“What did you do?”
Ever since I decided to reach out my audacious hand and tweak a couple things with the breath analyzer system for my research project, I dreaded hearing this question from my graduate student mentor. The tweaking had started as a simple desire to become more proactive in solving problems, but, as we know from tales like this, it did not end quite as I would have liked.
Despite having worked in my current lab for nearly two years, I still often feel like there are more things than ever that I don’t know how to do, more problems that I don’t know how to solve. As I’ve previously posted, I’ve been fighting a constant uphill struggle to get over my aversion to asking for help since coming to Princeton. Although I’ve become aware of it, I’ve recently realized there’s another factor that can get in the way of trying to rectify my aversion to asking for help: hanging onto what is often just foolish pride.
One day a couple weeks ago, I spotted some odd behavior with the breath analyzer system I currently work with for my independent work project. I wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong with it, but I had asked for help so many times before that it was starting to feel like too many times. Besides, we had done the procedure several times before. So I decided it was worth it to try fixing it by myself. I rotated and pushed on some optical components we had moved when optimizing the system.
As you might guess, it didn’t work so well for me. I worked earnestly for a while to improve the system performance back to the way it was supposed to be. But instead of making anything better, I had made it even worse. Try as I might, I couldn’t even get it back it back to the way it was when I had started. Defeated, I finally called over my mentor for help.
That was when he asked the dreaded question—what had I done to the system?
The question itself wasn’t difficult. Rather, in retrospect, my decision to try to solve the problem myself seemed stupid. On the one hand, I knew I had acted under rational considerations when I had wanted to try to improve the system myself, but on the other hand, I had a whole host of experiences and advice from my mentor and advisor telling me I should probably ask for help if I was ever unsure about anything instead of trying to tamper with the system myself. It was a question of pride—should I own up to the mistake and admit I wasn’t as skilled as I had hoped I would have gotten by now?
Eventually, I relented. After all, he wasn’t trying to be accusing. He was only trying to provide the help I so desperately needed. Initially, I had tried to hide what I thought were unprofessional mistakes for the sake of defending my pride, but I realized that my vagueness was only getting in the way of solving the real problem at hand.
I think that for many of us, coming into college as many of the highest achievers in secondary school institutions across the United States inevitably leaves us with some sense of immutable pride in our own abilities. Yet as we continue to learn and grow as people, there are times when we might be forced to admit that our abilities are not exactly on par with what we would like. For me, the last thing I want to seem like is the person who cries for help before even trying something on her own. At the same time, I’ve started to realize that learning when you should concede your mistakes—and knowing when to ask for help—can be a key asset that helps you move forward most effectively and efficiently. If not, you could easily end up wasting time pursuing a road that leads to a dead end.
It is commendable we all feel such a great sense of drive to achieve on our own. The heights we can reach with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and achievement are massive. But what we can start to realize is that the pride we get from our own work isn’t necessarily lessened when we let down our barriers, ask for help, and work with other people. In fact, it often drives us to achieve at even higher levels.
Or, as I have started to see it in my own situation, when you have a delicate and irreplaceable laser at your mercy, where the smallest slip could destroy that fragile balance of objects, you start to learn that clinging onto that extra bit of pride isn’t really worth it.
—Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent