English and I – overcoming the second language barrier

English is not my mother tongue. Can I hope to overcome this ‘disability’ and be given a chance to use the language as my tool of the trade?

I imagine with English being a dominant language currently, many find themselves in a similar position. Is there a real barrier? I am going to analyse the practical and psychological factors, starting from the job applicant’s perspective and moving to the language learner’s experience.

Proficiency

The Oxford Languages definition ‘a high degree of skill; expertise’ and the Cambridge Dictionary definition ‘the fact of having the skill and experience for doing something’ are broadly comparable; the former attempts to quantify skill and set a bar for the ‘proficient’ person, and is what people have in mind when they use the word ‘proficient’. I find the latter pragmatic: being good enough to accomplish the task at hand.

When searching for a job, we often find ourselves faced with demands for ‘proficiency’, especially when it comes to using software or language, the latter potentially having the twist of asking for ‘native speaker’. As I do like to provide context for my opinions, let’s first analyse this from the employer’s or recruiter’s position. It is understandable that they would ask for nothing but the best (which is what I assume they had in mind), knowing they are unlikely to find a perfect candidate anyway, but it is not sensible. And it is counterproductive on all sides involved. As mentioned above, proficiency should be about being good enough to do the job. Hoping to find an English language scholar to write promotional material is unlikely to get you results. They are more likely to be writing books or teaching university courses. And neither is the ‘native speaker’ necessarily going to fit the bill. Just because someone was raised on the English language does not guarantee they have the ability to write good quality text. I think providing some detail as to what level of skill the candidate ought to have would be more useful; do you require someone with vast vocabulary, ability to write complex sentences, or who can just write in plain English so that the proofreader doesn’t need to spend more time on the text than the writer?

The right candidate

The problem with having vague, excessively demanding job descriptions is that it might put the right people off applying, or get you, the job advertiser, too many applications altogether. An under-confident person will maybe give up on applying when faced with an employment litany. The over-confident or past caring will apply anyway. And this leads us to the psychological factor relevant to all jobs, even the recruiter’s: what you can do vs what you think you can do.

Most people have a good ability to learn. It seems unlikely to me that any job will leave you perfectly prepared for the next. On the first day on the job you are ‘shown the ropes’, introduced to the idiosyncrasies of the place, and told what it is exactly you are expected to do. You learn. And you probably will find you can do the job and that what you learnt previously is only relevant incidentally. You become proficient at doing this exact job, because you don’t have a choice. You are either good enough to stay, or you will probably have to leave. But you can only find out if you applied, were offered a chance, and gave it a try. Otherwise said, if you and the employer had the right mentality.

My experience

I started learning English sometime before the age of 10. I quite enjoyed it initially since someone drawing a duck and telling you ‘duck’ is quite fun when you are that age. After having a few private teachers set up the basics, I ended up in a school with lots of English classes. Having for the most part been useless in school, and faced with a boring and perhaps too challenging English language education (grammar!), I lost interest. For the next 6-8 years I made negligible progress compared to what I could have achieved. I learnt English from TV and the internet.

Because I wasn’t actually a complete moron, and some things worked out, I ended up applying for universities in the UK, for which I had to take an English language test. Following a month of study with the help of a tutor, I passed the test, and eventually ended up studying in the UK. And I guess I have been improving my English ever since.

How do I rate? Well, I guess I’m alright. I am sure there is plenty of room for improvement, and I am working on it, but can I assess myself? And going back to the point discussed earlier, assess myself using what standard?

The gap

So here is my list of to-dos, with the added perspective of the foreign vs native language learner:

  • Improve knowledge of informal language. This is perhaps the hardest to do. Because much of this vocabulary is only heard, and rarely written, it can be hard to get enough exposure to it. This, I believe, doesn’t have to do just with the amount of social interaction you have; the spoken language varies among regions, times, and depends on the speaker’s preference. This is in contrast to the formal language which changes more slowly and is heavily edited in publications. For the foreign learner, I am afraid it is down to having time and good memory: being exposed to the language and wanting, and being able, to remember it. The native speaker has the advantage.
  • Write without grammar and punctuation mistakes. Control of these two interdependent features of the language is something the professional writer should indeed have. Is anything perfect? No, but I assume an editor will expect to find less than a handful of mistakes in a book. This is my idea of how publishing works. For the foreign learner, just like the native, study is the solution. I don’t think there is an intrinsic advantage here for the native speaker: grammar is not studied everywhere.
  • Improve spelling and pronunciation. These two form another pair, but making mistakes with the latter is more easily forgiven. Some variation is expected in pronunciation (i.e. accent), but none is tolerated in spelling. The American/British spelling situation does not make for an example in tolerance, and it surely confuses the foreign speaker of English. Having a good memory helps with both skills, either by allowing for enough examples to be learnt to make pattern recognition feasible, or by learning common rules. What I find more useful for a foreign learner is studying phonetics. Having a basic knowledge and being able to read phonetic spelling for dictionary entries does wonders for your progress towards listening and spelling like an (educated) native. I only have basic knowledge, but I have found it useful and very rewarding. It goes miles towards dispelling the myths about the chaotic English language. The native speakers have an advantage, which they can grow through study.
  • Expand vocabulary. I guess this is the complementary entry to the first in the list; I am using it to talk about formal language. This is just down to memory and probably the volume of reading one goes through. Any advantage on the native’s side comes really in the form of time and education.

You might have noticed this covers most aspects of language learning. A language, not just English, is vast. You can keep learning for as long as you want.

The Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, the native speaker does hold an advantage when it comes to language. If during a lifelong ‘race’ both native and foreign learner put equal amounts of effort in, they will find themselves closer and closer together the longer they ‘race’ for, with the native holding a shrinking advantage. But does it matter for job prospects? I would like to believe it doesn’t. The problem with answering the question is, in fact, one of general relevance. How can an employer know the candidate is any good without hiring them?

Insidious burnout

I feel awful. I guess I could blame it on the ‘burnout’. Here is a three-point analysis for this term, according to my own experience.

  1. Defining characteristic. Confusion. I want to do so much. I have plenty of ideas; I start some of them, many I don’t. I lose focus: the ideas I have started, I don’t want to finish because I can’t decide if they are better than the ones I ignored in the first place. I am the headless chicken version of the compulsive multitasker.
  2. Onset. Insidious. Like an attack coming in waves, some of which get fended off, burnout sets in, winning the battle by attrition.
  3. Prognosis. Bleak. I know well enough from having spent years in this state. Rest doesn’t fix it. I can’t rest, the thought of how to sort things out keeping me up at night, distracting me during the day.

I now understand the mantra: ‘Ignorance is bliss’. It is not an option for me.

The Social Media Divide

The current social media age offers professional and amateur content creators opportunities for publishing and promotion that were just inexistent before. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of creating a community around shared opportunity, it divides us into consumers and producers. Why?

Over the past couple of months, I investigated using social media to promote my work, gauge what, if anything I made had any potential, and hopefully find my way towards becoming a content creator. I did not know how to use these platforms, some of them were completely new to me and others I had only minimal experience with from previous times I had experimented. I was in fact averse to much of what makes social media: showing off, throwing your two cents in the pot, and engaging in conversation with strangers, or worse, with people you know. I took to doing these things out of necessity.

I have not been all that successful so far due to a number of reasons: content quality (I am learning!), lack of social media skills (I can see why this can be someone’s job!), and the experimental nature of my content, otherwise said lacking consistency. People like consistency; the key to building an audience is to offer them the same things they like again and again.

And this brings me to what I see as the failure in social media’s mission of bringing us together. I am not naive, business is business. Those algorithms need running to ensure everyone gets what they want. However, I want to look at this from the user’s perspective. People settle into two roles: consumer and producer, and thus work against themselves.

The Consumer Perspective: We all have spent minutes or hours scrolling, sight out of focus, mind gone somewhere else, hoping to find.. what? This is why social media is addictive. I have experienced it myself. The brain gets satiated quickly, but we crave more and more and embark on a pointless quest: having more of the good stuff is not going to give us more of a kick. That’s how our biological brain is wired. Falling into this trap turns us into the consumer: we seek quantity, not quality, and forget that there is other kind of content out there. In this stupor it is hard to imagine how we could find it since we are so used to being fed (that’s what feeds are for, right?) what we like. Not all population using social media would have wanted to engage in sharing their own content. But for those who did, being bombarded with cherry-picked content makes them quit before even trying. ‘Why should I post when no one is going to like it?’ And unfortunately, the state of numbness the scrolling population finds itself in makes this prophecy come true. We don’t like (let alone comment on, or share) anything that is not superlative: massive achievement, big names, professional quality production. The average consumer, especially if not having any experience in production, forgets that such achievement is rare and such production quality is beyond the resources of the majority of the user base.

The Producer Perspective: In order to succeed, the producer hasn’t got much of a choice in terms of how to operate. All that I have described so far constrains the successful content creator to produce content according to a recipe they have had validated by the crowd, and at such a rate that creativity, and perhaps even quality, has to be thrown out the window. This brings further damage to originality: the recipe would have been validated by a crowd that was trained to crave more of what they already liked. New content will have to contort itself in ways that allow successful box-ticking. Things are even worse for the aspiring content creator. Unless they have bypassed their development period and jumped straight to being successful, they don’t have much of a chance. And that is a shame. Finally, if the producer has to spend all their time making content, they will not care to see what anyone else is doing, they won’t bother interacting. This further deepens the divide: the successful producer places themselves on a pedestal and the consumer becomes further alienated. One might say, it is not reasonable to expect someone with 1000 comments to reply to each one. No, but they can skim through them and give a public answer addressing the feeling. Social media is based on the concept of ‘following’. I feel it should be a responsibility of the successful ones to follow back to support creating a community. This one, I agree, can be trickier in practice. One might not want to follow back a follower without seeing what they are about: eg. not support someone with questionable values. And asking someone to check out each one of their thousands of new followers is too much..

But then my question is: Do they check out followers just to block the ones that don’t conform? I highly doubt it. So then, maybe the ‘Follow back automatically’ button would only cause trouble to the algorithms..

How Should Scientists Look at Art?

Ever since the days of me vaguely paying attention in school to literature studies I carried around the simplistic view of scientists being apollonians and artists being dionysians. Not to say that this was expressly taught, but having been presented with an aggrandised view on the virtues of knowledge by the power of metaphor, I proceeded to (mis)understand and retreat into my sand castle of scientific study. The Apollonian and Dionysian are in fact collections of fundamental traits in humans, and therefore found in members residing on either side of the science/art divide, and contrary to what a keen highschool teacher might have suggested, imply in no way one being better than the other.

On my journey of crossing from the science to the art side, I wanted to understand why would the proponent of one be often against, or at least ignorant about, the other? Having highlighted above that one’s nature does not direct one way or the other, I need to find another strategy for analysing this problem.

I would like to reference an analysis carried out by professional musician Adam Neely in his episode on ‘What does music mean?’, where he reviewed relevant historical background and then concluded in his eloquent and dizzying way that, in spite of music not meaning anything, it results from the power of metaphor to transform the physical basis of music.

I am going to take creative writing and the visual arts of painting and drawing to subject them to the same analysis involving the physical basis and the means of eliciting consumer response. I think the issue of message is fundamental to consider for understanding the scientists’ apprehension towards these arts, and I will include it as well. Scientific knowledge values the terse argument, the communication of immediate and comprehensive information on the topic under discussion. Failing to obtain this cognitive gratification, scientists divert attention and worse, sometimes, as the public in general tend to, develop a derogatory attitude towards art.

  1. Creative writing. I don’t think there is a physical basis here. Unlike music, which can be experienced through the recognition of sound, with the exception perhaps of musicians’ ability to hear music while reading sheet music, writing is only a surrogate for speech. It records auditory information in a visual fashion. As far as eliciting response goes, I don’t think creative writing is limited to the use of trope, because unlike scientific writing, it leverages the value of the body of writing. By stripping text of any superfluous content, all possibility for it to contain meaning beyond the explicit is removed and it thus becomes just a ‘skeleton’ of writing. Furthermore, I think well-written text offers the opportunity for vicarious enjoyment of existence: you become immersed in the action and briefly, and in a limited fashion, you live inside the writing. So, next time you are reading a book and are exasperated by the author describing the colour of the sky, remember these two things: you don’t have to try to assign meaning to the colour and if the author had failed to include enough detail to create a world, you would have been reading an instruction manual.
  2. Painting and drawing. The physical basis is the obvious use of colour and tone to record an image, which we can see because of the interaction of light with matter. There is no obligation on the author’s or artwork’s part to convey meaning: art can have purely decorative purpose. What matters is that by making clever use of visual elements, the artist manages to elicit a response from the brain of the viewer and its hardwired image recognition mechanisms: light/dark contrast, bright colours for food, dark colours for the unknown, smooth/ragged shapes for comfort/discomfort, etc. Use of symbols and visual metaphor in an attempt to convey more sophisticated information is optional, and would make use of the image recognition the viewer has learnt, rather than inherited.

Having argued my way through the fact that scientists and artists are people, and that art doesn’t have to have a meaning for it to be appreciated, I can now answer the title question: There is no way for you to look at art. Just look at it! And if you don’t feel anything, don’t believe that no one else will, or that another piece of art will not bring you to feel something.

A comparative study on choosing a painting medium

The ‘triptych’ I’ve used as the cover image presents the three works I’ve made around the idea of ‘Madness’. Besides covering my experience as a beginner artist working with these mediums and discussing the results, I also want to share my thoughts on the meaning and composition of this work. I have touched previously in my article on ‘The Value of Art‘ on the frustration artists feel not having their work understood and appreciated. I want to address this simply by explaining my own art. It seems sensible that the person best equipped to provide such commentary is the author themselves. My feeling is contemporary artists are inclined towards ignoring the issue of explaining, or altogether refuse to comment when asked to. Conversely, all art deserves a bit of attention, and commentary should not be reserved for museum masterpieces having their descriptions written by art historians. It is all about making art accessible.

Before doing any painting, I spent a lot of time working on drawing the linework for a template. I don’t have such great ability with portraits, and I wanted the model to be consistent so I could explore colours and effects. The idea behind the composition is simple. Madness is our mind turned against us, disconnected from ourselves, blown out of proportion and alien. That is why the body is seen from the back, disconnected from the massive head looking down onto it.

‘Madness’ – Ink wash on watercolour paper

For the first version I painted using ink: an ink wash. I am thankful for my art class teacher having taught this. I used black writing ink, which I found worked just fine, and I quite liked the hues developed by the ink separating as it ran in and on the paper. If you want to see more on this, here is a Youtube video of me playing with markers and paper chromatography. Working in black and white was a good way to explore giving the face and body features through the use of light and shadow. I then used this as a further model to develop the series. My scientist training was showing itself off in the experiment design. I left the background white to ensure I had contrast.

‘Madness’ – oil pastels on watercolour paper

I then moved on to using oil pastels (which I had never used before) to explore some colours. I wanted plenty of strong contrasts and intense colours to support the theme of the work. If you want to do some quick exploration on colours, this is the medium, out of the ones I have worked with, that I would recommend. It is so easy, and so bold, and I only used some beginner grade materials. The yellow body gets lost in the sea of orange, which contrasts with the light blue of the upper background, again indicating separation. The peachy, fleshy tone of the head, perhaps not miles away in colour from the body, stands out on the bright blue background. I chose the bright green/brown combination for the eyes, both because mixing these pastels is not easy unless you have a broad space on your support and I didn’t have many colours, and because I wanted to bring the added touch of uncanny to the face of madness.

‘Madness’ – oil paint on paper primed with acrylic gesso

Finally, I moved to using oil paints. Using this medium I was able to return to working on the more intricate construction of shading (failures all mine, not the medium’s), as I had done using the ink wash, and continued exploring colours. A striking, gaudy mix of colours was what I was after. Right now while writing this, I like it. I feel it’s better than the oil pastel version. My opinion varies. Working in oil, I had the option of adding brush marks for texture in the background. The circular ones around the body are an experiment abandoned. I liked them, then changed my mind, but didn’t do anything about it. Boredom installed. They build on the idea of separating self from madness, but not really going places. I found building the face in this dark, intense colour really hard, made more challenging by the sheen of the oils under uneven artificial lighting. I started by applying a coat of the base colour, then added white or black, and did most of the mixing on the painting. Perhaps, this is what caused the trouble; I worked the other way round to how I had done for the ink wash, when I built the colour gradually using mostly heavily diluted ink. I added the extra detail of making the pupils the same yellow as the background under the face to indicate the emptiness of madness: it lies, distorts, appears massive and believable, but there is no substance to it. It is a mask.

What have I learnt? If there is an idea you want to put out, it might be worth exploring different mediums, especially if you are a beginner like me. If you also get easily bored, like I do, it can be a difficult experiment. The only downside I find to using oils, as far as the artwork is concerned, is how long they take to dry. They mostly don’t and you have to work around that. That is why I have separately explored acrylics. I will write about that in the future. I think the ink or the oils could be used to produce finished works even by unskilled hands like mine. The oil pastels however are just too rough for that, they might be limited to making sketches.

And yes, I am aware none of the faces have eyelashes. For the tonal work, I have no excuse really. I could have drawn them in, but assumed they wouldn’t show up in the photo anyway. Lesson learnt. With pastels, I guess I could have scratched them in there, if I had used a coloured paper. With oils, same, or I could have waited for the eyes to dry, and then painted them over. And if you think it’s weird I did all this, just to then cut corners on the details, read my article on “Analysing the ‘It’s good enough‘ mentality” for clarification.

Three Chemical Elements Not Getting the Recognition They Deserve in Organic Chemistry

A while back, I made the poster featured as the cover image to improve my vector graphics skills, to subdue feelings of shame acquired during my student years for never making a good enough poster, and to reminisce on my days as a synthetic organic chemist. After reviewing the periodic table and thinking of all the important uses for each element, I realised that some elements get a lot more use than predicted and a lot less credit for how important they are. Some organic chemists play the game of having a periodic table around and crossing off elements after having used them at least once. In the process, they don’t even bother with some of the common ones. Here is my top 3.

  1. Deuterium. Being an isotope of hydrogen, it technically doesn’t need referencing as an individual element. It is the same element, but due to hydrogen being tiny in the first place, deuterium gets a chance owing to its being significantly heavier. I had almost forgotten it off the list, before I remembered that in organic chemistry running an NMR is a must, and for that we needed deuterated solvents. I think the reason it doesn’t get the love it deserves is for being useful precisely as a ‘ghost’ element. With the exception of deuterium labelling studies, when people go searching for it, it gets blamed for being expensive, potentially hard to introduce where you want it, not occuring naturally in compounds due to its low abundance, and just not doing anything chemically its little (or big?) brother hydrogen cannot. A chemistry degree will teach you this is not quite true. But I have to make its case, just so that those lab chemists give it a spot next to the ‘firstborn’ sibling hydrogen.
  2. Manganese. Whether you’re into posh catalysis or not, give this one some love. You probably rely on it almost exclusively for doing the dirty work of staining your TLCs. Cross it off. And think of it before going to bed. I am giving it second place, even though I am more of a PMA person.
  3. Argon. A noble gas, it gets used almost exclusively to fill up flasks when air or nitrogen won’t cut it. Lots of chemists depend on it, invoke the ‘magic’ properties of blanketing it has, but ignore it after all. The chemists who actually use it for chemistry..I don’t know. Such a rare breed, I can’t say anything about them. So make sure you give argon a thumbs up and a cross off the table.

Why Chemistry is a Weird Career Choice

If you have not studied chemistry past the secondary school/high school level, or if you have, but have been unfortunate enough to follow a bad curriculum with a bad teacher, chances are you probably misunderstand what modern chemistry is like. No need to feel bad; I myself don’t really know what physicist do nowadays. We all are a bit ignorant.

Why is chemistry a particularly troublesome science to explain briefly? That is because of its very broad nature. Before interdisciplinarity was a thing, chemistry was riding that wave, because it had no other choice. The stereotype involving the chemist mixing solutions using test tubes or having some green solution bubble around a statement glassware setup (just as entertainment venues use statement lighting, chemists occasionally use such setups, fail, and then avoid them like the plague) is rooted somewhat in the long distant past involving alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, but mostly in the early development of chemistry as a true science, starting about 250 years ago. Great chemists discovered the elements and their combinations, invented the statement glassware, because they had to, and step by step laid the foundation of our current understanding of the world, and life in particular, as a chemical problem. But in order to do so, chemistry had to bridge the gap between physics and its concern with the particular and biology and its concern with the general. Put it differently, physics gave us the atom, biology gave us evolution theory, and chemistry had to figure out how atoms make up living creatures.

And this historical metaphor sets the precept of chemistry as fundamentally empirical: trapped between seeing and imagining, the chemist just had to try it out. And that is what chemistry is all about. Trying it out. If this is what attracts you to chemistry in the first place, before you understand much of what is going on, then you are a chemist at heart.

Why is pursuing a chemistry career in modern times a weird choice then? It has to do with money. It always does. And I don’t mean average pay, but the cost of research. Research is expensive. And the body paying for research, unlikely to be an individual, will want to see what they are getting for their money. Which means, that unless your ‘trying it out’ is contributing towards solving a commercially relevant problem, it will probably be scrapped for a different approach. Pretty much everything is ‘commercially relevant’ in one way or another. No need for us to get disgusted at the idea that money makes the world work. Thank Science! that scientific research is on the expenditure list. Humanity needs it! But the drawback is that the resulting pressure can be uncomfortable for the curious chemist who wants to do the mixing for a living.

And that is why chemistry is weird: pursuing it professionally often involves dropping attachment to its core values. The commercial issue is easy to see in the industrial setting. It is somewhat more tricky in the academic setting. The research in most such institutions is funded using public money. Again, thank Science! for the governments spending money on improving the human condition. But how is the created value assessed? I believe the answer has to do with publication. In chemistry, most of the current publication is carried out through peer-reviewed journals, which belong to a publishing house. The publisher holds the rights to the content, and sells it to anyone who needs that scientific information. And although contradictory (public money funding scientific journal publishers?), and certainly not free of flaws, this model accounts for how the economy turns over and everyone gets what they want: the scientist has created new knowledge, had it approved by his peers, and disseminated it widely; the publisher has new content to sell; the government will receive tax money in return; and only finally, sadly, chemistry, science, and humanity benefit themselves from the expanding body of knowledge.

Sounds kind of great? Let’s not forget who had to sacrifice their job satisfaction for this to work? The poor ol’ chemist, who couldn’t just ‘try it out’, but had to carry out a laborious analysis beforehand to assess the potential gain to loss ratio. And they might not be the only ones losing out: serendipitous discoveries are made less often this way, and perhaps more important, fewer chemists will want to pursue that career.

How can I help fight that? I think everyone has the right to an informed decision, and that is why I tried to create a balanced picture in this article. It is certainly not sufficient for anyone to make a decision. But I would encourage you to start thinking of all these things before you, if you happen to be in the position, find a scapegoat to vent your frustration.

And if you want to know more about what modern chemists use in the lab, it is a mixture of very simple (look up the round-bottom flask) and very complicated (look up NMR spectroscopy). We still use test tubes sometimes, we just don’t like washing them.

Analysing the ‘It’s good enough’ Mentality

Being a strange creature that occasionally descends into the pits of perfectionism bordering compulsion, only to then exit riding a boredom rocket and ascend into the airy sphere of carelessness, I feel I need to get my thoughts together to hopefully sometime achieve consistent productivity.

Constantly living in a pathological state of carelessness has obvious and serious downsides. I would not go as far as to say it prevents one from functioning, but it condemns to a sad existence. It seems to me such a state resembles depression. Each one of us only has a finite time in existence; constantly striving to carry out as much work as possible, to the highest quality conceivable, does not guarantee finding meaning to our life beyond the biological. Not everyone has the ability or opportunity to cause great change or leave a legacy. Success can also come down to pure luck. What is an ‘obligation’, however, is for each individual to try finding this meaning. It doesn’t matter whether their aspirations are realistic or not. What matters is they have them and work towards achieving them. And having tried, it doesn’t matter whether they succeed or not.

I have devised this mentality (which, I have to admit, in its current form sounds both cheesy and pretentious) to help myself after having suffered greatly from failure, having spent a lot of time struggling to understand what was the point in trying if you didn’t succeed, and being bothered by what the meaning of (my) life was. For the longest time I just couldn’t understand how some people could just be happy. Or pretend to be. I don’t know what their mentality is. But I am happy I now have one to share.

I also find it solves another problem. If I end up despairing and losing motivation, I can remind myself that it is my ‘obligation’ while alive to work. I have to admit that external influence has, for most of my life, been more important that the internal for my progress. I think I have reached that stage of adulthood when I can change that. And I am working on it. But when all else fails, I can invoke the ‘obligation’ and drag myself around until momentum builds up again.

And this brings me to what I find detrimental with the ‘It’s good enough’ mentality. Typical of me to start with the downside. If given the option, within practical limits, of doing the best possible job, and claiming a good dose of satisfaction and pride in return, you default to the equivalent of throwing a bucket of paint at the wall to paint it, you are not just missing out on some pretend-lofty level, you are sabotaging yourself. If you never give yourself the chance to win self-respect, you are never going to have the chance to win your peers’ respect. I think children should be taught the value of picking up the paint brush and painting the wall. Even if the adult throwing the paint bucket would have ensured a better result. I could have benefited greatly from receiving such a lesson.

What is the value in being pragmatic sometimes, in saying ‘It’s good enough’ without feeling guilty? This, in my case, is something I’ve only come to learn recently, probably much later than one expects from an adult. To use the wall painting metaphor again, I think you can call it a day when aware that applying a second coat won’t turn your living room into the Sistine Chapel, no matter how hard you try. You could however look at those floors..

And if like me, you sometimes run around like a headless chicken trying to decide what to do, because you want to do everything, but don’t feel like doing anything, then just doing one thing is good enough, and you’re winning!

Three types of people

  1. This type I find infuriating, but have learnt not to hate. They love nothing better than to be the centre of attention, at any cost. They get themselves noticed the same way sand in your swimsuit does when taking it off after a day at the beach. In apparent contradiction, most people find this type charming. It hasn’t caused them too much discomfort during the day, maybe none at all, and now they have a fleeting memento of their day in existence. This type will openly and without trying to be funny claim that everyone loves them. They can’t bake, but no one has the heart or courage to tell them it tastes like value products from the pound shop. They hate being ignored so much, that any offense on this front gets dealt with by throwing all high moral standards in the bin and acting like a school boy throwing bits of paper at the communal bullying target. They are friends with everyone. And proceed to talk crap behind their back as soon as they have left the room. They are clever and knowledgeable, but manage to point this out as a pimp points out which one of their workers they think would fit the client best. They don’t work very hard, because they are already overachieving. They manage to remember that they have a distant relative who’s just had a baby, exactly when their boss has just had a baby; they throw a party in someone else’s honour for a minor favour they had done. They are surprised to be called sycophants. They thank people for their help, but only when no one else is around to hear them. They carry out conversations with two other people by setting up meetings with each one separately. They make sure their acolytes know all the possible ways to stroke their ego. If not, they kindly offer a loan with 150% interest rate. They like to climb the ladder, because they haven’t passed the age at which being the tallest around assures you the attention a gherkin gets in the burger. They don’t like dogs, because they can’t stand having something people find adorable or loyal in their presence. They bully you for years, then they apologise, want to be friends, and force you to shake their hand.
  2. This type I used to hate, but have learnt to love. They have the personality of a raw aubergine and the presence of a Corgi dog out for a walk on the beach. They are busy, and you can’t deny that when you see them out on the street hanging out with someone else. They invite you to a great event, but they never turn up themselves. They spend too much time painting their house. They are your friends, you have a bad day, they take offense and take action against you, they then are your friends again because they have a short memory and a good heart. They tell everyone about their love life past, present, and future. They can’t decide if they are proud or ashamed. I suspect they need the public to cast a vote. They have a sense of humour, kindly criticise their own flaws for the public’s entertainment, but will take your head off if you dare make fun of them. They are the neighbour who tells you you slam the door too hard by painting a picture of the previous tenant as an aggressive character. They suggest you trim your nose hair by rubbing their own with a proud look on their face. They point out that with the cost of your education they could have built a swimming pool; and they did. They always complain you never come out and when you have the time and contact them, they in some sphere of logic argue they can’t find the time in a three month period because they thought you moved away.
  3. This type I love and have learnt to respect. They stand up to you proving you are no better at times than type 1 or 2; I am thankful for it. They point out you are horrible. They demand you get help, because you need it. They point out you stink. They speak out when it means more for others than for them. They buy you drinks and don’t expect them in return; them pointing out you are better drunk than sober is a wise move. They don’t hold a grudge even when you do; that way you learn to do the same. They make mistakes knowing you will correct them. They make you realise that aubergines are actually very tasty when cooked and that your house probably needs painting too. They make you think secret santa isn’t such a stupid tradition after all. They ignore you, because you ignored them. They once did something very bad; many times they did something very good. They make you question whether being more lonely than a hermit crab might be a problem.

And as for Corgis, if you have one, make sure you take it out for a nice walk on the beach.

A Bizarre Conundrum

A few years back, I applied for a consulting job involving some work with ‘chemical products.’ The job description required some general attributes which I believed I had and although it wasn’t clear to me what this work would entail, the chance to use my transferable skills made it seem like an obvious opportunity.

Let’s first briefly analyse my applicant profile for context. I was a scared PhD student wearing long hair not like a pop samurai, but like a decrepit Afghan hound. I had little to no confidence or self-esteem, no interest in my line of work or any other for that matter. I had little understanding of the ‘real’ world of work outside the chemistry laboratory. I desperately needed a change, so with consulting being a highly popular option with science graduates, I wrote my CV, and when an interview invitation arrived, I thought: ‘What do I have to lose?’

Having done some cursory interview preparation, I turned up and here is what happened. An experience so awful it haunts me to this day. I had it coming? Of course, and I guess in a way I deserved it. What brings me to write this article is the confusion from some happenings I have still not fully understood to this day.

Two interviewers with professional demeanour welcomed me and started talking about the job and the company. They were meant to be joined by a third in the second part of the interview, I was told. While this was unfolding, something clicked and I realised I wasn’t meant to be there. Their generous explanations made me feel welcome, but their length gave me time to ponder how much of a nuissance I might actually be, and therefore unwelcome. Like a deer stunned by the headlights, the best strategy I could think of was to maintain my interest, ask any apparently clever questions I could think of, and assure them of my desire to ‘learn on the job.’ I didn’t feel I could point out that their job description was inappropriate; this would have made me look immature. Unfortunately, I was not making any progress in understanding what this was about, and they were starting to notice. Questions about my background and potentially relevant experience I might have had moved on to specific technical questions I could not answer (pivot tables!). And here it gets strange; instead of ending the interview, they resumed their initial discourse while we were waiting for the next interviewer. Only much later, after I had several times felt like suffocating in the stifling heat of that room, which I am sure must have actually had exquisite climate control, did this person communicate that they would have to excuse themselves as they could no longer make it.

This all must have taken between one and two hours (how long was the whole thing supposed to take?) and I was close to breaking down. I am sure my strategy of ‘holding my ground’ actually worked against me and made me look like even more of a moron than I already had. I was exhausted and glad it was over. I can at this point only thank these kind interviewers for their time, once again. As one does.

One of the interviewers kindly explained to me on departure how to operate the elevator in order to secure my exit from the establishment. In the befuddled state I was, I think I found the instructions welcome.

This all added up to my ego suffering a blow that left me reeling and made me learn the hard way that just because you can write a CV that ticks all the boxes on a job description, you can still be the most useless candidate that ever applied.

The three questions I am going to leave you with are these:

  1. Why would a recruiter write such a job description that it gets them the wrong people applying?
  2. Did the recruiter or the interviewers look over my CV before the interview?
  3. Why would some busy people spend so much of their time interviewing a useless candidate?

I am sure the reader would by now have come up with their own hypothesis.