Jan 17, 2022

Finishing my last semester as a part-time student has, not surprisingly, made my daily life a lot easier. I now have more hours in the day than I know what to do with, and it feels… really weird.

Skipping the psychoanalysis, I often do feel an obligation to struggle. There’s this shame I feel if I’m doing things that aren’t challenging, like taking this semester part-time. In previous semesters, I filled up time with research projects. Of course, I didn’t work on the projects for the sake of occupying myself, I did actually want to work on them, but I chose to weight the “busyness” factor very minimally in my decision making process.

I mention this experience mostly as an example for discussing the “Why?” question. Why do I do what I do? Most relevantly, why am I interested in academic research? Am I doing something for reasons that might not make sense, but that I’ve made into a habit? When others ask me why I care about research, I typically answer that I want my life to make a difference in the world. While I’m aware that there are many ways to make such a difference, for whatever reason, I want to make this impact through math research.

Research is really, really hard, though, which makes me inclined to believe that there are more factors driving me to continue struggling despite the “easy money” doors which are luckily open to me. It’s hard to separate, for me, the feelings of struggling and of personal growth. I associate the feeling of struggling with the feeling of growth - I’m rising to the challenge, is what I tell myself. So, when I’m not struggling every day, it feels like I’m not growing in any way. But that’s certinaly not true, right? Although it’s unpleasant to believe, I think fear of stagnation does play a non-trivial role in influencing what I do.

That said, I’m sure there are people who strive for personal growth for the sake of growth. On the other hand, I’m also sure that there are many more people like me who seem to strive for growth due to a fear of the alternative. And now we get to the question of why do I fear the alternative, and is this fear sensible? I have no clue how to answer this.

I feel the urge to say that I should fear the alternative because growth is good, but that’s rather circular. Should I aceept the belief that I can always be better in some way? I would like to. Do I always need to be better, though? What parts of my life will benefit? It has continued to be difficult for me to answer these questions satisfactorily - is this just overthinking? After all, perhaps I should just flip coins for these decisions. But I don’t want to. I don’t think I can stomach the variance of flipping a coin for these decisions because they lead to such wildly different lifestyles (or do they?).

I’ll end with a reminder to not conflate struggling with positive growth. I believe that most things are difficult for a reason. However, choosing to take the difficult path over the lower-energy alternative isn’t always the smart thing to do - there is not always low-hanging fruit on the path less travelled. I think a similar situation we’re all familiar with is the stupid college reputation problem. Not all equilibria are adequate, and many difficult things are difficult because of external factors, not your lack of ability.