This blog post discusses, why it took me ten years to find out that physics is my true passion and the area I want to work in. At least that’s my current understanding, but in all honesty, I think I knew all that already ten years ago. Yet, at that time I was too insecure and too arrogant to acknowledge it.
Why I chose industrial management
In this chapter I try to describe, how my perceptions, thoughts and feelings affected my decisions when I was studying for my first degree, a M.Sc. in industrial management. The views below are meant to illustrate the strong conflict between my personal interests, my perception of others’ opinions and expectations and my fear to be true to myself ten years ago. Therefore, any generalizations below are highly subjective and merely describe how I remember feeling and thinking during the time period concerned.
When I had finished upper secondary school with excellent grades, I was not completely sure where to go. That I would start university studies was a given, but the university, faculty and subject were still unclear. I remember a 1st of May party at my godmother’s when I was still a pupil at upper secondary school and was asked about my further plans. At that time I mentioned technical physics and paper and pulp engineering as interesting areas; I was into mathematics and physics, but also wanted to work on their practical applications instead of purely theoretical work.
During the three years in upper secondary school, however, as I learned more about all the possibilities, I eventually narrowed down on industrial management. As a mix of technical subjects, business studies and strategic management, it sounded like a springboard to success, good money and interesting work, maybe even in that order. It also sounded general enough to keep many possible career paths open, since I still had no clear vision. Gradually, entertaining the thought of studying industrial management turned into the only and best option there was.
After having impregnated my mind with a potential career in strategic management, business consulting or as a plant manager, I found the more technically oriented subjects to be not worthy of my talent. Also, while the subject of industrial management at my later university was one of the most difficult to get into in the whole country, it had to be the right choice. Had I chosen, say paper and pulp engineering, I would have wasted my excellent upper secondary school grades, since you could get in with average grades. And if you could get in with average grades, average people with average intelligence could get in. And if only average people get in and study in the faculty, the quality of the studies and the environment can’t be that good. And if the studies are not of high quality, you can’t have a successful career at a top position. And without a top position you won’t be successful in life.
Reading the above lines, I realize how ridiculous my logic was. First, while the score limits for getting into a school is a proxy for the quality of the student material, it’s also just a barometer for the school’s popularity among applicants relative to yearly intake, not a reliable indicator for the quality of the studies or the faculty. Second, many technical experts have successful careers in their respective fields, and some even study business later. These people might be even more successful leading businesses since they also know and understand in detail the products and technologies in question. Third, university studies often give general readiness for a broad spectrum of work, especially those in the areas of natural sciences or engineering, so dismissing any specific subject right off the bat is just arrogant. Fourth, I was unsure whether a business career really was what I wanted, and it wasn’t as it would turn out later.
While studying industrial management, I felt that some engineering studies would be beneficial to increase my understanding of technology and technical topics. If I was going to lead a manufacturing company of some sort one day, I ought to have at least a vague understanding of the related technologies and scientific phenomena and applications. I ended up choosing technical mechanics in the faculty of mechanical engineering as my minor subject since it combined a broad range of technical topics with applied mathematics and physics. This seemed to provide a broad yet rigorous enough basis for understanding the world of engineering.
When I took my first courses in technical mechanics, I had doubts whether I had made a good choice after all. The first courses on machine design, statics and dynamics I did like but solid mechanics 101 was a disappointment. I felt that the lecturer was not doing a good job and that made me feel a bit rebellious too, not even wanting to understand the more elusive ideas, their physical basis or applications. Nevertheless, I managed to get through the course, got a decent understanding on solid mechanics, took the next course in the subject, and that changed my view on the subject. The professor lecturing the second course was enthusiastic about the topics, could explain the ideas extremely well and motivated us so that I was hooked. Actually, it wasn’t until this point that I chose technical mechanics to be my minor; initially I had chosen flight technology, but this one course with this great professor changed my mind, and also started opening my eyes.
After the two courses in solid mechanics, I took a course in vibrations of structures, lectured by the same teacher as the solid mechanics 101. This time I liked his course and his teaching; maybe I had matured and was self-motivated, wanting to learn for myself and wanting to understand why and how the studied phenomena happen. After that came also a course in finite element method, one of my favorites: we applied physical principles and calculus to model real-world phenomena that we would also test in the laboratory. All these courses I passed with good grades, and at this time I noticed something. My grades in my minor were better than in my major.
I cannot recall it exactly, but I think it was during my third year of studies, when I started to get the feeling of being more into mechanical engineering than industrial management while also getting better grades in my minor than in my major. I also remember finding the applications in technical mechanics, like FEM-calculations, study of vibrations in structures and solid mechanics, much more interesting than optimizing a supply-chain or analyzing a company’s business strategy. To be honest, I found many of the business courses somehow lacking in substance and precision; money as a metric and target of optimization was boring.
Yet, I stuck with my major of industrial management since it was considered by students of our own and other subjects as the place to be if you aspired a high-profile business career. At least that was the stereotypical attitude, as I recall it. If you were studying industrial management, you were a cool guy, you were smart and skilled, you were ambitious and you had a skyrocketing career in business ahead of you.
This view on industrial engineering and its students was a stereotype, at which many would laugh and make jokes about. Even we, students of industrial management made self-demeaning jokes about our superiority, while at least some of us not so secretly believed it to be true but were simultaneously afraid that it might not be true after all.
As it turned out, I wasn’t interested in business, leading a company or earning a very high salary. But I was too proud to admit this, too proud to say: “I don’t want this, I want something else and I don’t care about what any one else thinks. I don’t care about whether it’s prestigious or not, as long as it makes me happy.” But I was still too arrogant and too afraid to believe this maxim, not to mention to act on it.
I started thinking about switching my major and minor around, but never came to do it. I remember thinking: “That’s ridiculous, mechanical engineering is for average people. And what would your friends and any casual acquaintances think! You don’t quit industrial management; many dream of studying it, yet never achieve it. You just keep on going, graduate, get a good job in business, make good money and have a good business career.”
Reading the above lines, it might sound like I was an obnoxious person, but actually I don’t think I was. Quite surely, if you ask my friends, they will describe me as a down-to-earth person who doesn’t brag with his own skills or achievements. All the arrogant thoughts and ideas above were rather my internal discussion which I never expressed to the outside world. I was insecure, too concerned what others might think about me, how I might look if I actually quit industrial management and pursued some un-sexy, not so well paying career.
To new paths
Let’s forward from my university days to the time after my graduation. During the last three and a half years (January 2014 to June 2017) I have made many realizations and have had the good fortune of experiencing many common wisdoms first hand.
For one, when working in a good team, like our team in procurement, even less satisfying work does not seem that dissatisfying since the people around you are so great. Achieving goals together makes the hardships. Another point is that when you are working in a good team you might be reluctant to leave such lovable people behind you, even if you feel and know that the work you are doing with them is not the one you want to be doing.
Personally, I transferred gradually from the first case to the second, realizing that procurement and business in general are not my cup of tea. After that realization I was first afraid to leave my job because I had such great colleagues but decided that I had to in order to pursue my current passion, physics.
Be honest to yourself and quit
During the last years, I have gradually built the courage to do more things my way, no matter what others think, and this finally helped me to decide for the coming physics studies. This kind of a path in life is not a usual one, at least in my culture; rather you study and graduate, go to work, start a family and retire eventually. People taking a side step from the trodden path often hear discouraging comments like:
- “You are not supposed to do that.”
- So what are you supposed to do and why?
- “You are too old to do that.”
- Maybe you are too old, but I most certainly am not.
- “That’s just silly.”
- “And what will you do in five years after…”
- Does anyone know what they will be doing in five years?
The worse part is that the more open minded people, who are ready to take that side step and change their lives, might let themselves be discouraged by those around them, or they even end up talking themselves out of their dreams. Yet, having the courage to quit what you are doing now and trying something else is essential if you want to find and pursue your passion.
During the last years I have developed and gathered enough strength and willpower, so that I will keep an open mind, not thinking something cannot or shouldn’t be done for some alleged reason; the only way to know for sure is to try. Taking my own path and following my passion, irrespective of what others might think about it, is something I have done too little of. If I do not start studying physics now, I feel that in ten years time I will say to myself: “I wonder what might have been, had I gone back to university ten years ago. I wish I had tried”
I have no regrets that I studied industrial management and worked in procurement, since I cannot tell how the alternative future might have turned out. Maybe, had I started studying physics ten years ago, I might have been discouraged and changed subject eventually. Or maybe I would have become a leading theoretical physicist and would be now working in CERN, who knows. The main point is that the path I have taken this far has helped me find my current passion for natural sciences and physics in particular and that taking a side step on my career path now is the right thing for me to do.
Look for your passion, relentlessly, and when you find it, pursue it no matter where it lies. Don’t be afraid to take a side step. Don’t regret the path taken this far. Don’t be afraid to quit and start a new. Be honest to yourself.
This post was originally written on May 21st and finalized on June 5th 2017.