A Journal of My Mid-Life Crisis
31 January 1999 - Self-Assessment and the Arrowsmith Syndrome
As part of the ongoing dechaosing of my apartment, I've been going through files and throwing out tons of stuff. One folder I found was labeled "high school records" and there were a couple of interesting things in it.
One of these was my Kuder Interest Profile from May 1975. My best
friend, Debby, was in this intense panic over not knowing what she
wanted to do and this guy who was an intern in the guidance counselor's
office suggested she take this test. She didn't want to do it alone
so I agreed to come along, even though I was positive that I
wanted to study biochemistry and go to medical school and do research in
neurochemistry. (Which shows how much value there is in being sure of
things when you're 16 years old.) Anyway, this test was one of those
where you have to answer questions about which of two things you prefer.
And the results are put into 10 categories. There are percentiles which
tell you how many high school students were less interested in a
particular area than you were. My scores look like this:
I believe that the conclusion was that I should be a radio engineer or something along those lines. I'd say that my interests haven't really changed. I'm less obsessed with music than I was when I was in high school, though I do listen to a very wide range of music and have something playing most of the time when I'm home and fool around some with assorted instruments.
By the way, I don't remember what Debby's profile was at all, though I suspect scientific and computational interest were high on it. I remember that she thought about studying engineering at one time. In one of those turnarounds, while I abandoned medical interest for mechanical engineering (having become fascinated first by some work in biomedical engineering and then falling in love with dynamic systems and controls in my coursework), she got an undergraduate degree in chemistry, went to medical school and is now a cardiologist.
The other interesting thing in that folder was the College Board results report, which had a self-rating on skills, along with the SAT and Achievement test scores. The areas in which I ranked myself in the top 1% of students were math and scientific. I ranked myself in the top 10% in organization of work and in acting. I thought I was above average in creative writing, leadership, music and written expression. I thought I was average in four categories - artistic, athletic, getting along with others and spoken expression. And the only category I ranked myself as below average at was sales. And I didn't rate my mechanical skills at all.
I have to wonder how honest I was being with myself at this. I can't remember ever thinking of myself as anything but hopeless at athletics, though maybe I was giving myself credit for my daily 20 mile bike rides. (And I used to walk the 10 miles home from school every now and then, which was considered an extraordinarily weird thing to do. I'm not sure why I did it, other than to prove to myself that I could.) Did I say I was average at "getting along with others" because I didn't want to think of myself as being unpopular or did I really believe it? And how could I say I was above average at music when I agonized over not being able to sing? Actually, I just realized why I thought that. This was from the fall of 1975 and the era of piano lessons with Johanna, who really did have me believe that I was good at music.
I'd rate myself differently in many things now, I give myself more credit for being able to write, for example. The problem then was that I hadn't let myself find my own voice. I remember my creative writing instructor (and, interestingly, the chemistry teacher who directed school plays) both telling me I had a flair for humor. But I was trying to write either deep psychodrama or gothic horror most of the time. It's really only been in the past several years, mostly because of storytelling, that I've even considered the ability to be funny to be a talent worth cultivating. And, in terms of both written and spoken expression, I work in an environment where both are valued but where a lot of people are not good at them. That has to factor into raising my self-assessment up a notch. The areas where I would downgrade my skills now are athletic (though as much to being out of practice as to natural inability), music (again, lack of practice is a factor; I'd probably put myself as average now) and leadership, mostly because I don't have any clue as to why I thought I was above average at it in the first place. I'd probably rate my mechanical skills as average, too.
My college and grad school files were less interesting. But another thing I found were the final reports from the NSF biochemistry program I went to the summer before my senior year of high school. I was infected with what I now think of as the Arrowsmith syndrome. If you're not familiar with the Sinclair Lewis novel, it's a classic example of the image of self-sacrificing scientist, devoted to his research above all else. And I believed in that ideal. I think most of us at the Program in Biochemistry (PIB) at the Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut in the summer of 1975 did. I remember just odds and ends about that summer. The thing that sticks in my mind the most is that we were all very obsessed with letting everyone realize how hard we worked and how little sleep we got. There was a sofa in the lounge and at one point, near the end of the program, people were exhausted enough to need to nap but not willing to go back to the dorms, so there was a sign-up sheet for the sofa, at an hour at a time. I also remember drinking a lot of the 95% ethanol (mixed with orange juice) to celebrate finishing our project.
The only other thing I really remember about the work is that I learned to tie knots with one hand so I could slip loops of suture thread on the dialysis tubing my project group used in one step of the process of purifying an enzyme from rat liver. I also vaguely remember my aversion to mouth pipette technique, even though it was easier than using the bulbs. One guy in my group got a mouthful of rat liver once, but that was hardly as bad as the girl whose inaccuracy one day in lab class with a pipette full of a radioactively tagged mixture landed her with the nickname of "Hot Lips" for the rest of the summer.
I remember some of the social aspects more, living in the dorm, walking into town to do our laundry and eat lunch out, going on weekend trips to Tanglewood or to visit various colleges and once to New York City to see Equus on Broadway. What bothers me is that I don't really remember many of the people. I looked at the names on these lab reports and I have no mental image at all for one of the guys in my lab group. I must have spent several hours a day working with Michael V. Blackman and I have no idea who he was. There's a joke page in our write-up and it has a dedication that includes "to David and Miriam - shut up!" and I really have absolutely no idea what that means. I know David must be David Kaufman, who I vaguely remember was from Queens and who was the first person I ever met who fenced. But beyond that, it's a blank. I know the dedication of a basketball to Lori Iannucci was because of her refusal to play in the interproject tournaments. As for the other two people in the project group, all I remember is that Bill Maas was very tall and was from rural Vermont and that Avie Santos was from Corpus Christie, Texas. Our research instructor was Martha Tullis who was a student at Harvard and I saw her once of twice in Cambridge my freshman year at M.I. T.. The one thing she told me about college that stuck in my mind was that Harvard was a good place to study because nobody cared if you wore the same blue jeans for an entire week! Our project group apparently nicknamed ourselves "the packrats" and the report has a drawing of a rat with a bunch of equipment parafilmed to its back, and I can sort of remember that we had a thing about hording supplies. But it's all such a blur.
When I reread Arrowsmith a few years ago, I realized that I no longer think that people who devote themselves to their research that way are honorable. Arrowsmith lets his wife die for the sake of his work. That isn't a noble thing at all in my view, despite all of his justification that it's for the higher good. One running argument I've had with Robert is his insistence that his workaholism is necessary if he is to be a scientist. I don't remember when I stopped thinking that it was wrong to want to do things other than research. Most of the way through my higher education I just thought I was lazy for spending time on dance classes and reading novels instead of studying. Now I think that was probably good for me, though some of the non-work in grad school was probably escapism due to depression. Ironically, the modern academic environment would probably be the perfect place for a person like me to get productive and original work done. I have lots of original thoughts but I lose interest once I have the concept worked out in my head. With a steady supply of graduate students to do the detail work, I could do very nicely at research. But I'm not willing to be that sort of exploiter.
Anyway, it was thinking about that summer at PIB that got me off on this subject and now I am wondering what happened to the other people who were there that summer. I do remember getting one followup survey, probably around my junior or senior year of college, and having the impression that almost everyone else had gone into biological sciences. I vaguely think that someone may have been studying architecture. I'm going to have to do some web searching and see what I can find out.
And maybe I can find someone who can fill in the gaps in my memory.
Copyright 1999 Miriam H. Nadel
Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org