The old don’t grow wise; they grow careful

Take more photographs, younger Sam. Life moves on vFrom: quickly and all that remains after ten years will be streaks and puffy white clouds of blurred memories, as though life was The Road Runner. You must try to capture all its juicy mass at every given opportunity or at the very least use malfunctioning electronics to get it to stand still. Who knew Wile E. Coyote had it right all along!

I know you are worried about what is awaiting you. You are in the second year of your undergraduate degree and you seem worried that the Indian syllabus is not preparing you for your future course of study. You are right. It is not. Don’t be alarmed – you will figure it out. And in about six years’ time you will start your Ph.D. It will be the most challenging, rewarding and though you will not realise it while it lasts – it will also be the most fun you will have.

You will study medical research intensely and you will gather much technical know-how and theoretical background to get you through scores of academic discussions with your peers and also seasoned scientists. You will do well enough. Just stay honest and extend your capabilities on a daily basis and you’ll be fine. But here’s the fine print that you will not realise existed until you are I. It’s part of the ‘Terms & Conditions’ you agree to without reading and then blame Apple for desensitising you to such matters. Ironically it is the most obvious thing there is. A Ph.D. is exactly what it says it is – a degree in Philosophy. It doesn’t matter what subject you chose to dissect. Not much of a fine print actually.

What it truly teaches you are things that can’t be graded or examined. It will change how you perceive effort and reward. It will turn your priorities around and make you question every belief you ever held. I lost my bearing after one year. I was tired of looking inward for answers and I turned to (as always) books for comfort. I found my panacea in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Pirsig. Some of his words hit home and stayed there.

“You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself.”

Pursuing a Ph.D. is like climbing a mountain. It’s a marathon. It’s an endurance sport of every kind. Understanding this helped me see it to the end. Learn to find peace in patience, or you will suffer younger Sam. It will be the toughest test of them all. No three-hour cram on calculus will ever come close.

thesis in coffee

Neither can any other achievement rival the joy of hearing your thesis committee declare in unison that your work is worthy of a doctorate. It will be a nerve-wracking week preparing for that meeting. 4.5 years will come down to 45 minutes. And then when you see the heads nod and your advisor’s proud smile – it will be a moment forever etched in your memory. It’s almost worth going through it all, just for that moment. The final thesis defense that you will share with family, friends and colleagues will end in tears of joy and many happy hugs. There’ll be so many wishes from around the world; all sincere and all beautiful.

(c) Sam Rappaz

You will sit down with your fellow graduate students who are currently struggling and rattle off worldly wisdom like a war veteran. Then, you will sit down with graduate students who came before you, all doctors in their own right now, who made your insecurities vanish when you started, and have a laugh about how every thing comes to pass. About the grand scheme of things and how we become so focused on tiny details that we forget what made us passionate in the first place. We forget that the process is, in itself, fun. Don’t forget to have fun Sam. You are too serious about everything. To remind you of exactly that, your lab will present you with a hand-made personalised graduation hat. It’s a special tradition in this part of the world. They will collect snippets of your life, your likes, your personality and ask you to wear it as a mark of distinction at the after-party following your defense. It’ll be very cool and very pink. You would have helped to make many during your time as a student. You would have dreamed of having one of your own, for it would mean that the ordeal was over: a cardboard hat to crown your own personal glory.

Now, isn’t all of this something to look forward to?

I’m not only late but also lazy with the Daily Prompts from Nov 14 (By Hand) and Nov 15 (Good Tidings) which I have combined to write the piece above. I’m playing catch-up!

PS: The title is paraphrased from the original quote “No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” – Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms)

4 thoughts on “The old don’t grow wise; they grow careful

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  1. I really enjoyed by your write up and also proud of you my Dear Daughter. But still lot to be done in your field. My Blessings will always be there with you though you are far from me.


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