Earlier today, I received this Tweet from a guy who lives in my town. I've met him once or twice.
It was nice to get (thanks, Cian) if a bit out of the blue, but it illustrates a common misperception people have about me, and I want to talk about it. This is, obviously, a very personal post, so bear with me.
A lot of people, mainly in my school, think I "win everything". I know this because they've said it to me multiple times, often not too happily, as if I've personally taken the prize from their hands when they didn't even enter.
(Just to appease the pedants: it's not, of course, possible to win everything. You can't, for example, simultaneously win "Best Louth Irish Dancer" and "Best Carlow Irish Dancer". It's also very unlikely that you'll win a prize for ballet and the Nobel Prize in Literature and Physics and the World Cup.)
I've won a few things. I'm proud of some of them, including the N.I. Young Scientist of the Year, the Intellectual Ventures prize and winning Drogheda Young Innovators. But I don't think about them often - the things I'm most proud of are things I keep going, like my blogs (and hopefully ongoing research). It really doesn't feel like I've won a lot, though (and I haven't) - here are three reasons why.
First, there's a concept in economics, although really it's pretty well-known, that happiness is pretty static through life. Lottery winners returned to their original emotional state six months after hitting the jackpot; amputees bounced back further than expected.
With most of the prizes I've won, I was happy for a day before reality crashed back in and everything settled down. It does seem a bit hollow and pointless. It does help when there's money or a trophy to remind you, but the excitement fades away fast.
The second problem is my preoccupation with the ultimate. Just like I seek total honesty, I find it hard to feel proud of prizes with built-in caveats, like 3rd place in the Individual Senior Physical, Chemical and Mathematical Sciences section of the BT Young Scientist 2015. Anyone who saw my face going up to the stage to collect that one knows how I feel about that sort of thing.
This is a recipe for unhappiness, really: there's always going to be something bigger. Even if I won a competition outright, I'd only be the winner for that year. Win a national prize, and you still have hundreds of competitors. I know it's not going to bring me satisfaction.
The third problem is that while someone might look at me and think "She's won so many prizes, she wins everything", I'm looking at and talking to people who have won so much more. It's difficult to be proud of yourself when you're talking to people who've won the Global Google Science Fair, to young entrepreneurs, to published teenage authors, to people with phenomenal achievements.
The day I won N.I. Young Scientist of the Year (and the Queen's University Award for Mathematics) was amazing, one of the best days of my life, but the girl who went with me from my school won the one prize above that, the Intel prize that won her the whole competition (I'm going there this year and I want nothing more than that prize, I've worked so hard for it). That same girl was with me, winning bigger prizes, on the whole science fair circuit that year. It definitely keeps you humble.
I guess even these people might look at Elon Musk or someone and feel similarly insignificant. It's a problem of perspective, I think, and of who you surround yourself with. If you're around people doing worse than you (subjective as that is), you're going to feel accomplished; if you're around people doing far better, you're going to feel insignificant. Ideally, you'd find someone just slightly higher than you in life, someone you have a chance of catching up on.
Now, in case that sounds defeatist, I haven't given up. I don't think any of the people I've mentioned above are better than me - there was definitely a lot of luck involved too - and I intend to achieve amazing things. But that's my explanation as to why it doesn't feel like I've won a lot of things. People just slightly ahead of you are very useful as motivators - so when they're quite a bit further ahead, it's a mental stretch to be able to do that.
In conclusion: I may have won a lot of school prizes, and I know that's what a lot of you see. But you need to look ahead and above you. And - if happiness isn't your main priority - keep reaching.
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