Fear as a Motivator

I am irrationally frightened of my thesis advisor. I say ‘irrationally,’ because he is in truth actually a very nice guy and my interactions with him almost always go well. But he has this way of putting the fear of God into me.

Maybe its just how unperturbable he seems. He is the only person I know who is capable of betraying none of his emotional state unless he specifically means to do so. As a result, I will be there in his office, explaining something, and he will just gaze back at me with this  static smile, silently judging, while I become increasing convinced that I must have done something wrong. I found it incredibly off-putting for the first year or so that I worked for him, but after a while, I came to understand that his lack of reaction did not necessarily connote disapproval.

Even so, I feel that this fear has made things much more difficult then they need to be. I find myself having to steel my nerves just in order to go to him to ask for a clarification.  As a result, I have probably wasted time on stuff that could be resolved much more easily.

On the other hand, though, this fear has one major advantage: it can cause my brain to suddenly kick into overdrive and solve a problem on its own just so that I don’t need to go to him with it.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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6 Responses to Fear as a Motivator

  1. Violetta says:

    I think the ability to mutely intimidate people must be some sort of superpower that comes with the acquisition of a Professorship, for my own advisor does exactly the same. The dynamics are usually like this: I (fearfully) knock on the door, then enter the room, find a seat and start to sweat. Then, he just blankly stares at me (not showing any emotion) and waits for me to start the conversation. This is followed by a hurried and somewhat scrambled account of the experiments I did during the last few weeks, nervously explained and justified (as a cherry on top, English is not my native language so I always struggle to express myself with clarity and accuracy- or sometimes just with proper grammar).

    At the same time I keep telling myself that there is nothing to fear. It’s ridiculous. What’s the worst thing this person can do, yell at me? And I am, like you, lucky enough to have an advisor who is civil enough not to do that. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll let me know, and I can work on that. It’s not a big deal. However, even though I rationally know that, my first instinct is to react with this primal, irrational fear… Why is that? Do I really care so much about this person’s opinion of me and my work?

    One can, of course, use it as a motivator to be more independent, as you suggested. In my case, I’ve found that e-mail discussions are far less stressful for me!

    • Violetta says:

      P.S.
      Sorry for writing an entire novel in your comments section, I’ll try to be less verbose next time!

    • I learned to start talking immediately after entering the office so as to reduce the awkward sweaty phase as much as possible.

      “One can, of course, use it as a motivator to be more independent, as you suggested. In my case, I’ve found that e-mail discussions are far less stressful for me!”

      Unfortunately, my supervisor has difficulty understanding concepts/expressing himself through writing, just as I have difficulty doing so through speaking. As such, our e-mail exchanges are almost always useless. I suspect that this fundamental disconnect in communication styles may lay at the heart of most, if not all, of the awkwardness.

  2. I was just as irrationally terrified of my second thesis advisor, so I have no insight to offer. I can only say that I feel your pain!

  3. maaeli says:

    I’m still somewhat terrified by my undergrad thesis advisor. And of the second thesis advisor. and all the big “gurus” in the field I’m working in now. For me, I guess it’s partially that I do have some insecurities about my abilities and I’m afraid of completely embarrassing myself in front of them. Still, it’s completely irrational.

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