Working at a big corporation

So my 6 months at a large financial corporation have been interesting. The difference to a research environment is huge.

People are extremely well behaved. As of now, I have never heard anyone scream. Nobody throws things, I haven’t encountered any crying and up to now I have not seen anyone leave because of a mental breakdown or a burn out. People are quiet and work hard (although often very inefficiently). They are very polite, keep doors open for you even if you are 50 meters away, and seem to work steadily and without rush but also without idling, good old traditional protestant work ethics style. It feels like I have woken up in the past sometimes, in the era where my parents worked, despite the constant restructuring and reorganizing by management, and the big words about how things need to change now for real, it feels very old-fashioned.

I am not used to working in such an orderly and reasonable way. I feel like working like crazy on some days and not doing anything on others, like I am used to, but there is no reason to, I only rarely have deadlines and work is never exciting, there are no real breakthroughs, but also no disappointments, no rejected grant applications.

People are like clockwork here, they come at 8 and leave at 5, one hour lunch break spent wisely on sports or on networking, hairs always freshly washed, clothes freshly ironed. There is no craziness, passion, no chaos visible (although if you are close to the IT and data landscape of this corporation, there is chaos like I have never seen, and an extreme amount of illogical and wasteful procedures — but this is all under the surface, and mostly patiently accepted by those who have to deal with it). On the surface, there is a ballet of typing, walking, meeting, thinking, planning, phone-calling of serious, but friendly people in somber clothes who all constantly observe and watch each other in the shared office space from the corner of an eye, which is probably the reason that nobody seems to come late or leave early. Carpets are cleaned every single evening, so if heaven forbid some breadcrumbs fall under my desk they are magically gone in the morning. Windows cannot be opened, so that no outside craziness can get in, instead we probably get the same air for months which circulates through the ventilation, smelling more and more chemical, which makes the building feel completely sealed off from the rest of the world. From where I am sitting, far from the windows, it is impossible to make out what kind of season it might be outside. I feel like I am in some sort of eternal, timeless place where emotions and weather and smells and sounds are all damped to a degree that one just wants to lie down and not move anymore for years and years, because nothing will ever change, no bad thing will happen and no good thing, ever.

Still, from time to time some task comes my way which is intellectually slightly stimulating, and if you saw my brain on an MRI you would see some firework and some experiencing of short spans of flow-like states. Then it fizzles again, the problem is solved, and I just have to wait and wait and wait for the next mildly interesting thing to come, while I do some routine work that I can do with both hands tied on my back and eyes closed and I still have to do it, it takes time and every second of that time I am present and bored, there is no flow, no thinking, just smelling of chemicals and hearing of coughs and the slow, high-pitched words that the secretary behind me is producing that unfortunately are impossible to tune out, talking of children suffering and mean people always asking her the same thing which she has told them she can’t do for Christ’s sake.

Then at some point I usually snap and know I have to leave immediately in order not to sustain brain damage from boredom. But I don’t leave because everyone would notice, including my boss and team colleagues who sit nearby, quietly looking at their screens, and I see that they are not on Facebook, they are looking at Excel files, because everyone’s screen is visible by someone else from some angle. I still sit there, looking at the clock below the damn excel file, wishing for the day, the week, the month, the year to be over, and I know it is not healthy for me to think this way, but I am not sure how it is possible that people live an entire life inside this freaking office building, stay there for 20 years, until they retire. But people actually do this. People actually live and work this way. I am still amazed at this, and am grateful for the life experience, which seems to teach me something although I do not yet know what it is.

It is curious though how my life turned out, I worked so hard and it got me a job where I have to debug excels that were programmed by brain-dead economists who have absolutely zero analytical talent but think they do, and almost nobody even notices the difference between me and them. But I am okay, because I think it is interesting to experience life from different angles, I knew the academic angle and now I start understanding the big finance corporation angle, and I really hope I will leave again and see something else soon.

Posted in Leaving Academia | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A complete list of things that I am not interested in

  • Collecting things
  • Organizing events
  • Bringing a cake or any other type of food anywhere
  • Listening to people talk about their stomach flus, and how they get passed around in their family
  • Negotiations
  • Workplace politics
  • Following arbitrary rules
  • Doing things last minute
  • Most types of powerpoint slides
  • The opinions of most liberal arts students about art and science
  • People complaining about how bad everything is done except the things they do themselves
  • Religious people
  • Noticing and greeting people that I do not know well and do not care about
  • Listening to people ramble about detailed problems in their work
  • In general listening to people ramble about their problems that they claim are absolutely insolvable
  • People apologizing for the food they have cooked
  • People talking about restaurants in places that I have never visited
  • Detailed accounts of weekend plans including people and places I do not know
  • People telling me details about the problems of other people that I do not know, and expecting me to react empathetically or impressed
  • Being diplomatic towards assholes
  • Answering phone calls
  • Opening my mail
  • Sorting out paperwork
  • Doing household work
  • Buying clothes
  • Stories about small children, cats and dogs and other pets particularly if I do not know them personally, particularly when involving gross mishaps with food or bodily fluids
  • In general: gross and/or cute stories of any kind that seem to warrant some empathetic reaction on my part
  • Construction sites and any related issues
  • Cars, motorbikes and any related issues
  • Cosmetics, anti-aging and in particular cosmetic surgery
  • The year you traveled around in South America, and how much it widened your horizon, before you came back and continued your life exactly as it was before
  • Your amazing holidays in boring location xyz
  • The health problem of your greatparents, great-aunts etc. that I have never met and never will meet
  • The state mottos, state flowers and state cacti of American states
  • Local traditions and local sayings
  • Americans and their special kind of sports
  • All conversations about how expensive something is
  • All conversations about traffic
  • All conversation about home renovations
  • Furniture, especially designer pieces and how much your designer chair costed
  • Your expensive kitchen and how long it took to get it installed
  • Antiques
  • Open-Air Festivals
  • Sailing
  • Team sports
  • Pets and anything related to them
  • Theme parks
  • Skiing
  • Biking
  • Oral recounts of youtube videos
  • Expensive gourmet restaurants and the kind of rare snail tartar they offer only on the first Wednesday of the month
  • Where someone lives exactly if I don’t plan to ever visit them (no, it is the 5th floor, on the very right!)
  • When something happened exactly, when the exact time plays absolutely no role for the story someone is trying to tell me
  • The history of the arbitrary workplace rules that we are following at the moment
  • Political opinions that come directly from the right-wing pamphlet.
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Leaving academia: Whether or not to work in a large corporation

I had two job interviews last week, and I am currently trying to figure out whether or not I want to work in a large multinational corporation. At least one of the jobs sounds very attractive, with a likable boss, a nice team, and an interesting and complex topic to work on. The working conditions would be really nice too.

Should I accept the job if I get it?

This is what I imagine working for a big corporation feels like:

You’re somewhere in the belly of a huge ocean cruiser, making sure that some aspect of the engines run smoothly, but you do not see where the cruiser is going, why it is going where it goes, and you are not sure whether it might currently be in the process of running over a small fishing boat or polluting the sea with oil. But at least someone is paying the cruiser for what it does. You feel some loyalty to the rest of the huge crew in the cruiser and you know that they all depend on the engines working well, maybe you also feel loyalty to the passengers who are paying your salary, but the captain and his plans are extremely far away from you, and you suspect the captain may be evil, you don’t know, you will certainly never meet him except when you see him in the news.

But you are surrounded by a nice team of specialists working on the engines with you. You have fun together and you can use your talents and capacities really well. Your direct boss is likable and praises you for your effort. You earn good money and you can live a life in safety.

Is that good enough?

There are other types of jobs possible, of course, besides working in a huge corporation. I could teach, work in some small start-up, maybe even in non-profit organisations, in applied research etc.

But now the big shiny cruiser does look beautiful to me in some way. I am not entirely sure why. Maybe it is because I would be working in a team with female economists and law specialists, instead with again a majority of men, like would be the case in most other jobs I have been considering. I would really like to work closely with people with a completely different background than me, I would really not mind to learn about law and economics.

Another suspicion I have about the jobs that seem more meaningful than working for a large corporation – like working in a start-up, or in a non-profit, or some king of research institution – is that those jobs want you to give yourself to them entirely, and get very little in return in terms of stability and money. I have had enough of this in research. My effort was partially paid in me “feeling I was doing something useful and noble and meaningful” (which I am not sure I did in retrospect). And looking back, this payment was clearly not enough and still makes me feel cheated somehow. I feel I have been giving much more than I got back. In teaching, the ratio between giving and receiving seemed somewhat more fair to me, although it is still a job that wants to eat you up if you take it seriously (and I can’t avoid taking teaching seriously).

Maybe every job everywhere always wants you to give it everything, and what you have to do is simply to fight back as much as you can. Maybe my positive feeling about the corporation job partially comes from a vague idea that it is easier fighting back if the job is less idealistic. Perhaps it is easier to not work on the weekends if the job is not about “expanding the human knowledge” or “looking after the new generation”, which are really noble goals, but “letting a huge, very profitable cruiser make even more profit”. Is that the reason I am considering it?

I am someone who can get very obsessive, very driven, and who can easily give up her well-being in order to reach some goal that I find meaningful. Is the solution to that to have a work that is not too meaningful?

I once read a story about a guy who was a successful theater director. He was so passionate about theater that he became manic during work-intense persiods, following by depression, and so developed the full-blown bipolar disorder that was running in his family. He then realized that it was impossible for him to be a sane person while doing something he cared about so much. And he actually got another degree, became an accountant, and lived happily ever after.

This story is absolutely the opposite of what you read in every career-counseling book, about “following your passion”, even when this means living in poor conditions and working like crazy, because “work will feel like free time” in this way, and also “success will magically happen if you do whatever you are really passionate about”.

First of all, this is not true, but even if you manage to be successful with your passionate about, at what cost will this success come? If you are doing what you are passionate about, but are so stressed and driven that the seasons go by without you noticing, and the friendships feel like a chore, then something is wrong.

Of course, something might also be wrong if your work feels so pointless that the pointlessness of it starts to infect your personality, your outlook on life, and your mood. But I am not sure if this actually happens if the work is challenging and your colleagues are nice. Maybe then the eventual pointlessness is something you do not care about.

I think the type of work I would be doing is not unethical, but it is also not especially ethical. I guess it is neutral. And that feels a bit weird. But I have to admit that most of my research has had an entirely neutral effect on the world too, and it ate me up completely and made my life very hard. And so my net effect on the world, if I include myself and the people closest to me in the calculation, which I should, might be more positive in the big corporation than it was in academia.

Posted in Leaving Academia | Tagged , , | 20 Comments

How I feel when I feel rejected

Family gatherings and office situations are the main areas in life where I have to deal with the kind of people I find most difficult, and as Christmas is approaching, I am trying to mentally prepare for this. These people aren’t mean, crazy or unusually aggressive. They are very normal people that most people seem to like, but with me something is just always off, and I cannot avoid them. This stresses me far more than people who are openly hostile or annoying to everyone.

While I would like these people to like me, and get along with them, they have an almost allergic reaction to me and just do not like me whatever I do or say. Since they do not really have a clear reason to dislike me, because I am not behaving aggressively towards them, they do not usually show this openly, but I notice it in details, like how they look at me, how they react to things I say. I wish I would not even notice that they dislike me, but I do.

Nobody stresses me out as much as them. They make me feel like a freak, like something is completely wrong with me. I see myself through their eyes, see somebody unlikable, and I feel so off and unbalanced that I am losing contact with myself, and when I leave the table and look in the mirror I almost do not recognize myself. They make me feel guilty, ashamed and angry.

I recognize that I am the one who overreacts, but this does not really help. Most people probably are able to simply accept that there are some people around them that they do not especially get along with. They just brush it off, cool down their tone of interaction and are in equilibrium again.

I on the other hand immediately assume that I am at fault if a relationship feels weird and uncomfortable, and I have the strong urge to try to fix it, by being extra nice, interested, and in general submissive to them. Has this worked even once? No. And yet I am trying again and again.

These last months, I took a mindfulness class. We especially trained being mindful during social contact. This means feeling your body, your feet, your hands, while in conversation with someone. At first, this felt very weird, really rude, to leave the conversation for a millisecond and feel my feet, but with time, I got used to it and I noticed something changing. When I apply this technique while I am listening to another person, the other person often seems to relax. The connection becomes more natural, and I feel more accepting of myself and the other person. The teacher claimed that this is because we can only really understand, and relate to others through our body, where we mirror, and thus empathize with, what the other person tells us with words and with body language. What surprised me is how the conversation partner seems to notice this change in me almost immediately, although I have the impression that nothing on my outside has changed.

I am usually very tense in social interactions with people who seem to dislike me, and my brain is working very hard. When I feel my body during the interaction, it is impossible for me to also simultaneously listen and think all the typical things I am thinking about while I am in conversation, which is mainly about what the subtext of the conversation is, what the mood of the other person is, and, most of all, what the other person might most want me to say or do. Praise, understanding, supportive words, encouragement. I noticed this very strongly during the exercises in mindful conversation.

Of course, in this way I am not really relating to the other person. Everything the person says and everything I say seems to go through an analytical filter, and because analysis is slow, this often goes wrong, and I say something that in retrospect sounds off and artificial. I dislike my voice in these conversations. I notice that my hands are incredibly tense, and if I have some object nearby that I can secretly destroy with my hands while talking, I will do it.

So what I am going to try this Christmas is mindful conversations even with people in my most difficult category, the category of people that I want to get along with, but that somehow do not seem to like me. This is very hard. I tried it only once until now, and it made me realize my physical discomfort around this person even more, which was incredibly tiring. But maybe it is good if I recognize this strong physical discomfort, maybe that is the right way to finally letting go and accepting that I will not get along with someone for reasons completely out of my control. I did already notice a small difference in how this person reacted towards me, too. Very small, but it was like this person had discovered, on some level, that I am present as a person and not only as a shadow. And again, this is not surprising: when you do not feel your body, you are a shadow.

The thing that I have to learn is not turn into a shadow if I feel rejected by someone, and not frantically try to fix the relationship, but just accept how I feel when I feel rejected, look at it like I would look at an oddly shaped stone that I found in my pocket, instead of fearing it like a landslide that knocks me off my feet.

Posted in Anxiety, High sensitivity, Psychology | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Understanding Physics in High School

I am wondering if one of the problems that students with a fear of maths and physics have is that their mental concept of what “understanding something” means is not adapted to those subjects.

For example, I had a very intelligent friend in high school who was extremely bad at maths and physics, despite being able to argue extremely logically whenever the topic was not maths or physics. Once she told me that she did not understand what functions were, although this was something we had been using for a while at that point.
A bit shocked, I tried to explain it to her, making drawings, citing examples like “population of the Earth” as a function of “year”, simple functions like mapping x to x+2.
She understood what I was saying, clearly.
Yet she still claimed she did not really understand what functions were.

I have experienced something like that repeatedly when I was teaching. It seemed that people could follow what I was saying step by step, but then they still claimed they didn’t “understand” the big picture.
Maybe they expect to immediately obtain something “more” than understanding the explanation, some sort of intuition that others seem to have, and if it doesn’t happen, they feel like they failed.

Something similar actually has happened to me. When I was 13, geometry freaked me out. I had the impression that people who were good at it, and my teacher, were able to “see” solutions in some mysterious way that I did not have. This was also aided by the snarky teacher who continued finding everything extremely “obvious”.
My grades in geometry were bad, and so, afraid I was going to kicked out of school, I started working like crazy. I worked hours and hours, and yet at test after test, my grades remained bad.

Then, after a long time of trying hard to “see”, I finally lost it. Okay, I thought, I would never “see”. So I decided to try the following protocol: whenever I experienced a new problem, I would remember the about 15 rules of construction we already had learned, apply all that I could, and one would probably lead me closer to the solution. I’m still quite proud that the 13-year old me figured this out by herself, because nobody told me.

And that was it. From that day on, the problem was gone, my grades immediately went up. I still think I do not have a natural talent for geometry, like I have for things like algebra and analysis. But in the end, I even did geometry class at University together with the maths students and got through it fine.
But I still do not “see” in the way that my math teacher was claiming that he and the best boys in our class could “see” solutions, which is perhaps related to me having a hard time rotating 3-d objects in my head. But it turns out this isn’t necessary for solving geometry problems in school.

I suspect that a lot of people may have a similar problem with all of maths and physics. They see people around them solving problems and assume that the way this is done is by deeply seeing through the problem in a way that they can’t and wait for the big insight to happen before they can start solving problems.

However, all physics and maths problems can be solved by nothing else than applying the rules and procedures, until the solution pops up. With time, you will get there faster and not waste as much time as in the beginning, but you will always get there if you try hard enough.

And almost everyone who is willing to put in some effort is able to learn the few and simple rules that govern all of high school maths and physics.

Maybe the problem is the word “understand”. Perhaps we should not use it as much as we do. Gravity is not something to “understand” in the sense like you can “understand” the fact that you might hurt yourself if you walk onto the street with your eyes closed. Gravity just exists. It follows some rules. That’s it; nobody know why gravity is there in the first place. In its core, it is mysterious.

I wonder how it would work to teach with this mindset. Would the students feel unsatisfied? Would they say that they want to learn things that enrich them and give them a feeling of “understanding”, not blindly follow a set of stupid rules? Would they feel like they are just “going through the motions”?

However, on the other hand, if people cannot appreciate the coolness of a physics law like the law of gravity that holds in every corner of the Universe and at every time since the beginning of time, then maybe they will dislike physics anyway and we should not worry about them. To like physics, one has to appreciate rules in some way, but the same is true in any kind of advanced learning.

So maybe, it would be okay to start physics and maths with a speech going like this:

“Students, in the following years of high school, you are going to learn by heart a set of definitions and rules. The set of rules will fit onto 3 A4 pages per subject.
This is all you will need to know to do any problem and any exam that you will encounter ever in our two subjects.
All we are now going to do in the following years is to introduce one rule after the other, and then fill them with life by doing one freaking example after the other, and make all the connections to your daily life that we can, until you are 19 years old and can leave high school. We do not expect you to “see” or “understand” a single thing, nor develop an “intuition”, nor “imagine” anything. If this happens, good for you, if not, no problem.
But remember every rule we teach you, especially in maths, because if you do not know the rules of the first year you will fail every single exam of maths and physics you will ever have. And remember to solve the problems we give you, and not give up until you can solve them well, so that your math and physics muscle can grow and become strong and fun to use. Enjoy!”

Strangely, although this speech is highly uninspiring, and I would not give it to students, it would probably have helped me as a high school student. For me, the fear of geometry, and later of physics, was the main obstacle to overcome and the fear was always that I would not manage to understand or “see”. I would never have obtained this stupid fear if it had been clear to me that physics and maths is a game with rules one can simply learn, and that a feeling of “understanding” might only come later, or never, depending on how high your bar is for saying that you “understand something”, and that this is okay (and, btw, one reason that boys are less afraid of maths and physics because their bar of “understanding something” is often much lower than the bar that girls set for themselves, which due to girls often being raised to be more self-critical than boys).

Posted in Physics, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments