On finding my “big idea” in undergrad

I was asked to speak at tonight’s Jumpstart ProfTalks event on the topic of “finding your big ‘idea’–how you want to change the world–and developing the toolbox you need to translate that passion into practice”. Here’s what I came up with. What was/is your big idea?

On finding my “big idea” in undergrad…

I feel like if I had expected to find a “big idea” (how I wanted to change the world) in undergrad, I wouldn’t have found it. In fact I didn’t. It sounds terrifying! What I knew I wanted was to change my world. Nobody asked me to change the world. Nobody expected me to. People who come from where I come from don’t change the world. A high school teacher told me—told my class—this much. That remains one of my life’s worst memories. Janitors come from my neighbourhood. Not CEOs. Thankfully, he wasn’t my only high school teacher. I had others who said things like of course you’re going to university! and then helped me get there.

So my “big idea” was rather small by comparison. I wanted to learn. To do my very best. To be afraid and lonely and make my way anyway. To succeed in the face of odds stacked against me. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, but I knew how to get good grades by working really hard. In hindsight, I consider my “big idea” was learning to think for myself. I changed my world by questioning it. I stumbled into psychology because my family situation was rather unconventional and I’d already seen a counsellor, so I thought hey psychology might be a helpful thing to take. What I found there changed me. I wouldn’t have said this at the time—I don’t think I was that aware of it, I just liked psychology—but psychology gave me a method, a way to ask the questions I wanted to ask about people and relationships and identity, and it was a way to get answers. When my TA said she was looking for research assistants, I stepped up, which led to invaluable experiences learning from faculty and graduate students.

The coursework in undergrad that was most annoying and frustrating and challenging is what prepared me best for my little big idea, and what I still find useful today. Example 1: Dr. Burris asked me to collaborate on writing a paper. WHAT? I wasn’t 100% in control of my grade! That was really frustrating!! But guess what, all the papers I’ve ever written in my position have been collaborative. Just today a group of us finalized Terms of Reference for the Instructor Network, a committee I helped develop… it was collaborative writing. Most of the things I write professionally are collaborative. Example 2: Another thing I had to do that I hated at the time: statistics. And even worse, I had to take intro to university math before I was allowed to take stats. Nightmare. But if I hadn’t taken stats, and kept working hard at it, I wouldn’t have been selected to TA stats in graduate school… and it was while TAing stats in graduate school that I realized I love teaching. Every time I got to plan a lesson, I wanted to do that first before any other work. I wanted to perfect it. It was (and still is) an immensely creative endeavour for me. And then… I get to test it out to find out if it works to help people learn… aha! There was my big idea. But not until years beyond undergrad. My original big idea was to change my world. And so I did. I’m still trying to figure out how to change the world.

Comments are closed.