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Running On – Thoughts on Mediocrity.

18 September 2014

Tonight I will run 10K as my last training run for the Philadelphia Rock and Roll Half-Marathon Sunday. This will be my second half-marathon and I’m very excited for it. When I ran Pittsburgh in May, I was not terribly well prepared. The longest run I had done leading up to it was 10 miles. The run was long and slow and difficult, but I did it. I also did it at the cost of a lingering foot “injury” that bothered me much of the early summer. Simple nerve fuckery, nothing serious or overly painful, and since resolved.

This time, I’m quite well prepped, I think. BB and I have been doing long runs every weekend, and I’ve been doing 2 or 3 other runs every week. I’ve run 130ish miles in the past 7 weeks. My longest run, last Saturday, was 11.3 miles. I feel fit for the half, and decidedly better than I was in May. This half should also be easier: Pittsburgh is hilly. Philadelphia is not. The weather should be about the same, I think. I don’t trust forecasts three days out, but such as it is, it’s a good one. As long as it isn’t 80+ and humid at 8am, I’ll be OK.

In some ways, I’m disappointed by where running half-marathons has gotten me. I am still 183 pounds, which is a bit overweight for my height. I am soft through the middle despite two months now also working out at the gym twice a week. I have never been in great shape, and I am not in great shape now. I am forced to conclude that running half-marathons is not that hard. It’s something that a human being in perfectly mediocre shape can accomplish. It’s unexceptional.

I do a lot of crowing about unexceptional things. I’m big on bluster. I exult in papers and grants when they get accepted and funded. But the truth is, I’ve never gotten an exceptional journal to publish me. I’ve never gotten an exceptional grant. I am not professionally exceptional. I’m mediocre. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy being mediocre. I’ve been operating at B+ level since I was six years old. And I’ll stay there, contentedly.

But I want you to think that I’m an A+. I want to do B+ work for A+ credit. I want to do B+ training for A+ results. I want to write B+ papers for A+ journals. And so sometimes, I crow about B+s to try to make people think they’re A+s. Sometimes it works. But then I feel hollow for knowing the truth, and additionally feeling like a liar. Or feeling like I rode purse-strings and coat-tails to a higher perch than I’ve earned.

I am not what I present myself as. Not really. I’m not as good as I want you to believe. And this isn’t Impostor Syndrome, though I have that too. I’m talking about a deliberate, conscious attempt to present myself in a better light than I’ve earned. I don’t work as hard as my bosses think I do. I’m not as accomplished or experienced with respect to research and grants as I think my tweeting and blogging suggests. I have published only 9 papers in journals that shouldn’t be used to line animal cages. I have won only four real grants, of which only three were accepted and completed. None were larger than an R03.

Sometimes, it’s not Impostor Syndrome. Sometimes, we’re just not as good as we wish we were. That’s me. I’m a mediocre engineer and middling scientist. But I’ve found the right place for me. Where my B+ is seen as high performing. I’m happy there. I wish I were the kind of person who knew how to give A+ effort. But I’m not. I never have been. And the same is true with fitness. I run half marathons because they’re easy, not because they’re hard. I can do that, and people seem impressed.

I need that validation. I hunger for social credit. But I also know that my time here is limited. I like being the inspirational figure: I’m an alcoholic and I’m an ex-smoker and I was obese and now I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I’m only sort-of fat and I run miles and miles and isn’t it all so goddamned inspirational? Aren’t you impressed with me? You should be! I’m very impressive!

At some point though, I slide off that pedestal I like to be on. And then I’m just this dude who expects lavish attention for ordinary feats of humanity. And that’s dull, trending towards repugnant. I need to find ways to be me, and be ordinary, and accept that about myself. To relent from my iron-grip throttling of praise and just be a normal person doing normal things among friends. I don’t know how to do that right now. I don’t really know what that looks like or feels like.

It’s a journey that takes me to many ports of call. I’ve been at this one a long time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. aimee permalink
    18 September 2014 10:58

    You could mentally grade yourself on a curve consisting of all humanity rather than just your PhD having marathon running peers. Remember George Carlin? “Think of how stupid the average person is…. then think that half of them are stupider than that!” I’m kidding of course. Being judged on a curve by our own parents, by our teachers in grade school, is part of the problem. Relentless internal running comparison with others is soul-deadening. It’s a horrible horrible habit that I doubt any of us can ever be entirely free of but I’m freer than I used to be.

  2. psycgirl permalink
    18 September 2014 20:10

    I finally figured out my stupid comments and now I have to recreate them. I wanted to say first of all that I have some interesting reactions whenever you post about accomplishments and what makes them A+ vs. B+. It makes me feel a bit silly for being excited about my decidedly B+ accomplishments – you have more grants than I do, you have more publications than I do. What makes thinks B+ vs. A+? I tend to focus on the amount of labor and creativity and the personal satisfaction I get from my work, because I will never be an A+ scientist either. But I think my contributions are just as important. Second, when you post like this it always makes me wonder if you might be a bad collaborator (Being truthful!) because you basically make it sound like you want to accolades without the effort. Third, I completely understanding wanting to be satisfied with your normal (or B+ life) – I find the more comfortable I try to be with my life the way it is – with the money I make and the things I can’t afford to do, etc – the easier it is. So I hope it goes well for you too 🙂

    • 18 September 2014 20:15

      I am almost certainly a bad collaborator. But I don’t know that that’s the reason.

  3. Syd permalink
    22 September 2014 11:29

    It’s all relative. Being a scientist is relative to the Nobel? Then I am a failure. But I did not see myself as a failure but someone who did the best that I could. That may be all that is needed because as you point out, we are limited not only by talent but my circumstances of funding, the field of study, sophistication of laboratories and institutions, and who we know. Believe me the latter is very important. The striving for perfection can be exhausting and self-defeating.

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