In high school I was a runner. Running suited me because it required little to no coordination (at 5'9" by age 14, you can imagine what a gangly mess of legs I was), and because the first time I had to run a mile for the Physical Fitness Test I did it in 8:13 without even trying too hard. But even with all that natural talent (ha!) I was no track star, probably because I continued not to try too hard. I liked running, and I was happy just to do well, usually placing in the top third-ish of my races. But I didn't have the competitive attitude; the idea of actually winning a race just wasn't enough to turn me into one of those girls who sprinted to the finish line in unmasked agony, only to promptly hurl the previous night's carb-fest all over their coach/parents.
There was this one time though.
About 30 seconds into an 800m race I noticed something strange--I was in front of the pack. Numero uno. How is this even happening? I wondered. This is...different. But also kind of cool. I guess I'll just stay here? And stay there I did--up until the final hundred meters or so, when someone passed me to take first. As I realized what was happening, I think the internal monologue went something like Oh hmmm...OK. Well, that's a little more normal! And you know, second place is also awesome.
I mean, second place was awesome--it was the best I'd ever done in any race ever and my coach was really pleased. But amazingly, it was only after many years that it occurred to me to wonder why, when I had a chance to actually WIN, I didn't just gun it and kick her ass? Where was my fightin' spirit?
I feel like my science career has, in some ways, mirrored my high school running experience up until that fateful race. I've been happy doing good work, answering the questions that interest me most, without worrying too much (heh) about whether I'll be accepting a Nobel in 50 years or whether my name will ever be uttered in the same sentence as "paradigm shift." (yeah, yeah carebearsfuckingteaparty!) But unlike high school track, whose winners did not actually matter, science is not an extra-curricular activity; it is my life, and it is competitive as hell. As Candid Engineer recently noted, competition all too often reveals the ugly side of the human condition, but it's also necessary to have at least some competitive instincts if you're going to make it in the end.
That girl, coming up quick on my right, she is the 200+ post-docs who apply to every job that I do. This time, though, I'm making some moves. Things are in the works, people! A little too early-stage for me to tell you the details, but maybe soon. Rest assured, though, that this time, second place is not also awesome.
The Plight of the Post-Doc