Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Being below average ...

The first thing I would point out is this: to come to Caltech is an advantage in certain ways, and in other ways a disadvantage ... But there is also a certain disadvantage: because Caltech has such a good reputation, almost everybody who’s the first or second in his high school class applies here. There are lots of high schools, and all the very best men apply. Now, we have tried to figure out a system of selection, with all kinds of tests, so that we get the best of the best. And so you guys have been very carefully picked out from all these schools to come here. But we're still working on it, because we’ve found a very serious problem: no matter how carefully we select the men, no matter how patiently we make the analysis, when they get here something happens: it always turns our that approximately half of them are below average! 
Of course you laugh at this because it’s self-evident to the rational mind, but not to the emotional mind—the emotional mind can’t laugh at this. When you’ve lived all the time as number one or number two (or even possibly number three) in high school science, and when you know that everybody who’s below average in the science courses where you came from is a complete idiot, and now you suddenly discover that you are below averageand half of you guys are — it's a terrible blow, because you imagine that it means you're as dumb as those guys used to be in high school, relatively. 
That's the great disadvantage of Caltech: that this psychological blow is so difficult to take. Of course, I’m not a psychologist; I'm imagining all this. I don't know how it would really be, of course! The question is what to do if you find you're below average. There are two possibilities. In the first place, you could find that it’s so difficult and annoying that you have to get out—that’s an emotional problem. You can apply your rational mind to that and point out to yourself what I just pointed out to you: that half of the guys in this place are going to be below averageeven though they’re all tops, so it doesn’t mean anything. You see, if you can stick out that nonsense, that funny feeling, for four years, then you’ll go out into the world again, and you’ll discover that the world is just like it used to be—that when, for example, you get a job somewhere, you'll find you're Number One Man again, and you'll get the great pleasure of being the expert they all come running to in this particular plant whenever they can't figure out how to convert inches to centimeters! It's true: the men who go out into industry, or go to a small school that doesn’t have an excellent reputation in physics, even if they’ve been in the bottom third, the bottom fifth, the bottom tenth of the class—if they don’t try to drive themselves (and I'll explain that in a minute), then they'll find themselves very much in demand, that what they learned here is very useful, and they’re back where they were before: happy, Number One.

Richard D. Feynman [Tips on Physics, 2013]

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