Sunday, June 8, 2014

Educated, first world, young, white male privilege

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but I keep putting off in favour of other posts that address individual aspects of the career change instead of writing about myself.  Some people have praised me for my honesty and self awareness, and some people have mistaken my blog posts as complaints about my job.  I actually enjoy my job and find it a comfortable vocation.  What has happened is that my needs and abilities have changed and the jobs that have served me well in the past are no longer what I should be doing with my life.

At every stage in my life, for as long as I can remember, I've noticed the following patterns about my behaviour.  I've always had a need to be mentally stimulated and this is by far the greatest drive in my life.  Sometimes in my idle moments I've wondered what it would have been like to have lived in a different time or place where I didn't have the opportunity to go to university, own a computer or travel the world.  You will notice that these are all very much first world opportunities not avaiable to the majority of the world's population, and that is the point of this post.  I know am privileged to have these opportunities and I am extremely grateful to have them.  They have enriched my life in ways I can't even begin to describe (and probably in ways I don't even realise, let alone understand.)  I can't stand reading complaints from people with an over developed sense of entitlement, and hope to never be one of those people.

Once my need for mental stimulation is met I move onto the second biggest motivator in my life, and that is helping others.  If I don't take the opportunity to use the skills, knowledge and resources I have to help other people I am simply wasting my time here.  In the final year of my degree my first choice for my next career move was a PhD in physics, and this is was mainly because I felt a need to give something back.  The government had provided me with four years of free tuition at one of the best universities in the world, giving me a decent (although far from complete) understanding of the physical world.  I felt that the least I could do was to give something back so that I wasn't just a consumer of knowledge.  (Naturally when Dylan died this became not only an altruistic act, it was also one of personal self interest.)  For as long as I can remember I've tried to make a different people's lives.  From taking on extra curricular activities at school, to helping run the student union, to being an LGBT officer at university, to helping grieving friends talk, to setting up the LGBT CERN group, to taking part in physics outreach I have always wanted to give something back.  I have done all of this without ever expecting anything in return (with the exception of the student union, which provided a modest salary) and for the majority of the time without seeking recognition for my contributions.  I have no idea why, but I very rarely want to be centre of attention, and put on a fa├žade of false modesty to avoid embarrassing myself a lot of the time.

My third strong motivation in life is being independent.  I grew up in a crowded house, sharing a tiny bedroom for the first 12 years of my life.  I'm naturally an introvert, so I internalised most of my thoughts and feelings until I had the freedom to move away from home.  Since then I've tried to do my best to be as independent as I can, although at times I've failed quite badly in this respect.  I don't want to be the person that needs constant emotional support or financial support.  I'm someone who needs solitude more than companionship, and for a very long time I've found the idea of "settling down" abhorrent.  When I've moved from one place to another I've found the change invigorating (although I think I've done enough moving at this stage that it will do little to make me a better person if I move again!)  It's with this sense of independence in mind that I keep trying to improve myself and see myself grow as a person.  Having demonstrated to myself that I can move across the world, make a new life for myself and invite my friends to share some of the local life I'm starting to feel restless.

I'm also very good at collecting large amounts of posessions, which is rather unusual for a physicst.  Many of my friends and colleagues consider it impractical to fill a moving van with posessions, preferring to live out of a few bags and boxes for years at a time. I don't understand this attitude at all, and this materialism is one of the reasons I want to leave the field.  To some people it would seem shallow to want to live in a nice apartment and work in a pleasant, modern office environment, but for me it's a sign of self esteem to want these kinds of luxuries.  It took about a year of counselling after Dylan's death to convince me that it was okay to want to be happy and to take the time and resources to look after my own desires.  Right now my job dominates my life and for a while I defined myself in terms of my job.  Once that attitude changes, as it has for me, the materialistic quality of life becomes important, and he days where "love of the job" was enough to get me through another contract are over.  Again, this is a sign of personal growth.  I've lived the life of a student, in poverty, in putting up with substandard accommodation, looking to the future when things will improve.  I'm now in my early thirties and I don't want to live my life as if I'm still my early twenties.  As with the other motivating factors in my life, my materialism isn't just about making myself happier, I see most of my possessions as tools to help me build better things and improve myself in new ways.  Despite the fact I love video games I hardly own any, because I usually feel that time spent playing videos games is time wasted.

So that's where I feel am in my life at the moment.  Behind me lies a huge trail of wonderful opportunities, some of which are due to being born in the right place, and some of which are due to my own choices.  It's been a pleasure to be a part of this and I've always been grateful.  As a person I've grown personally and professionally and now I feel I'm at the next stage of my life where I've outgrown a career in physics.  I've had a brilliant time and most of the time I have enjoyed the experience (with recurrent periods of intense frustration and resentment every few years.)  Looking back on what I've achieved and the experiences I've had, I have no regrets, but I do want the chance to do something different with my life in the future.  I can't think of anything else that I could give the particle physics community in the near future that another physicist couldn't also give, especially with my current job.  It's time I took my talents elsewhere, gave myself more opportunities to develop new skills and abilities, and allow me to maintain a higher quality of life than academia offers.

If you've been reading these blog posts thinking that I'm a spoilt white man complaining about his job then I hope this has cleared some things up.  I'm aware I have a lot of privilege and I am trying my best to not complain.  In fact all of my problems are first world problems, and that's my definition of happiness.  Instead of complaining I want to do more with my life and give something even bigger back to the world.  I want to keep growing my potential alongside developing my abilities, but I've found I've reached a plateau.  Any job has its downsides, and I've explained a few I've faced so far.  For as long as the job allows me to grow and feeds my need for mental stimulation I'll put up with those downsides with a smile.  The downsides haven't changed, I have, and I want to seek some new challenges somewhere else.