Sunday, January 24, 2016

Einstein, Bears, and Mental Health at William and Mary

Sit Einstein (not actual Einstein-- just the proverbial smart person) down in a room with a problem he or she couldn't hope to solve (we know they exist).  Never expose this person to anyone except the people overseeing the experiment, all of whom pretend as though they know the solution to the given problem and act as though it is simple.  Now, our proverbial smart person feels more like a proverbial dumb person.

Obviously, right?  Intelligence is relative.  I really haven't said anything profound, and, as is the case with most of my blog posts, I probably won't, but this is interesting, right?  Our Einstein doesn't even have to be the dumbest person in the room to feel like the dumbest person on earth-- as long as the only people he comes into contact with put on a convincing enough air of superior intelligence.

I feel like this happens all the time in the media, in conversation-- really in any mode of self-expression you could imagine.

I'm not going to give the speech about the digital age and being more concerned with our image than our actions.  I won't make the claim that we found our self-esteem on likes and shares.  Honestly, I'm kind of tired of that story, and I feel like it's age-old.  Haven't we been concerned with symbols of status for all of recorded history?  Like, I'm a complete idiot when it comes to stuff that happened a long time ago, but I'm pretty sure kings wore crowns and rich people wore purple.  The whole idea of compensating for insecurities by trying to paint a more perfect image of ourselves is nothing unique to the twenty-first century.

This is a bit of an aside, but if you're reading it, then it probably comes full circle in good time.  I think it's interesting to look at the way this makes other people feel.  Right?  Like, I've posted several pictures of my physics homework on social media in the past.  The average bear can't make heads or tails of it (half the time, neither can I).  It looks complicated and foreign.  This probably affects said bear in some way!  The bear probably doesn't like looking at what his fellow forest-beasts are doing and thinking "Hmm.  Well, I have no idea what that means."  Do I think about that when I hit post?  Hopefully not.  You'll have to take my word that I don't.  But I when I see Suzy's Computer Science test or Jimmy's Arabic homework, it opens my eyes to the things I don't know.  When I listen to sports analysts, I have no idea what they're talking about-- I don't speak their vernacular.

So now we get to be psychologists.  How does that make us feel?  It's a good question, and I think everyone has a different answer.  I don't feel dumb when I see everything Suzy and Jimmy know that I don't.  But I do feel kind of small.  I know a lot about some things.  Physics.  Math.  A few video games.  Euchre.  But I know very little of most others.  Language.  Culture.  History.  Now, I said I don't feel dumb when I see what other people know about the things I don't have much experience with, but what about our Einstein?  Let's say math is his thing, and the problem his overseers give him is to discover the lost proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.  No one has done this, yet, but they're pretending this problem is elementary (Watson)!  Poor Einstein would feel destroyed by this, wouldn't he?  Yet I'm not destroyed by the fact that my friend Jacob knows a lot more about history than I do.  I guess the difference is context.  Our experiment kind of assumes some level of naivete, limited exposure, etc...  We're all pretty well aware that we're not the dumbest person in the world, right?  Now we're getting to the point.  You feel it, don't you.

Our final stop on this intellectual journey brings us to academia.  I rarely post a Facebook status saying "I got a 54 on my Classical Mechanics exam!"  That's not really a thing.  But I might post that "I had a rough semester in Class Mech II, but I managed to pull out an A in the course!  Praise God!"  Why post one and not the other?  Obviously, the first makes me look like an idiot and the second makes me look like a hard-working, successful student who doesn't crumble in the face of hardship. I don't need to belabor that point-- you get why we publish what we do.  But what does this do to others?  Let's go back to our bear!  Let's say some other furry beast didn't end up with an A in Class Mech.  They see that I did and now they feel belittled.  In fact, anyone who posted much of anything about their grades probably talked about their good ones.  Now the sad bear is practically in Einstein's position because everyone is pretending like they know the proof to the Fermat problem.  Little does the grizzly know, I got a C+ to his or her A- in Electronics or a B- to his or her B+ in Quantum.

I feel as though this is the biggest issue at William and Mary.  I love my college.  Ask me one day to tell you about all of the good things.  But one thing we do poorly is portraying ourselves in a realistic light.  Here comes my psychoanalysis-- ready?  We all came from the top 10% of some high school somewhere.  We had good grades.  We had good SAT scores.  We were big fishes relative to our tiny ponds.  All of a sudden, someone drops us in the ocean, and we realize that we're not as big as we thought we were.  We question whether we can even survive in salt water.  We struggle to beat the average.  It's a shock!  It is!  It's scary.  It's unnerving.  Many of us went from success without effort to failure with blood, sweat, and tears in just one year.  So how do we compensate?  We tell all of our friends how much work we have to do and how hard our tests are, omitting the lazy Saturdays we've spent watching Netflix, then we post to Facebook about our amazing grades, neglecting to mention our failures.  The result?  Everyone feels like they're drowning.  If we were just honest with each other about success and failure alike, if we were just truthful about how many hours we actually spend studying versus wasting daylight, if we were just realistic in the way we portrayed ourselves, I believe it would do wonders for the mental health of this campus-- and I have a feeling that William and Mary is just a microcosm of the world at large.

Surround Einstein with enough convincing actors, and he might just lose hope before he ever has the chance to achieve something great.