin? You say you’re happy, you have a job that you enjoy and that feeds you and your family, you get a reasonable amount of free time, you presumably get a degree of recogniton for the work you do since you’re on the editorial board of a journal. And your blog readers love you, of course.

    Or, to turn it around, what more would satisfaction give you? What if you’d been satisfied with what you had the whole way through your life – settled for mediocre grades, for the job that was easy to get? I’m not a big fan of satisfaction. Teach your children to use whatever gifts they have, to strive for whatever they want out of life, whether that’s a job doing what they love, changing the world, or, um, making shedloads of money.

    (If my posts sound smug atm, it’s because I’ve been given a small grant for the archaeological science course I’m starting next year. Not that it’s any guarantee of success further down the academic line, but it means I won’t have to live off boiled boots and turnip.)

  16. #16 Martin R
    August 11, 2009

    Congratulations on the grant, Charlotte!

    You ask me what I want. I want to be put at the wheel of something big. It’s demoralising in the long run when your spouse is the only person in the world who cares whether or not you get out of bed in the mornings.

  17. #17 JSB
    August 12, 2009

    I’m afraid you can’t see the forest for the trees. You are doing great things. More than average Joes. You get to indulge your passions and occasionally get paid for them! So what if you are not lecturing at a University? You are teaching people through your blog. You have an audience of eager minds who want to know more about what you can teach us. You likely have more readers here than you would have students. If you were at a university you’d probably have to teach Archaeology 101 to people who don’t have a passion for the subject. Here you have a host of people who care about your work and if you get up in the morning. So write up the lectures you would like to give university students and give them to us. You don’t need a university to be an educator, if that’s what you want. You have the bully pulpit. Use it!

  18. #18 Kevin
    August 12, 2009

    Hey Martin sorry I am late, I’ve been thinking the same kinds of thoughts too.

    Smart kids not only enter adult life with the expectation that they succed, they expect to succeed using the same methods that brought success as kids. Childhood is a game with set rules, monitored by adult judges. Few such rules or judges exist in adult life, and success often comes to those who willingly transgress those boundaries that do exist with little concern for the approbation of others.

    An example, just for fun: your blogging already shows a populist bent, and you have an engaging personality. What if you borrowed some techniques from the pseudoarchaeologists you rail against here, sensationalized your finds, adopted controversial theories and actively sought media attention? Go thrashing around in Uppsala looking for the stump of Yggdrasil or something, wear a fedora, contract with the Discovery channel for a special. Your academic colleagues would be repulsed, but it’d probably bring you closer to success as you define it than churning out articles, fascinating though I find them. And you certainly wouldn’t be the first academic to have taken this route.

  19. #19 Martin R
    August 12, 2009

    Thanks JSB, that’s so kind of you!

    Kevin, could you perhaps put me in contact (discreetly) with someone who can teach me to make crop circles?

  20. #20 Justin
    August 12, 2009

    You are an internationally famous archaeologist. I would say that is a pretty big achievement. One of my classmates recently did a research project/presentation on a sight you excavated even.

    As for not telling children that they are special to avoid their desire to be special goes, I’m not sure how well that will work. I don’t remember ever being told that I was special or that I should achieve anything particularly great (in fact I remember being told pretty much the opposite), but I still feel the same way you do. I think above average people with any self-esteem feel above average and a desire to accomplish great things no mater what they are told.

  21. #21 Wife
    August 12, 2009

    Interestingly, none of the commentators here identifies him- or herself as average. I wonder if the average person does.

  22. #22 Martin R
    August 13, 2009

    I didn’t mention any “average people” in the general abstract sense. I’m discussing levels of talent and achievement specifically. I don’t know how most of the commenters gauge themselves on those scales.

  23. #23 Italo M. R. Guedes
    August 13, 2009

    Martin, I completely empathize with your words, I feel the same kind of frustration, sometimes. But on the other hand, you are successful. Hey, I’m in the backlands of Brazil, as far from Sweden as it is possible, but when I try to remember the name of an archaeologist, only two com to my mind, yours and Indiana’s.

  24. #24 Martin R
    August 13, 2009

    Thanks, man. (-;

  25. #25 Mike Olson
    August 13, 2009

    Here in the U.S. average people very strongly identify themselves as average. At times there is a pretty strong social pull to keep people not just from thinking too much of themselves, but to convince them to take average jobs. Martin, to be fair, I know this is an odd question, but being in part of Swedish ancestry I’ve read a bit about the culture and a couple of things really stuck out at me. 1) That as a nation Swedes tend to be reserved and non-interfering in the business of others. 2) That self-seeking, self-aggrandizing or self promoting behavior was seen in a strongly negative fashion(something many Americans are great at). 3. On a slightly different note a concept called, “logom” tended to hold sway when it came to wealth or resources. The indication was that this term meant, “just enough,” and had to do with the notion of group sharing. Just thoughts that occur when I read the posts…thanx.

  26. #26 Mattias
    August 13, 2009

    In reply to ‘Wife’:s (is that Y-S, the better half?) point, I consider myself an average person (whatever that means, but I seem to function, think and act in ways similar to most people I have met). I also suspect (and partly recall) that I had a rather typical Swedish Jante up-bringing. The ethos of Jante is often criticised, but I have nothing to object to a rule like “you shall not think yourself better than anyone else”. In fact I consider it imperative not to regard oneself special or unique, because that tends to inhibit one socially, spiritually and cognitively. I find having the lowest possible expectations a good recipy against disappointment and anger (both these sentiments seem to come from having unreasonable expections). NB: this does not entail low ambition. If you wish to succeed you must be diligent and not rely on what Aquinas calls ‘one’s own power’. Ora et labora! 🙂

  27. #27 Martin R
    August 13, 2009

    Mike, I sometimes try to blame my personality on two formative years spent in the U.S. But it doesn’t really add up, because I’m just like my dad and he grew up in Sweden.

    Mattias, I should on one hand be diligent, on the other not self-reliant? I suppose you’re referring to divine support?

    As for you being an average person, one of us did his PhD before age 30 and became head of a major state archive, and it sure ain’t me. (-;

  28. #28 Mike Olson
    August 13, 2009

    I appreciate the feedback from both of you. It had been a while since I had read about Scandanavian culture and had to go back and look up, “Jante-upbrining.” The source I went to had a reference to a literary listing of ten commandments. When I originally read those “rules” a couple of years ago they reminded me very strongly of the mores-unspoken rules-found in most midwestern American communities. *Mattias,* makes some good points about humility and expectations, but personally, I don’t see anything wrong with a realistic assement of one’s own skills attributes both positive and negative. I also think that having realistic expectations is a reasonable thing to do. I tend towards optimism, but have learned pessimism.

  29. #29 Mattias
    August 13, 2009

    Martin: not being exclusively self-reliant need not involve a transcendental perspective. I myself have very good experience from relying on other people. This is initially scary, but makes an eventual achievement much more pleasant, and leads to people relying more on you in turn. I also, as you suggest, rely ultimately on a transcendent entity, but that is another – related but distinct – matter. I still claim to be average, however, my achievements being the result of hard work and passion (isn’t it funny that ‘patience’ and ‘passion’ is derived from the same word (“pati”: to suffer)?

    Mike: I agree that aiming for a critically evaluated view of oneself’s strenghts and weaknesses is a good idea. But also here you need to rely on other people, or your own evaluation might go astray.

  30. #30 Mike Olson
    August 13, 2009

    Mattias: I appreciate the etymology. With a greater understanding of that, it becomes easier to build one’s own vocabulary, as well as, in some instances to more easily understand foreign languages. Further, I’d agree with your notions regarding self-evaluation. However, when relying on others for evaluation, those evaluations can largely be colored by the perceptions and experiences of the evaluator. I tend to agree strongly with the notion that although we are all inter-dependant(the concept of “logom” and the history I’ve read of that concept are a good example/analogy of that)the only perspective and experience we can truly understand is our own. When we start judging others we are attempting to inflict our own experiences on to them and this can create huge problems. Obviously when others can be harmed this is necessary, but in many instances that it occurs it is hugely unnecessary.

  31. #31 Mattias
    August 14, 2009

    I agree, Mike, that we can only fully understand our own judgement (if that). This is also a guide to dealing with other people’s judgements. When facing criticism, for example, we have to distinguish between that which corresponds with our own inner doubts (and thereby concerns prinicipally ourselves) and that which mainly has to do with other persons defining themselves. As I said, leaving parts of my life in the hands of others, instead of going on ‘own strenght’, has given me a compass to balance my ambitions (if you ask: for whom am I doing this, you may find that neither yourself, nor anyone around you have the expections and ambitions that you first saw as unavoidable).

    Martin: Don’t underestimate your scholarly achievements so far – knowing more than anyone else about Barshalder is perhaps not something that brings fame and fortune, but it is a contribution to your field on which future research will build and I don’t think that is something you will regret on your deathbed. Furthermore, by questioning ephemeral academic trends, you have shown that you are no mere Streber and that your interest is genuine (which is, as we know, not always the case with scholars today). Some of the best research has always been carried out by gentleman-scholars.

  32. #32 Martin R
    August 14, 2009

    Haha, Mattias, I certainly don’t underestimate my achievements so far. If anything, I overestimate them since I have this persistent feeling that I should be commanding a sizeable budget and staff by now.

  33. #33 Mattias
    August 14, 2009

    I see what you mean Martin – as you are well aware, getting university positions involve many factors of arbitrariness: being available when a position is advertised, getting the right ‘sakkunnig’-referee (and the mood for the day of that person), &c. Just remember (i) that you could have been offered a position being less merited than you are (ii) you could have been even more merited without being offered a position, due to the above-mentioned factors. If everything else fails, ponder on Beethoven’s words when Felix Radicati and Bernhard Romberg criticised the Razumovsky quartets: “Oh, you see, they are not for you, they are for a later age”. 🙂

  34. #34 Jim Thomerson
    August 19, 2009

    I think it is important to understand yourself and what you wish to accomplish. Then figure out how to accomplish enough to satisfy you under the conditions you have to deal with. The goal is to have fun in such a way that you make reasonable money. Being a professor is one of the best jobs because you have a great deal of say about how you run your professional life. I’m amazed at the number of professors who do not seem to understand this.

  35. #35 Martin R
    August 20, 2009

    figure out how to accomplish enough to satisfy you under the conditions you have to deal with

    Indeed, but that is not an equation with any guaranteed solution. Starting from extreme situations such as having an atomic bomb detonate right over your head, there is a wide spectrum of conditions where satisfaction is impossible given a certain set of expectations. So my idea is that it’s probably better in the great majority of cases to not have high expectations.

  36. #36 Jim Thomerson
    August 25, 2009

    I think one should experience a certain amount of failure (10%?), else one is not getting out to the edge of ones envelope of ability and resources. Makes me feel better about my failures, if nothing else.

  37. #37 Martin R
    August 25, 2009

    So how do you feel about a person never getting the resources needed to test the limits of their abilities?

  38. #38 Jim Thomerson
    August 27, 2009

    Perhaps a person unable to get the resources they think they need has found the limits to their present ability to get resources. OK, if that is reality, how does one cope with it? If one copes, and has fun, and is productive, there is the posibility that reality will become more accomodating. If one sits in the corner and petulantly sucks ones thumb, reality will just get worse.

  39. #39 Martin R
    August 28, 2009

    True, sitting around sulking won’t get a person anywhere.

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