When I was in twelfth grade, I took a political philosophy class. We read classics — Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government — and every day in class we had discussions about the texts and about political topics of the day. This was the 2007-2008 school year, and things were gearing up for the 2008 presidential election. And as I sat through class after class with my mouth shut tight, I wondered how my classmates could possibly know enough about any topic to feel comfortable speaking up. I felt like I had barely scratched the surface, even after doing the readings and listening to others’ opinions. A part of me kind of thought that no one was qualified to speak on a given topic until they had read nearly everything written about it. After a couple of weeks, I determined that none of my classmates really knew much more than I did — they just spoke up anyway. This was not a satisfactory conclusion, and I continued to be quiet as a mouse every day. But my mind kept working on this problem and eventually I landed upon this : while my classmates didn’t know enough (by my standards) to talk, neither did anybody else. Practically no one on Earth knew enough on these topics by the standards I had imagined were necessary, and if we all only spoke on those topics on which we had “my” standard of expertise, each citizen of the planet would have one thing they could say (and one thing only). Conversation would not go far. What a relief! No one was an expert. We were all just students, without answers, exercising our brains and learning what our thoughts were by voicing them to each other. I spent the remainder of the school year enthusiastically debating topics in class with a particular classmate and friend with whom I always either 100% agreed or 100% disagreed.
Sadly, my high school revelation did not magically endow me with lifelong confidence. Especially in the academic world, it can still often feel like everyone else knows everything and my presence in the classroom is a tragic mistake. But on some level, I know (or at least hope…) that that isn’t true, and that my ways of thinking and communicating are just more cautious and steady than others’ ways — and not necessarily worse. But I still need that push sometimes, to just talk. Just share. Just email that professor, just start the blog, just voice my opinion. This past April, that push came in the form of a bottle of nail polish while I was browsing (AKA avoidance-shopping) at Target. I had been dragging my feet about writing a project proposal for a summer research project. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, and I was scared of being told that my proposal was crap and I was clearly not cut out for a research career and should give up now (yikes). But I would have to do something. As I was looking at the nail polishes, trying to pretend that the only decision I had to make was what shade I preferred (and not what, specifically, to study, and how to find a professor, and how to convince him or her to work with me), my eyes spotted one label on a hot-pink polish and my face broke into a grin. “E-nuf is E-nuf.”
That’s right, I thought. This is ridiculous. I’m a good student, and everyone has to start somewhere, and enough is enough. I’ve agonized enough. I always agonize enough!
So I bought the polish, went home, painted my toenails, and wrote my proposal that very night. My proposal was (good) enough — I was (good) enough — and that is the story of how I began my first-ever research project.
(I went on to finish the project, too, but it’s not nearly as good a story. It mostly involves a LOT of time at coffee shops and libraries, and covering the whole apartment floor with papers.)