Thursday, February 27, 2014

I know it's a no, but I don't know why

When tragedy happens repeatedly at short intervals, following the same pattern, it becomes comical.

I had applied for a position, and last week, I received an email asking me to log in to their website and find their decision. Hastily, between palpitating heartbeats, cold, sweaty palms, and forgotten passwords, I managed to log in and find their verdict. In their decision, they rejected me. I felt hurt. I knew that it was a competitive position. Like most rejections in life, committees never tell you why they rejected you, although they assure you that they took the time to go through your application. Constructive criticism is often not valued, either from the sender, or by the receiver. Rather than reading about how sorry they are to reject me (which is about their feelings, not mine), I'd rather get to the point and know the reason, because that will bring a sense of closure, and give me perspective. Anyway, I moved on with life. 

This was last week. Earlier this week, they emailed me to say the same thing again, basically spelled out the same decision word by word, in an email now. And today, they sent out another email saying that there was some error in the subject line of the last email (which I hadn't even noticed), so they are sending me another email with the corrected subject line, and with the same decision.

The third time, I burst out laughing. Because you do not need to tell someone "no" three times before you get your point across. And because they could have saved themselves all this wasted time and energy, and just enclosed a one-line truth about why it was rejected, without rehashing again and again how sorry they are. Something about all this was really disturbing. There was no dignity in the way they were rejecting me again and again, although I had accepted their decision with dignity.

This incident once again took me back to my philosophy, unconventional for some, where I always want to know why someone said no. Once I emotionally detach myself from the rejection, I always wonder what people were thinking when they made their decisions. Everyone puts in a lot of time and energy and expectations into their application, or in anything they pursue. I understand that one cannot be accepted all the time. However, if one has really evaluated my application, like they said they did, all it takes is sixty seconds to write down the reason.

“We found someone better than you.”

“Your statistical skills or background is not strong enough.”

“We do not wish to sponsor a visa.”

“We are afraid that you may not have what it takes to do the job.”

Just one line of truth.

And the same thing translates to relationships. It has always disturbed me that people just leave, just grow distant over time. But that one line of truth not only brings closure, it does good to both people involved. Sometimes, we need to hear the truth ourselves, before we can tell others. A long lifetime ago, there was someone I really liked, and enjoyed hanging out with. I assume he enjoyed my company too, given the telltale signs. So instead of playing mental games, strategizing, and thinking of everything I should or should not do because I am a girl, I asked him out. Plain and simple. And he said no. However, we remained friends, we still are, and till date, I have not asked him why he said no. At that time, it broke my heart, not knowing the reason. I thought that we made a very compatible pair, and I was just asking him out, wanting to know him more, without the expectation of a commitment. I spent months feeling terrible about it, until I traveled to California, hiked the Channel Islands on my own, spent a day by myself, and forced a closure to it. I still believe that giving a reason would have made things easier for me.

“You are too tall for me.”

“I did not feel the chemistry.”

“I am a vegetarian. You are not.”

“I only date Russian girls.”

Just one line of truth.

On a different note, I am so trained to distinguish a yes from a no these days that I can open a letter, read the first line, and tell you their decision. When you get accepted somewhere, at a university, conference, or a journal, their first word is “Congratulations!”. They never waste time to let you know that you have been chosen, and they cannot wait to meet you. However, when it is a no, the letter starts with three lines of summarizing how wonderful you are, and how competitive the program is, and how they can only admit a small number of people. They paint such an image of helplessness that it will twist your heart, and make you feel guilty that you applied in the first place. On the second half of the fourth line, they will tell you a no (Although you are so good, we cannot admit you unfortunately). Why not cut the first three and a half sentences and just write their decision? After the fourth sentence comes five more sentences, wishing me all the best and thanking me for applying. So really, they wrote an entire nine lines without giving me any idea about why they just said no.

And I haven’t even mentioned the universities which never respond back. You know that you did not make it because they never reply back. They imitate life in a warzone, where there are no guarantees. With all my job hunting experiences over the years, I know that most places do not bother to inform you if their decision is no. And what’s wrong with this situation? Well, just because you did not qualify for this one does not mean that you will never be able to work in that school. Thirty years from now, you might be the dean of the same school. The point is, life is shorter than we think, and somehow, we go in circles, meeting the same people from the same network again and again. So even if someone thinks that you do not deserve the job, there is nothing wrong in being frank, and amicable about it.

Honesty is hard. Saying things for what they are on your face is harder. It is often easier to hide behind kind, clichéd words, that still mean the same thing. That you were not good enough. That the answer is a no.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Healthy Daal

As children, we used to dread the days when ma made poushtik daal (a term she had coined, poushtik meaning healthy, and daal being lentils). We knew that excess vegetables were getting old in the fridge, especially spinach, and she was using fancy names to make us eat what she cooked. She would even throw in added incentives of a glowing skin, and sharper brain, if one regularly ate that. Not that the daal tasted bad or anything. In fact, true to its name, it was healthy, and had lots of vegetables. However, we had higher expectations from mommy's kitchen. We expected meat, and eggs, and fried stuff everyday.

I am stirring the pot as I write this, cooking the same poushtik daal for dinner. The spinach and the tomatoes have been in the fridge for a while now, and I am too tired to come up with fancy ideas of using it. I am tired at the end of the day, and want a shortcut menu for dinner. I want to throw everything in one pot, stir it a bit, eat it, and go to bed as soon as I can.

The older I get, the more I become like my mother.


Monday, February 03, 2014

Impostor Syndrome

“I am a fraud and they will soon find out.”

I have always wanted to research more about impostor syndrome (a psychological trait in which people do not believe in their accomplishments). This is because I know that I secretly suffer from it. It is a fear that comes on accomplishing something, that perhaps it was not deserved, and perhaps someone made a wrong judgment, and soon, everyone will find out that you are not as bright as they think you are. There is abundant literature about how women in higher education feel it all the time. It often comes from not having enough self-confidence, sense of worth, or mentors and role models who are like you (racially, gender-wise, etc.).

Although I suffer from it, I am now consciously aware of it, so that whenever such thoughts cross my mind, I make an effort to dispel such fears. But that was not the case few years ago. When I first moved to the US, it was to study at a top-ranking university in my field. I have always believed that I was perhaps not their first choice, and someone must have decided not to move to Seattle, and hence I got admission. It may or may not be true, but that is not the point. It shows how I never had the conviction that I could be somebody’s first choice.

Then when I got another acceptance for a PhD four years later, in a public ivy school very well known internationally, I had the same sinking feeling once again. I thought that they saw my previous school’s credentials and assumed that I am good, but they do not know that I am not that competent. I write this with a lot of sadness. I struggled through the fear that someday, my adviser would find out that I was ordinary, and be utterly disappointed.

I finished my PhD in 3 years. In 33 months actually. This shows that it had nothing to do with my mediocrity or luck. It was all hardcore hard work and dedication. The problem is that I did not believe enough in myself.

I have often wondered why I had such fears. Interestingly, I never had that fear in India. It started when I moved to the US. Also, I have this fear only with things related to my career. For my personal achievements, I don’t give two hoots about success and failure. But when it comes to career achievements, I feel that there is too much at stake. I wonder when and how I developed such a uni-dimensional trait. Think about it, I have achieved everything based on my abilities, and not any backing. I had no Godfathers in the field. Every college admission, every job I got was because of my own abilities. My advisers wrote me recommendation letters, but none of them used their contacts to get me a job. I have often asked myself, “Then why?

With time, I grew conscious about it. So every time I would see myself achieving something and belittling my achievements, I would check my thoughts. It might have to do with personal identity. In the US, I never had role models who are like me. What do I mean when I say, like me? I mean, single, Indian, immigrant female. When I met immigrants, they were not single. When I met single women, they were not immigrants. And if they are single and immigrants, they are male. Your personal identity goes a long way in shaping how you see, or do not see yourself. I wish that instead of feeling what I felt, I told myself that yes, I deserve to be here, in this field, succeeding and making a name for myself, and I am not going anywhere.

So why am I writing this? Because I did the same thing today. My dissertation has been selected as among the top three in the US, in my focus area. I was not expecting it at all. So my first sub-conscious thought when I read the congratulatory email was, “They must have sent me the email by mistake.” Immediately, I checked my thoughts. I realized that once again, I was letting myself be a victim of impostor syndrome. None of the selection committee members know me personally, and it is impossible that they are doing me a favor by giving me this recognition. I have been selected in the top three, but they give only one award. So next month, they will let me know if I won it. It is a big honor. Yet momentarily, I forgot about all the hard work and dedication I put in my dissertation. I forgot how I strove to be the best, and produced a quality manuscript. Writing a 300 page document was no fun, but I forgot all about it. Instead, all I thought was, “Perhaps they sent me the email by mistake.” Later, I was pretty mad at myself for feeling that way. The conscious, saner side of me was rebuking the darker side for belittling my achievements all the time. It is as if I am my own enemy, seldom recognizing that I am capable of reaching professional milestones.

So this is for all of you like me, who suffer from impostor syndrome. Believe in what you achieve, and do not attribute your success to anything other than your own hard work. And learn to celebrate your success. It is so important, although I am guilty of not doing it. 

On a different note, I always felt bad that I do not have an "Awards" section in my CV. I have never really won any awards, barring winning a science quiz in the sixth grade (that I participated in because I had a crush on one of the boys), and a Sanskrit calligraphy competition in the seventh grade. I often eyed the awards section of my colleagues' CV with greed. You can imagine, being selected the top three was equivalent to winning the Miss. Universe crown for me (and I did not even have to lie about how I am going to save the planet, and donate all my money to the needy).  

They will let me know next month. If I win, I will be presenting my research at the conference in a few months. And even if I do not win, I get to start a new “Awards and Honors” section in my CV, and add a line there. I’m almost tempted to do a happy dance as I write this.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

Is free really free?

Today, at Target, I was at the checkout counter after buying things when I realized that I forgot to bring my bag. Since there were not too many things, I said that I do not need a bag, and will just carry the stuff in my hand. The lady at the checkout counter looked really surprised and said, "But we do not charge you extra for plastic bags. It is free." I said, "That's okay, I still do not want them, they are not good for the environment."

This brief conversation made me realize that the crux of the problem is what the lady said. "But we do not charge you extra for plastic bags. It is free." Just because it is free does not mean that we need it. And many of us do not realize that free is not really free. Somewhere, someone would be paying the price for the thoughtless use of bags, or anything for that matter. Disposable plates. Plastic spoons. Bags. Bottles. The list is endless. What we do everyday is not sustainable. Somebody out there is already paying the price for our lifestyle. 

If you do not believe me, do take this footprint calculator quiz. It tells you how many Earths would be needed to sustain the resources if everyone lived the same lifestyle that you did. The results will depress you.

Being a part of the American society, I have witnessed up close, and at times even emulated the lifestyle that people adopt here. But I know that this is not sustainable. “What if I can afford it?”, is what you may argue. And I’d say, that even if you could afford it, the planet does not have enough resources to support your lifestyle. Over the years, I have consciously stopped doing many things that I used to do mindlessly. My intentions were not bad when I did them, I simply did not think about the consequences. I’ll give you some examples:

Things I try to do/not do now that I did before:

·         I no longer use disposable plates and spoons for parties. It does not make sense to use things once and then throw them away. Instead, I use proper plates and spoons. A little scrubbing and washing the dishes will do far less long-term damage than mindlessly using disposable items.

·         I use the dishwasher (a full load of course) only when I am too tired to do the dishes. Which comes down to once a month. The rest of the time, I use my strong, masculine hands.

·         To reduce the number of trips made, I go to the grocery stores right from work, than push it to the weekend.

·         I always carry 4-5 “bajarer tholi” (strong, reusable bags) that I especially got from Calcutta that can easily hold a lot of weight.

·         No more Costco and Sam’s Club memberships. I was a Costco member once, and what that meant is I hoarded things in bulk that I did not even need, making my house look like a warehouse. When you have more, you use things without sense. When you have less, you are more careful. I once bought a whole bunch of paper towels back in 2009, and five years and two cross-country moves later, I still have some with me.

·         I never use the air conditioning in summer. I am used to the warm weather, and even find it comforting, because it reminds me of where I grew up. I simply open the doors and windows in summer, letting the bugs and flies come in, and happily live through the heat and humidity. Winters are a different story of course.

However, all that I do is far from being enough. One, I need to know of better ways to recycle, use less, and use carefully. I am trying to find a course that I can take, or identify a resource that will help me do these. And as a single person who drives a humble sedan and flies a couple of times a year, I see myself lower in this food chain of indiscriminately using resources. Think about the families with kids, that use diapers like it is nobody’s business, drive vans, and live in huge homes. Some of my friends in the US live in homes that are no less than mansions. Sure, they can afford it, but can the planet sustain all the heating and water usage?

As a kid, I was never aware of the word recycling. Yet my family was always recycling. It was built within the system. There were no plastic bags when I was little. My grandma and mom never threw the empty Horlicks bottles (or any other bottles). Those glass jars were always recycled and used to store things. There was no mineral water in plastic bottles. No one ate in disposable plates, not even during parties. The vegetable peels were all collected for the cow to eat every day. The tap was never allowed to run freely while we brushed our teeth. Milk was delivered in containers, and not in plastic bags. Newspapers were made into paper bags (kagojer thonga). Gadgets were not bought (or thrown away) mindlessly like we do now. We mostly rode the rickshaw, enjoying the breeze. Recycling and conservation of resources were inherently built in the system.

I am taking an online course on Coursera, called, “An introduction to the US food system:Perspectives from Public Health”, that covers a lot of interesting material about food as a resource, and how water and soil are resources that are being used indiscriminately.

We could argue and debate about this endlessly. But it is undisputed that behavioral change needs to set in. People need to be aware that it is not okay to consume all the resources that we do. And behavioral change cannot come until we step in as larger communities and societies, advocating some dramatic lifestyle changes.