‘Cause I can

“So many opportunities I’ve wasted
When what I wanted the most
Was to prove to the whole world
That I did not need to
Prove anything to anyone”

(Renato Russo, “Almost Unintentionally”) *

I’m capricious. I don’t shy away from hard-work, but I can only do it if I feel completely unconstrained. Doing things because I have to, because I have no other option, because that’s what’s expected of me…. that just doesn’t do it for me. I can’t do things out of fear, nor can I do them out of desire to impress people. Which means I’m really hard to motivate. Once motivated, though, I can keep going forever. The difficult thing is to get me started.

As an undergraduate, I remember really identifying with Dostoevsky’s “underground man” in “Notes from Underground”. I haven’t read that book since I was 19, and maybe that was just an existential phase every young person goes through — maybe if I decided to pick up this book today, I might find I’ve changed so much that I should be embarrassed to have publicly said those were feelings I identified with. But maybe not.

A more recent and even uncannier experience was taking the Jung-Briggs-Myers personality test a couple of years ago. The description I read of my personality type (INTJ) is the most accurate description of all my innermost secrets — and INTJ are famous for hiding their secrets really well.  Every single line made me go: “This is me! OMG, this is me too! Whoa, so me!” Here are some examples:

“Whatever system an INTJ happens to be working on is for them the equivalent of a moral cause to an INFJ; both perfectionism and disregard for authority may come into play, as INTJs can be unsparing of both themselves and the others on the project. Anyone considered to be “slacking,” including superiors, will lose their respect — and will generally be made aware of this (…).

“INTJs can rise to management positions when they are willing to invest time in marketing their abilities as well as enhancing them, and (whether for the sake of ambition or the desire for privacy) many also find it useful to learn to simulate some degree of surface conformism in order to mask their inherent unconventionality.”

And I used to think I was so hard to pin down: turns out I’m a textbook case for a personality type.

I’m confident, but hardly assertive; shy, but hardly modest; vain, but hardly fashionable (the vanity comes precisely in making a point of scorning fashionableness whenever possible); I take great pride in my humility; I like others to notice how invisible I am; I am extremely attached to my detachment, completely dependent on my independence.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been trying all sorts of motivational tricks to get myself to finish this PhD. Disregard for authority means that I couldn’t care less for the status or prestige the degree brings. The thought of dropping all at this point fails to provoke magical motivational fear: all it manages to do is to activate my shoulder-shrugging existential cynicism to whisper a “so what” through a smug smirk. This isn’t fun, I don’t have to do it, I don’t need to do it, I don’t care what others think if I do or do not complete it, so why do it?

And after days and weeks and months and years thinking about this, I finally found the answer: I’m doing this ’cause I can. Notice, it’s not to “see whether” I can, or “to prove that” I can: I know that already, and I don’t need to prove that to anyone (did I say I’m not modest? I’m not modest. Did I mention anything about disdain? ). I think the prestige attached to the PhD really works as I deterrent for me: I worry that people will think I’m trying to prove something; that I’m competitive, stuck up, whatever, whatever…   And today I realized that in my desire to “prove to everybody that I have nothing to prove” I really have been wasting tons of opportunities.

The desire to quit comes from missing my family, missing stability, missing my friends, missing the work I was doing in Brazil and the people I was working with. None of these things require a PhD. The people I miss will not stop loving me if I quit the programme (if they did, then I might be motivated to do it just out of spite). The important thing I realized today, however, is that they will not stop loving me if I finish it either.

Besides, it so happens that I’m in a position to do this, and most of them are not: I’m at the right place at the right time with the right tools; I am in good health; I do not have anyone who depends on my care and I don’t need anyone to take care of me. If they had this opportunity, they wouldn’t waste it. Why should I?

* My translation of:
“Quantas chances desperdicei
quando o que eu mais queria
era provar para todo mundo
que eu não precisava
provar nada pra ninguém.”
(Renato Russo, Quase Sem Querer)
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