09 Jul 2008

On the importance of mentors

I grew up assuming that people make their own way in the world. I thought it was up to me to make every decision, plan every move, open every door, and find my own way in my life and career. Only much later did I learn that I was doing it all wrong. Not only is my way much harder, it’s also completely miserable to be so isolated. Here’s an example. The place where I started making these wrong decisions was in college. I attended my classes, which in some cases were way below my capabilities, and in other cases were way above. Either way, at the end of class, I packed up my things and walked back to my room. I dreamed of being a scientist, just like I had since I was 10 years old. But all I did was go to class, I never spoke with any professors, nor was I ever approached by any. My talents started to appear in my sophomore year, but I was still doing things in this retarded way. Then in my junior year the first consequence of my nihilistic lifestyle happened, and I didn’t even really notice it for what it was until years later. I switched my major from Astronomy to Astrophysics, then I added a concentration (minor) in Math, and then I made Math a second major. This all happened within a couple of months. Even these bureaucratic thrashings didn’t raise any red flags in any administrators or professors. No one cared. So, I shifted my focus to math, threw away the pile of physics grad school applications I had, and requested a bunch of math ones. I went to graduate school for a year at Stony Brook, then transferred back to Columbia for the rest of my Ph.D., because my then-girlfriend, now-wife, was continuing on from Columbia undergrad to grad school.

OK, here’s the denoument to the story. In my second year or so, the reference librarian of the math library was leaving Columbia, and she was well-liked by the department. I had worked for her as an undergraduate, so I was invited to her going away party. At that party, there was a professor who was a fixture in the math department. He was the kind of professor who was very focused on undergraduates and mentoring. I had never had a class with him, and had never met him personally until I was a graduate student. We got to chatting, and it came out that I had attended Columbia as an undergrad as well as a grad student. He was shocked. “How is it that I don’t remember you?” he asked. My answer was “I do a good job of going under the radar.”

This story brings me a whole lot of pain. I know that I somehow failed to do “things” right as an undergrad. All those times I walked straight back to my room to lie on my back, have a cigarette, and listen to music, I suspected that I was doing the wrong thing. I knew I should be doing “more” or seeking more opportunities. But how do you do that? I have never been good at taking that feeling and turning it into non-ridiculous-looking actions. But I also suspect that others also failed me. The professors who taught me recognized my talent, I’m sure. A few years later I heard from a third party that one of them had called me “the best mathematician he has ever met.” WTF? Why weren’t these people looking out for me, then? Couldn’t they see that I had lots of talent but no direction? Professors like the one I was talking to at the going-away party do in fact devote lots of energy to nurturing undergrads. Just not me. So I waver between self-loathing and bitterness.

I am determined to make at least one good thing out of this part of my life story. I will be an excellent mentor, and I will always act when I spot talent. It’s happened plenty at my job, and I have been very vocal about singing the praise of new young employees who are talented. I have been instrumental in having them promoted and being assigned interesting work. I will do what was not done for me. The best would be if I ran across someone like myself, who was incapable of grabbing this kind of attention for him or herself. I will see their talent, and their reticence, and I will help them.