I’ve been thinking about this a long time. If you asked me one thing that I think should be hammered into anyone and everyone -and what took me a while to realize- is to be aware of things around you.(Self-awareness is important, too, but it’s not today’s topic.)
I was about thirty when I realized that things just happen around me, and I’m not exactly aware of them; I don’t pay attention. I let things happen, I let things play out; I’m passive in my own life. My mother is like that to this day; and I suspect many other people are, too. And it’s not necessarily some big revelation, finding god or anything like that. It’s simple things.
How did I end up doing molecular biology? I wanted to be an etologist, after all; a scientist working with animal behavior. I found the lecturer really antagonistic and unpleasant, the department was outside the city, so I gave up on this line. While looking for alternatives I got into plant physiology, because a friend was working in a lab there, and asked me if I was interested, and finally I helped out my then fiancee a couple of time in her lab. She left the lab, I stayed; and hence my career in molecular biology was born. Instead of focusing, instead of figuring out the best way forward I just bounced all over the place, letting things determine how my future will be shaped, and accidentally ending up somewhere. I let my mother bully that particular girl, hoping things will get better; I tried to balance between the two effectively ruining our relationship, her state of mind, and my relationship with my mother at once. I still feel shame for what I’ve done -or rather, what I have not done. My only excuse is that I was young, and had no idea what being a man (and not a child) actually means.
I let time pass by without actually looking at what was happening not realizing I will not get back those years I spend living in a waking dream. (This is the best way I could find to describe this state of mind when you are not making an effort to be consciously aware of what is happening around you.)
It was the same story with my first PhD. My supervisor and his wife who was the lab manager, were horrible. (They haven’t had a PhD graduate in seven years prior…) Instead of drawing the necessary conclusions, and getting the f… well, the hell out of there, I stayed around, hoping it will work out. It did not. I got depression, thought of suicide, I wasted years of my life, and when I left finally, I realized I made my first really conscious decision in my life. I can thank Jenni Fields that much at least. She taught me what matters really in this life.
I also realized I lost friendships, important people from my life, because I let things drift apart. The best case was my high school class… I was in a boarding school in Sopron, a small town in Hungary, and almost all my classmates ended up going to Budapest for their university courses. It would have been trivial to keep touch, to get people together regularly; yet nobody tried and now we did not even hold our 15th anniversary of our graduation. (It’s a custom to do it every five years.) We could have met every week in a pub, and yet we are strangers now. Now I make an effort to keep in touch with people, even if they live on the other part of the world.
Don’t get me wrong: planning will not necessarily get you where you want to go. As the elder Moltke said, plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy. But HAVING a plan is essential. Having it and constantly revising it is important; otherwise you’re just like a driftwood carried by a river.