I said to my friend, as we walked back from the corner market where we buy coffee, “Do you ever feel like you’re supposed to have your shit together a lot more than you do, and that you probably never will? Like, do you feel like we’re supposed to know a lot about this, but that you don’t actually know enough to talk about the things people ask us about? I feel like that a lot.”
He laughed and said, “I can’t remember ever feeling any way but that. It hit me in grad school, and never left. It actually makes me extremely nervous that people listen to what I say about engineering stuff, like one day, they’re all going to realize I’m actually a total fraud.”
I said, “But you’re such a good engineer. You’re moving up faster than any of the rest of us who were hired together. I am not moving up as fast as you. Maybe in my new job, I will, but that would never happen for me here because I don’t have the aptitude for this subject.”
He looked confused, and said, “Anastasia, you’re a really good engineer. I don’t know why you think you’re not. OK, I do know, because we compare ourselves to each other, and to people nobody has any business comparing themselves to, but the thing you have to remember, and so do I, is that we are working at a level that only a tiny percentage of our profession will ever make it to. What are your college classmates doing right now? Just think about it.”
He was right. We are, objectively speaking, high level engineers, and since we live in this world every day, we tend to forget where we fit in the food chain of our profession. We design projects we never dared to dream of until we were here. We have published our research worldwide. We have reluctantly reached a station in life and in society, such that when we speak, people tend to listen, and when we show up on a project site, or to a seminar, or a community outreach event, people ask us the questions everyone wants answers to. We’re just in our 30’s, and know we have far to go from here, but people treat us like we’re already there.
None of our superiors are unclear about it. We’re on one of the paths that makes directors, tenured professors, deans of research, and other people with intimidating sounding titles. So we chug our coffee, and we design, and we move into positions that suit our skills, him within this division, and me, as of two weeks from now, at a different facility, with a different group, one which has promised me that I can do research again, and we strive, because we’re just in our 30’s, and we’re not done yet, and we have no idea how this ends for us.
Due to my current foray into the design side, I haven’t published in three years, and I die a little inside when I consider that if I stayed here, I may never publish, or even conduct research, again. And then I think to myself, who even considers publishing, or conducting funded research for that matter, a necessity? Who actually gets to design cool stuff like this, and then presumes to say, “OK, that was fun, but I want to do something different now because I like it better.”? For most people, the salary in this place alone would be enough, the nice people a serious bonus, and the retirement plan a true blessing. For me, while I am grateful for all of that, I know I can do more if I return to the side of our profession where my strengths lie, and so I am. It helps that it’s an internal transfer, and comes with a raise. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could leave a good job like my current one.
My friend understands this completely. He nods and says if he hadn’t been chosen for his current job, he would be feeling restless, too. We met during what amounts to a rite of passage for those who succeed in this field, time spent as design engineers in a place with a name people recognize. Then we both applied for a position within our department that is half design and half research. They interviewed us both, and chose him. His PhD is relevant to it. I would have chosen him, too. So to the other side of the office he went, and I stayed put, in my windowless cube, to continue designing, knowing that the experience would benefit me in the long term, but knowing on some level that it wasn’t forever, while telling myself I would be fine if it were.
I waited another year, and then my opportunity came a month ago. I was hired day before yesterday. It isn’t real yet. For the past two days, everyone at work has been telling me how surprised they are to hear that I do not think I am a good design engineer. They all emphatically disagree, but wish me well on my return to the field of my research, reminding me that if I ever want to come back, I’ll be welcome. It is comforting, in a way, to know that they see me better than I see myself. Maybe I am a good design engineer, but I know I can do more in my new role, and I would regret for the rest of my life if I let it pass me by.
Today, a comment on another friend’s status made me conscious of how I relate to life, and especially work. I was talking about how tough the housing market is in cities where young professionals need to be in order to work to our potential, how it’s easy to get a cheap house in a place with limited opportunities, but if you want to do high level work in STEM, you have to go to certain cities, which tend to be hot markets. His reply was, “Better to be a big fish in a small pond.”
I have always disagreed with that sentiment. I get uneasy when I am the most knowledgeable person in the room. There’s no way to grow in that environment, and I’m not done growing yet. I can’t be a big fish in a small pond. I have been in that situation in the past. In fact, it almost completely describes my first marriage, and my entire life until 2013. I was restless, snippy at everyone, and miserable, because I knew I wasn’t going to reach my potential in those surroundings.
The past couple years, however, I’ve been a tiny fish in a big, ocean sized pond with unfamiliar terrain and strong currents, and that was almost as anxiety inducing. While I could theoretically work to potential in this environment, my barrier to it wasn’t external anymore. It was internal. When I am in the company of 50 engineers who can do any given project better than I could, who can understand the relevant concepts in half the time I can, and who will extrapolate things from it that I never would, there exists the overwhelming knowledge that I would never move up in this place.
My boss tells me how much she appreciates my positive attitude, grace under pressure, and willingness to do any project I’m assigned. But I can’t help but notice that my projects aren’t moving up in complexity along the same trajectory as my peers’ projects are. I will top out here relatively quickly. I can do well enough to score decently on a performance review and pull my weight as a team member, but I know I can do more than just tread water. The pond may be too big, I may be too small, or maybe I just relate to the eco-system differently than my fellow inhabitants.
When I think back on it, my former lab, which was a perfect fit, isn’t a smaller pond than my current workplace. It just has different attributes. I can move freely in that pond. I don’t feel that I’m running into a wall built of other people’s limitations or my own. I can lead. In my new capacity, I’ll be required to. I can publish, and people will want to read my work. I can influence, and I can do it without feeling like as much of a fraud as I so often do here because I will be working within the area of my strengths again. I don’t need a smaller pond, I just need the right large pond.
My boss brings up another point often. We only understand how small our knowledge is compared to the vastness of our profession because we have enough education and experience to see the reality of it, and put that in perspective. We could live to be 100, and never know enough to consider ourselves knowledgeable, but that’s why there are a lot of us. We each know something different, and we share that knowledge as necessary. It is, however, easy to lose sight of that in our relentless pursuit of further understanding and innovation, and take every small failure and setback to mean we are actually not that good at this. We compare our outtakes to our colleagues’ highlight reels.
I would say, of all the things I have done as an engineer, more than anything I have designed or published, I am proud that every place I’ve worked would gladly hire me back if I decided I’d made a mistake by leaving. I suppose that, of all things, reassures me that when it comes to my work, the good outweighs the bad, even when I know I am not working to potential, and that is worth something. Even so, I think this new endeavor of mine will turn out very interestingly.
So here’s to engineering, and imposter syndrome, and ponds with all the right traits. To new opportunities, valuable experience, and continued research. To big mighty structures, and tiny little molecules, and every one of us who lives on the precipice of the vast unknown.