How did it feel to be in some of the best Universities in the world?
Somebody asked me one day whether I felt inferior when going to top tier universities and competing against incredibly smart people. Although the answer was and still is no, I think there is much more to it and it opens up a good topic for discussion.
The fact of feeling less than others might come from different sources, which I am not well aware of and I do not think I have sufficient knowledge to discuss it. However, I can discuss my mentality when facing situations the previous question presents. For me, it all starts by not feeling like I am competing against other people. Why should I? Why should my objective be to be better than somebody? In my humble opinion, this way of thinking is fundamentally wrong. It might get you somewhere, but I don't want to do it like that. Instead, what I aim at is to learn from that people, listen to them, admire what they have accomplished, accept criticism, and ask them anything I feel like if I have the opportunity.
"Why should I compete against other people? Why should my objective be to be better than somebody? In my humble opinion, this way of thinking is fundamentally wrong.
Let me put a couple of examples that I hope will clarify the way I try to do things.
Carnegie Mellon University
I have never felt so underprepared as when I was developing my master thesis in the US. Especially, after the first class that I attended from an Operations Research course for PhDs. I do not even have words to describe the students attending the class. I was fascinated by their responses and the complexity and level of the lecture. Did I feel inferior? Well, I would call it significantly underprepared. Did that make me quit? No way. Did I try to compete with my classmates? Of course not. I learned as much as I could, attended every single class, and took the knowledge that would overlap with my master thesis and that would help me to carry it out. My time in the US felt like an extraordinary experience that made me learn at the highest rate I have ever witnessed. Going to such places might not always be easy, but from my experience, it was worth it and I will be forever grateful to all the people that I met, and that helped me in the process.
"Going to such places might not always be easy, but from my experience, it was worth it and I will be forever grateful to all the people that I met, and that helped me in the process."
In my view, a desire to compete at all costs might hinder your ability or possibilities to collaborate with others. Carrying out collaboration projects is about everything I have done in my PhD. The first publication of my PhD came from a collaboration between Nico and myself and it all started in my stay in the ETH a bit over a year and a half ago. One more time, our expertise was not as strong as the project demanded, but we both started learning about it and pushed our idea until we got it published. Throughout the project, we shared a GitHub repository to write the code and build our model. It was the first time that my code was exposed and criticized. But as mentioned earlier, you need to acknowledge that people do things way better than you. There is no reason to close yourself and not improve. I accepted that I was writing code in an unclean way, tried to improve, and learn from somebody that could do it better. One more time, there was and there is no reason to compete against other people, let alone somebody you are collaborating with. Just keep learning from them and I am sure they will learn from you as well. I can tell you that the way I write code would not be the same if it would not be by accepting the critics and building upon them.
"There is no reason to close yourself and not improve. I accepted that I was writing code in an unclean way, tried to improve and learn from somebody that could clearly do it better."
In my opinion, the chances of feeling underprepared, hear critics, or be exposed might increase when you go to top universities or companies in the world. Some people might not like to be in those situations, but I would say is one of the greatest opportunities to learn one can have. If you are facing any such situation, I would suggest trying to not feel bad about it and avoid blaming the situation on something or somebody else. Try to learn and be the best version of yourself and I am sure that to achieve this, learning from other people and not competing with them is one of the key steps.
Although it may depend on the way you see the world, meeting and working with people smarter than you have the potential to be an awesome experience. Build a team, enjoy the process, learn from each other and grow. It feels incredibly good and I might not be mistaken if I say that it will help you in any step you take later in your career. I hope it was useful.
From a friend,