Wednesday, 17 June 2009
If I was jealous of anyone when I was at school, it wasn't the 'cool' kids who were popular and good at sports. They were the ones who were intermittently mean to me for not being like them, but even at that age, I didn't want to be. No, if I could have been someone else (and trust me, with hindsight, I'm glad I wasn't) it would have been one of the children doing maths degrees at age seven, whose stories occasionally cropped up in the papers.
I think it was mostly because they had the luxury of being in a university environment, where everyone wanted to study, rather than at school where it was weird to be one of the few who enjoyed learning stuff. But also, it's partially because my self-definition revolves around being someone who's quick to pick things up, and these stories seemed to describe children who were just a little bit better at being the sort of person I thought I was (but see below).
When I was at the NAACL conference in Colorado the other week, I was listening to one U.S. academic describing a great student he had in one of his classes, who was in his sophomore year (translation? I think it might be 2nd year...) but doing publishable research.
And then it hit me: I'm now officially too old to be precocious.
I've been wondering for a while what it 'means' to be a grown-up, except for the fact that I now enjoy a nice cup of tea or the occasional glass of wine. I don't really feel any different (and that's probably fodder for another post). Yet here is one big difference: I've reached an age and stage of my life where, by default, I'll be assumed to be capable. And for any given activity, there will be someone my age who's been doing it much longer than I have, and therefore done it better.
Being "good for a beginner" is cute when you're a child - you're a beginner at everything at that age. But maybe not such a good look for an adult.
I do see with hindsight that those kids doing maths degrees were actually in the opposite of my natural state; very, very specialised, while I'll never be a great specialist. I thrive on doing a breadth of different things (you may have noticed!), and even though I'm having, in theory, to narrow down my interests for my PhD I haven't really changed. My strongest strength is still in adapting quickly to new stuff and being "surprisingly good for someone who just started" rather than ever getting to the stage of "really good on a world stage". Plus, I get bored very easily!
This is a bit rambly, I know, but I'd appreciate any thoughts. There must be scope in the world for being a breadth-first person... but it certainly doesn't seem to fit with the academic model where you're expected to specialise more as you go on.