You’re Crazy, It’s Impossible

Many people get told messages like this.  You’ll never manage this, you’re insane to try that, don’t even think about starting the other…..every reader will have their own particular bête noire version of these phrases thrown at them as a put down. Perhaps it was something you were told at 11 – ‘girls are no good at maths’ for instance, or ‘boys are no good at languages’ conversely. These phrases can stick in the mind and five years later deter the 16 year old student from taking that subject further. (In my case it was being told I had a rubbish French accent at the end of my first year of French, and I gave up trying to improve it although my written French at school was fine.)

Or perhaps at university you were advised not to try your hand at some option that appealed, or it was recommended that you weren’t suited to do a particular PhD. If you follow the advice you will never know whether you were right or wrong to be swayed by your elder’s words; if you don’t you may end up bitterly regretting it. I know my PhD supervisor advised me against the first postdoc position I took when I went over to the USA. I ignored him and did indeed end up bitterly regretting it. It did not suit me at all and I became bored and disenchanted. All one can do is listen to the advice and then factor in all the other relevant ingredients, including your own passion (or lack of it) and act accordingly. You have to make your own choice as to whether to pay any heed or not.

The particular phrases included in my title were reported to me as advice given when he was a PhD student by an eminent, emeritus Italian engineer Bernhard Schrefler, whom I had the pleasure of sitting next to at a dinner when I was in Padua with the ERC. He laughed about it all as he explained that the way he intended to tackle his research (something to do with porous media and soil mechanics whose details I’m afraid I didn’t grasp) was seen as undoable at the time – but he proved them wrong, very wrong and went on to an extremely successful career in the field of Mechanics. Most of his life had been devoted to computational and finite element analysis in the engineering realm.

But if you look him up now, his web pages describe him as a member of the Centre for Mechanics of Biological Materials at the University of Padua and much of his work is related to cancer: tumour growth modelling and analysis of the transport of nanoparticles in diseased blood capillaries. He told me how he realised that the same mathematical approaches he had used for decades in heavy engineering applications were just as relevant to these biomedical questions and he set out to get to know this very different community. He clearly had made a great success of the transition and had set up numerous fruitful collaborations. He was a man full of life – though well past retirement – and still full of enthusiasm for the joys of research and keen on supporting the young.

But for him, as for so many young researchers, he could have backed off in the face of the negativity he received about his PhD plans (by the sound of it, these were plans that were his own and not his supervisor’s). It is incredibly difficult to know when to bow to the apparent voice of authority and give in. The Twitter group @womanthology are running a campaign they call #Ididitanyway, inviting tweeps to submit their examples of being told something was beyond their capabilities; advice which was ignored and subsequently proved to be very wrong. Examples such as

(This is close to my heart as a physicist, but there are many more to be found under the hashtag). The campaign is also to raise funds via crowdfunding for @womanthology’s digital magazine, where they challenge stereotypes around women at work. Their tweets are always worth following and they have showcased many exceptional women with heartening stories for all to read through the magazine.

The stories linked to the hashtag show just how many people ignored advice and were able to say, in essence, Yah boo sucks #Ididitanyhow. People in fact like Bernhard Schrefler. Some things never change. More senior people have forever been telling their juniors that what they are proposing is a waste of time, impossible, crazy or whatever. Some people take this quietly, others do not.

Post edited at 11am 27-7-17 to include link to @womanthology’s crowdfunding campaign.


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2 Responses to You’re Crazy, It’s Impossible

  1. W Huw Davies says:

    An interesting blog (as usual)
    I wonder also how many girls and boys have been ‘put off’ a subject at school after being placed in ‘set 3’ .
    A case for mixed ability – only possible in a true comprehensive school .

  2. NQ says:

    I guess the above argument works for some. What about the gifted kids though? They seem to almost never get the right schooling. Bored to death in lessons, forced into perfectionism because the bigger picture of what they’re taught is too easy, can’t complain because it sounds like showing off (and weakness, and non-compliance), more likely to end up with depression and anxiety disorders – won’t fully mixed ability classes make things even worse for them?

    I wish I knew the solution to both…