What advice would you give to your teenage self? #bloganuary

tldr: Try things out and find out what you’re passionate about. Don’t cling to things you’ve started too much just because you think you need to finish them in some sense. Don’t think you’re stupid or others are better than you, generally try hard not to compare yourself to others.

I am pretty happy with where I am right now and with who I have become, but I think I should have cared less about what other people think of me and be more of myself as a teenager and as a young adult. I could have followed my interests more passionately and be less limited by what I thought other people saw in me, including especially my parents.

I started a degree in physics and I remember that it took only a year or so until I first started having this feeling that I don’t belong there. That the other students are smarter and better suited, better prepared for the job. There was just no passion about the project of studying physics. I think I enrolled for it because my best friend did and because I was good at it at school and I did not have many other ideas. And then I just kept plowing through to prove to myself and others that I can earn the degree.

I must add that I had no idea how professional scientists (physiscists, computer scientists or mathematicians) worked and partially that this job even existed. I was never passionate about physics at school, it was just not that hard to understand at school.

Before enrolling for my degree in physics, I was also thinking about studying computer science briefly during my last year or so at school. But for some reason, I think, I looked down upon the subject, confounding it with mere programming, and might have thought that physics is in some sense superior. I wonder what would have happened had I chosen to go for CS instead. It is quite ironic that I looked down upon another subject while feeling myself absolutely insufficient for studying physics. There’s another piece of advice here: Try hard not to compare yourself to others.

In the end, it all turned out well, I got a decent degree and was able to do a PhD. I felt pretty proud of the fact that I would be able to earn the first PhD in my family’s history (at least for the three generations I knew of). But along the way I had unlearned to look inside me and follow my inner compass.

One year into my PhD, I remember feeling the same feelings again, that had already plagued me early on in my undergraduate life. But again, I did not act on those feelings and just ignored them. Partially, I guess, for a fear of become an unsuccessful, failed existence. This feeling is probably fueled by the way my mother had told me how to live my life. While this sort of attitude certainly has advantages (don’t give up too easily) it also has a certain unhealthy aspect to it in that it does not allow you to listen to your feelings.

In hindsight, it would have done no harm to my life’s trajectory had I quit my PhD and done something else. But I did probably not have a really good idea, partially because studying physics had left so little time for exploring other things.

It is remarkable to me how certain decisions in life feel so important in hindsight. Like choosing a spouse or deciding which degree(s) to pursue. It is also interesting how I have this feeling, looking back, that I should have taken different decisions with respect to what to study (fortunately not with respect to my spouse). I wonder if the magnitude of that feeling is only a function of the person who’s having them, regardless of the decisions the person has taken. Is the wish to have pursued other topics a general personality trait? Or have I really taken suboptimal decisions? I guess I will never know. But I will hopefully continue to be able to encourage my sons to follow their passions and be who they are.

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