Productive Stupidity

Shortly before I proposed my preliminary examination, I had a heart-to-heart with my advisor.  I was overcome with self-doubt, with a good side-helping of imposter syndrome.  Because my advisor is incredible, she gave me an empathetic piece of advice about the source of our successes.  A successful academic, she said, is not necessarily someone with an outstanding IQ who effortlessly absorbs information like a sponge.  No, she says, those who succeed in academia are those who continue working, reading, writing, teaching, and researching even when they are overwhelmed and lacking confidence.  It’s when we work through those struggles that we find our way.

Several days later, I met with a committee member to discuss his opinion on a certain developmental concept.  Five minutes into the conversation, he gave me the same sort of speech about the importance of working through the hard times.  He put a name to it: “Productive Stupidity”.

If I weren’t surrounded by such a supportive group of colleagues and friends, I imagine that this would have been the point when I would have had a minor meltdown about receiving two speeches about my “stupidity” within the same week.  As it was, I took it at face value as honest advice and encouragement.

As I struggled through my prelim (can you tell yet that this process strikes terror in the hearts of we psychology students?), I realized the great truth in this advice.  Many a night, I stared at a blinking cursor and was overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of information that I did not know.  If I stopped then and admitted defeat, though, I would have missed out on many an opportunity for learning.  With the advice, I instead kept pushing through.  I certainly couldn’t learn all that there was to know about developmental psychology during my 8-week writing period.  Nobody could.  What I could do was to keep reading, one article at a time, and to keep writing, one sentence at a time.  By taking this approach, by continuing to work even when I felt inadequate and overwhelmed, I made a great deal of progress and, slowly and steadily, I learned.

I record this experience not to brag about my accomplishments or to imply that I have had some kind of psychological breakthrough.  Instead, I record it in the hopes that this advice can reach and inspire others and can give the same encouragement that I received from it.

So keep on writing, fellow productively stupid people!

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