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April 29, 2013

The parable of the talents

Everywhere I turn, I find talent. Singers, athletes, intellectuals: all reside at this university, and can, with time and a nose for excellence, be sniffed out. Lo and behold, some people even have more than one talent: meet the lucky sods who are blessed with easy charm, a forehand which cannot be returned by Roger Federer himself, and a world-class brain working on problems for the betterment of all humanity. Good for them.

Of course, when you are at a place like Warwick, each year brings another crop of new geniuses, and you inevitably start to wonder where the university finds them (although I guess it is more the case that they find the university). All this brilliance floating around you: it can provoke some strong feelings. Some appreciate the challenge, and strive to make their work even better. Others react with calm indifference, reasoning that they are doing as well as they can, and that you can hardly bemoan people for their abilities. There are a number, however, who cannot help but feel the pangs of that green-eyed monster, that deadly sin, jealousy, whenever they encounter those who are blessed across the board. All I can say is that I envy the people in the first two groups.

green eyed

  This is a pretty sweet example of a green-eyed monster

This was brought home for me a few weeks back, when I attended REXfest, an evening of music and chatter for postgraduates at the Terrace Bar, which was, I am compelled to add, wonderful. But standing in a bar, watching people who not only played the piano and sang with the soulful metre of Elton John, but whom were also casually doing a PhD in Economics on the side (if you were there, you will know exactly whom I mean), well, you cannot help but feel the creeping prickly heat and low-altitude sinking feeling so characteristic of jealousy.

Usually when I see someone performing music, or sport, or just living with serious aplomb, at levels of which I, a confused and disoriented young person, can only dream, I console myself with the knowledge that I am a PhD student, and that no matter how often I burn the pasta or fall over blades of grass, I am at least a postgraduate member of a fine seat of learning. But when I encounter people who not only have the ability to understand particle physics, but also know all the chords to ‘Call Me Maybe’, well, that changes things.

The same goes, of course, for sport. Last year, I flirted with the idea of playing football again. I spent many an hour manically running after a ball in my youth, and recapturing that heady enthusiasm was, I reasoned, a good idea. After dashing around for ten minutes, and subsequently coughing up that cigar I smoked when I was eighteen, I soon encountered a pretty serious problem: I was absolutely and undeniably awful, well below the standards of the others. I would make some glib comment about how I would have been more useful if I had just stood there and acted as a goal-post, but that would be unfair to goal-posts; at least they hit the ball back.

The final straw came when someone very kindly passed me the ball in front of an open goal, and I obliged by standing square on top of it, sending me, rather than the ball, into the top corner. In the process I somehow sprained my ankle, and when I was once again fit, it didn’t take me too long to decide that the next time I strode onto a football pitch, it would be to give some stranger with size nine feet my boots. Of course, I would normally take refuge in the fact that football is not my thing, that would be academia, but all those people who can run for more than ten minutes without losing a lung and who can kick a ball exactly where they are meant to are also revolutionising the fields of healthcare, engineering, and literature.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that some people are very good at what they choose to do in life, and have to take comfort in that, whilst others are exceptional at what they choose to do, and pretty darn brilliant at a few things on the side as well. Frustratingly, they are often also very pleasant, humble people: all the multi-talented geniuses I know are also bloody good company, absolute delights who make the whole PhD experience that bit livelier. Thankfully, these people will probably end up teaching the next generation of bright minds and leading the world of future, while I will be standing on street corners, where I am a threat to no-one, mouthing off about pigeons, who are a threat to everyone.

I guess if there is a lesson in all this, and I am reluctant to be so candid, it is that we must be grateful for what we do have, be it in our heads or in our hands. When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, I must admit that even if the PhD does implode in an explosion of missed opportunities, I will always be a deft hand at washing up tea-spoons…and no-one can take that away from me.

Oh, except dishwashers.

I would generally say that postgraduate students are an honest and open bunch of people, willing to share expertise and experiences. There are, however, some aspects of PG life which are perhaps not discussed with enough candidness, and one of those is the ease with which one can feel jealous of your colleagues. I wonder whether it is easy enough at this stage to sit down with friends, family, and supervisors, and say, “This whole postgraduate thing…well, I seem to find it that little bit more taxing than everyone else.”

Maybe if we were that bit more open about the emotional difficulties of research, we might find that we are not alone, or that our colleagues admire us for qualities to which we have become blind. It is a curiosity of postgraduate life that, while it is at times a deeply solitary and egotistical pursuit, it can also be fundamentally collective, with inspiration and encouragement coming from many quarters. Maybe the final step would be a little more honest admiration, the ability to say to someone, hey, I think you’re a great teacher, or, did you know, you’re an exceptional editor.

So, in this summer term, that’s what I’ll be doing: turning my envy into uplift, converting the doubt inside my head into smiles and handshakes. As a PhD student, I am surrounded by deeply multi-talented people, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling a little envious of me for it.

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