Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Automaton People

This automaton was built ~ 1800.
Our educational system (even in the best of the best schools) tries hard and often succeeds in turning us into some sort of automatons without feelings or families. The poster child for these automaton-like people is a woman becoming "man-like" to join the workforce. To me it just means that we all wear shapeless clothes and try to dismiss all feelings. We spend most of our time at our computers. When we don't work, we browse the web.  Because of demands on our time and visa requirements we stop being there for existent family, and then lose the courage to invest in a new family.  The few of us who do have families are told to not feel guilty when we don't spend time with our children since this means our partner & the child-care centres "lean in". After our education is complete, a very small fraction of us are labeled as successful by the society.

So what is success? I went to really good schools. I was educated at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Bachelors and Masters) and Cornell University (another Masters and PhD; I received my PhD from Cornell before I turned 25). Afterwards, I worked as a researcher at the Pennsylvania State University, and now I am a researcher at the University of Zurich. I have worked with people who are described on wikipedia as having significant impact on the world as we know it. Interacting with and learning from individuals who are not just smart, but what my brother and I call "out of this world smart", is pretty amazing. I admired and respected all the people I worked for/with, and I hope I have managed to stay "friends" (as much as my time and theirs allows) with some of them.

I have no good advice on how to win the Nobel Prize or on having the perfect life or even on how to be successful. If I had, I would have won the Nobel prize myself and spent less time feeling unfulfilled and unproductive. However, I think I understand better than before that success is a mixture of talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time with an open mind. The latter aspect is typically forgotten later in life even by the winners themselves.  It's difficult to work hard, and not lose yourself in the work (too much). Yes, all these amazing people have worked a lot and often still work very hard. However, most of them were able to work hard while gauging what is important and what not of what they did.   Of course, this instinct is also built through trial and error and more work while retaining some part of one's personality. People win prizes when they are young because that's when they have the courage of going in a different direction than most of the crowd. These winners are people whom our schools failed to conform to the beaten path for a little while. Don't worry they are (almost) all automatons, too by now. Also, perhaps one does not have to be as popular as Angelina Jolie or be a Nobel Prize winner to feel successful and fulfilled.

The shapeless dressing, and the not having/exhibiting any feelings is more prevalent in sciences and engineering and yet every year scientists wonder why they have so few women in their ranks. There are also very few women at the top if we average over all fields: industry, politics, science, etc.  The reason for this may be that women have a stronger instinct of preservation/survival because the human race depends on us, and so we run away more easily than men when we see automatons/the automaton path. People don't know how to not be automaton-like, and yet be labeled as successful.  The consequence of continuously trying to fulfil these aspirations is that we often lose our creativity along the way, and our families, and our humanity sometimes too.

I will conclude with "Sorcova Vesela" (various translations or wikipedia, youtube), which is an old folk song/carol that is sung by boys to young women on New Year's day.

The Romanian version:

"Să trăiți,
Să-mbătrâniți. Să-nfloriți,
Să mărgăriți,
Ca un măr,
Ca un păr,
Ca un fir
De trandafir.

Tare ca piatra,
Iute ca săgeata
Tare ca fierul
Iute ca oțelul.
La anul si la multi ani!"

and the English translation:

"May you live long, may you grow old,
Over summer, over spring,
Like a pear tree, like an apple tree, 
Lovely like a rose 
Tough like a rock 
Fast like an arrow
Strong like iron,
Sharp as steel.
Happy New Year!"

This song is closer to my heart than superman or superwoman because my brother and I used to serenade the old ladies in the neighbourhood with it on New Years Day. At the time I had a vague idea that only boys were supposed to sing it, but singing it was fun and my brother would have felt lonely singing without me. Also, we were both equally tone deaf. So, our signing meant we were screaming the words all in the same pitch while waving the "sorcova" - a stick covered with shinny paper and other ornaments.  I finished college before I realised the song was funny.

The song is inline with the superhero concept, i.e., people who are so efficient that they do everything and do it right in addition to always being awesomely good looking independently of what they just went through. In the end, we have always wanted and perhaps we will always want to be like that. So, do I want to be like that? Well... I want to be/remain beautiful, healthy, intelligent, strong and efficient preferably for as long as live, I'd like my children and nephews and nieces to be like that too, and I hope to live for a very long time. Everybody does, and I am human after all. But first and foremost I want my family and I to be healthy, and then I believe that all other things will naturally follow, and that even when they do not, life is still beautiful and worth living.

Conclusion: I think people should stop referring to the ideal working person as "man-like", when they really mean it to be an asexual being.

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