I am a really lucky guy. I am deeply talented. I had access to computer and internet technology from the 1980’s. And people around me have always given me the space to do projects that I am passionate about.
Recently I was forced to confront myself with the realisation that, throughout my life, I have always worked on exactly the projects that I most wanted to work on. Even in school, I just didn’t go to class if I didn’t want to. I learned ten times as much at home, about much more interesting topics, and still managed to ace the exams.
As part of this self-confrontation, I learned that i) this is entirely selfish behaviour on my part, ii) it’s not such a surprise that I have often lacked a mentor at key points in my career.
Over the past two years, I have been beating myself up due to my hitting a foreseeable road bump in my academic career. Naturally, when I was beating myself up I leaned-into as many negatives as possible. One of the more remarkable negatives was that a number of academics with whom I have previously worked have to some extent stolen my work.
I’m not really referring to theft in the obvious sense of the word. Nobody copied a manuscript that I was in the process of writing and submitted it with their names on it. What happened was, a number of incidents where I was not named as the first author of joint work, and worse, a number of high-impact papers where I should have been a junior author but was instead entirely omitted as an author. Let’s be clear, in each case to which I am referring the work could not have been done by the other authors without my help – so there is some grounds for my annoyance.
Dwelling on this problem led me to realise that I have largely lacked the type of mentors who place me in positions of advantage with respect to my future advancement. Most likely this is a simple result of random chance; I underwent much of my early studies in a small university in Ireland, due to health problems.
Maybe my difficulties are also due to how I went about choosing my projects. I chose the projects that were most of interest to me and my personal – intellectual – development. I think I can safely say that anybody I worked with was completely satisfied with the work. I always delivered far above and beyond any project requirements. But I didn’t necessarily pursue projects that were close to the hearts of my colleagues. They always saw me as passing along a different path from theirs. I was the talented guy, filling a gap in their needs. As a result, very few of them felt the need to nurture me.
In academia, having a mentor is almost a necessity. I have always gotten on quite well with senior academics. But senior academics nurture the careers of junior academics who are, in some sense, bringing along the next wave of their own careers. There is a necessity that the older academic sees themself in the work of the junior. My work has always been one or two steps too avantgarde to develop this feeling.
My work is my art. When I write software, or design systems, or perform a piece of analysis, I put myself completely into my work. Some artists perform close to public tastes, and are remunerated handsomely, while others are under appreciated in their own time. By being so dedicated to my own (non-financial) goals, I have probably spent more time as the latter than the former.
I will probably continue to prioritise projects which most excite me. Hopefully, I will hit it big once in a while – to put food on the table.