Von Neumann I am not
March 29, 2014 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I’ve spent my 20s building a BS “identity” as an “analytical type of person". Help me grow up. Snowflakes inside.

I should be graduating in the next few months with an economics PhD. When I finished high school I didn’t go to university directly. I worked and during that time decided I wanted to study it at undergraduate level. (Understanding things about the world which seemed powerful and mysterious was originally the attraction). Economics has lot of math. Previously I had been very poor at math. I’m in a European country where one can choose to not study math in last two years of high-school, and I didn’t. I enrolled in one of the few university courses in my country which at the time accepted economics students without having studied math for the last two years of high-school. As an undergraduate at university I studied relentlessly (and also brought my math up to speed –in fact further than what was necessary as I wanted to do graduate level econ study - in my spare time calculus, linear algebra, statistics, probability, a little bit real analysis) and did very well as far as that course went.

Then I did an MSc in econometrics (no GRE or entrance tests there). During that year I got a chronic fatigue illness and struggled to complete my MSc thesis. Then I applied to a grad school which enabled me to again avoid GREs and entrance tests.
Grad school was a disaster. I hated the grad school courses. I realised I also have a problem following presentations and that I am slow at reading papers. Imposter syndrome set in. My chronic fatigue continued (I should have taken time off but didn’t). I found that I had been focussing on analytical deduction at the expense of evidence, (and I was weak in dealing with latter.) I also found the various expected standards inconsistent and therefore confusing. When I look back, the only things I enjoyed in four years were writing scripts in statistical software packages for data collection, processing and analysis (the problem was self contained, the only criterion for success was “does it work?”, there was no-one to compare my performance too). I almost quit, but finally submitted, and passed. I dislike my thesis, don’t trust the results and do not want to publish them, despite the reassurances of my supervisors. I don’t think that I have a future in academia.

All the while I’ve been aware that although I’ve learned a lot of math compared to what I used to know, I’m still not any good with numbers. Probably a little less hopeless than before. But it takes me ages to work out anything in my head, and I just can’t do it under pressure. I just failed to get through a basic math test for a government job, which involved no above high-school math at all. I realised that all I can do is (not advanced) “math with letters” and next to no “number sense”. I’m also aware that my understanding of how the economy really works, despite all this study, is probably worse than someone who didn’t do any of it.

But more importantly, I’m pretty sure that I have spent most of my 20s trying to create an idea of myself of some “analytical type person” which I never was (and attempting to avoid disturbing but potentially useful evidence to the contrary). I believe that I’m an anxious and insecure person and somehow I think it served as a shortcut to an adult identity. But now I’m aware that it’s nonsense (and actually harmful to becoming a mature adult), but at the same time not able to detach myself from the most unhelpful thoughts – sometimes feeling stupid and worthless, and more generally having a fragile ego.

How can I move forward? I’d like advice on detaching my sense of self-worth from this “analytical type of person” idea that I’ve built up over the years. Very soon I'm going to need a job, and I’d like to find a job in which I feel good enough. Have any of you stuck with a field or some broadly defined area, despite a feeling of large intellectual limitation, dealt with those feelings and made it work?
posted by anonymous to Education (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think there's a lot of "fake it until you make it" in any job. I have managed to become decently successful in my field despite having a horrible time staying awake in university lectures and retaining almost nothing from most of my university education, having "phoned it in" the entire time.

You sound pretty good at what you do. The only thing you enjoyed was writing scripts in statistical software packages? That's great! A lot of people do basically nothing but that in their jobs!

I realised that all I can do is (not advanced) “math with letters” and next to no “number sense”.

Nothing wrong with that, plenty of people are bad at arithmetic. That's what we have calculators for. I use one at my job all the time as I am horrible at mental math despite being the "numbers guy" at work.
posted by pravit at 7:01 PM on March 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is no way for me to know what your skills are really like, but to me this sounds like a massive case of Imposter Syndrome. Your PhD thesis would not have passed if you are really as dreadful as you say. Seriously. Seriously seriously. The government math test? That's your test anxiety.

Now I'm not trying to make out that you are a world class economist, but you sound smart and hardworking. You also sound like you don't really want to be an economist. You say "the only things I enjoyed in four years were writing scripts in statistical software packages for data collection, processing and analysis". So maybe you should figure what kind of job that relates to, and move in that direction. Once you have graduated and got a job, your PhD quickly becomes a thing on your resume that says "this person is smart and works hard and sticks with projects over the long term", and no-one really cares about the details of the thesis unless you become an economist specialising in the area of your thesis.

I don't know the answer to separating your self-esteem from the analytical person, because I think most humans naturally do this with some aspect of themselves and it's really hard to break. I really think that you don't need to separate from it, because it's a perfectly valid persona. Your imposter syndrome is telling you that you aren't worthy of this standard you hold yourself to, whereas your standard is probably way higher than almost anyone can achieve, and you actually sound very analytical to me. You analysed yourself and your academic career pretty thoroughly here, and the math you learnt really does require analytical thinking skills. I think that you might benefit from some kind of therapy (coming from me, who thinks therapy is suggested too lightly and too often here).
posted by Joh at 7:06 PM on March 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Just from my own experiences of self-exploration, I'm going to guess it might be productive to inquire more deeply as to why you ended up cultivating this particular identity.

In my case, similar behavior seems to have had a great deal to do with my father's insecurity: he always needed to be right about everything, and consequently when in his company I was always wrong about everything—to the point that no matter how much evidence I had to support a position I held or how well-reasoned my argument was, he would simply make up facts that anointed his ideas as superior.

Both to avoid confrontation and aggrandize himself he would also try to reframe his personal preferences as simply being the most objective and rational option, and then feign surprise that anyone might think differently. This also helped to ensure that he never had to say "please" to get what he wanted out of other people.

If your feelings of anxiety and insecurity also stem from ways you were treated earlier on you may find that as pravit says you are very much as adequate or more than adequate in your skill set and competence compared to the other people you'll run into.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 7:09 PM on March 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

In your early 20s, you believe you know everything worth knowing. This is what it makes it possible for you to leave your family and go out in the world.

Your late 20s and your 30s are all about understanding the limits of your knowledge and your abilities.

Of course you stink at arithmetic. You've been devoting yourself to higher math for several years, not sitting around doing sums in your head. If you practice that kind of math, you'll get good at it. It's a skill. It's not some kind of inherent thing that "analytical" people are good at.

That said, your discovery that you've been hanging your hat on your "analytical"-ness is a really amazing realization. Congratulations; you now understand yourself better than you would have if you'd skated through your masters without being challenged by the program. You should be proud of your developing sense of self. It's also a great sign that, independent of labels, you have also identified some things that you are actually good at, and enjoy. Focus on those things.

If you are feeling that you're anxious and insecure, and having trouble with counterproductive thoughts, both mindfulness meditation and CBT-style therapy could be helpful to you.
posted by BrashTech at 7:09 PM on March 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think part of it is is that you are just beginning to feel the weight of adulthood and your post-school life and all the things you're now supposed to look after. Going from learning to having your subsistence depend on your abilities and identity is downright terrifying. In this case, it's time to forget thinking about who you are and to just focus on what you need to do moment to moment in order to make it through this transition. Through actions and experience, who you are will become self-evident. Rather than ask yourself what you now want to do with your life, ask yourself what you want to do or what should you do right now and do it. Bit by bit, you'll get to where you're going.
posted by alusru at 8:07 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not knowing where you are makes it difficult to give advice. Failing a test is always rough. I have been going through a professional interviewing workshop and I think many people have the same fears you do. I certainly was made to feel at times that I was inadequate by not doing well in math tests. It involves a lot of self-study to get better in math (who ever heard of a math club for adults being egalitarian?) I think to a degree living a deceitful construct is pretty glamrock at the best of times. However, not passing a test to move to the bottom of a new ladder is hardly a failure, nor is it fair to put yourself down so harshly. I am told I am analytical and I work in sales. Is that normal? No idea. It takes all kinds. I know people who strive to be considered analytical and realised a math test would show them out. I am sad an otherwise smart person was worried about failure than to try to get a job at one of the world's leading consultancies. You should see if there is a school for the test-takers and enroll there. You might discover something new about yourself.
posted by parmanparman at 6:17 AM on March 30, 2014

If you are not analytic, what are you? Testing can help the Johnson O'Connor Institute was dead on in identifying careers for members of my family. http://www.jocrf.org There are cheaper testing alternatives as well.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:30 AM on March 30, 2014

You're not Von Neumann, but then again who is? Probably not anyone on Mefi.

As far as I can tell, you are a mathematically and analytically competent person who a) has struggled with various illnesses during their education, b) turned out not to enjoy some of the things they thought they would like, and c) has not had a lot of practice at mental arithmetic lately.

Very possibly you have an unrealistic idea of how quick and easy it should be to make sense of dense papers, etc. The benchmark should not be how you easy you think it should be, but how it actually is for a wide range of people.

If you like statistical programming, you have a very good chance of being able to make a career around that.

Btw, it's part of the rabbit-hole of your self-image that you simultaneously think you are not analytically competent yet believe that you are better able to judge the worth of your work than your supervisors are.

If you can put your finger on specific reasons why your work is flawed, discuss those with your supervisors and other people, and figure out what to do about it. But it's quite likely that the bar for what is an adequate paper is not as high as you think it is.

Equally don't be too alarmed by any of this, it is not that uncommon for people in their twenties to be going through all these kinds of issues of self-discovery, coming to terms with themselves etc. It's not easy, but nor is it abnormal.
posted by philipy at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

the only things I enjoyed in four years were writing scripts in statistical software packages for data collection, processing and analysis

If you can use software that can extract data from a database, and if you know the skills to formulate the right selection criteria to make that data meaningful for the people who are asking about it, you can easily get a job. The data doesn't have to be economic data - it can be demographic data for sociologists or government agencies; it can be sales data for the customer service dept of some big company; it can be stock history data for predicting the next big crash (not that past performance is any indicator of the future, of course). Whatever.

I'm not sure what words to look for to find this type of job: data analyst, SQL, data scientist. I think a lot of business analysts do some data analysis, too, in case doing data all day is not your thing.
posted by CathyG at 10:13 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know a number of people who are really good at philosophy and would count as analytical-type people (in my book, at least), but who aren't good at math.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:51 AM on March 31, 2014

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