Austin Morlan

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The Fear of Inadequacy

When I learn about some of the world’s most accomplished engineers and scientists, their background is often similar. Their parents were college-educated. Their parents held “knowledge worker” jobs such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc. Their parents fostered their interests from a young age. They knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, and their trajectory through life followed that path. It often seems that a lot of smart educated people are children of smart educated people.

But there’s another type of person. They may be naturally bright but struggle to find an outlet. Their parents are uneducated or just blue-collar with no knowledge of technology, science, or other interests that their children may have.

For people of the latter group, people of the former group can seem intimidating. They can inspire feelings of inadequacy. “I don’t have a background like that, so I’m not the type of person who can achieve those sorts of things. That isn’t a path for me.”

I was that person. My dad didn’t finish middle school and my mom didn’t finish high school. They were unable to help me with homework past elementary school and were unable to help me navigate the trenches of high school (class selection, SAT/ACT prep, college selection).

I showed an affinity for computers but they didn’t know how to foster that interest. I’m not sure they’d ever heard of computer science or computer programming. In addition, my dad wanted me to become a tradesman like him, and so I think he was afraid to water my intellectual gardens too much. I grew up assuming I was bad at math and science and anything else deemed challenging.

So I floundered for years after high school, not knowing what to make of myself, until one day I grew sick of feeling inadequate. I hit a very low point in my life (emotionally and financially) and decided that I could be more than my parents were. I decided to go to college for the hardest thing I could think of that still aligned with my interests, just to prove to myself that I could: electrical engineering.

Thus it was that at 23 I began to seriously pursue college, the first in my family to attend. It was the source of two conflicting feelings: pride and doubt. Pride that I was the first. Doubt that I belonged. But to compensate I worked hard and put 100% of my energy into doing the best I could do. I didn’t do it for anyone else but to simply prove to myself that I could. At some point I discovered I had a knack for programming, so I switched to computer engineering which was half electrical engineering and half computer science.

At the ripe age of 27 I graduated, and I felt a feeling I’d never felt before in my life: pride in my own accomplishments. I had learned things I never thought I could learn and did things I never thought I could do. I had proved to myself that I was capable.

Three years later I still doubt myself, but I never let it hold me back. I know I can do anything if I use the fear and the doubt as fuel, and I keep in mind my past accomplishments.

So for those of you that have similar feelings of inadequacy, just remember that somewhere in the history of every college-educated family, there was a single person that took the first step down a different path.

And for those of you with children that show an inclination toward something, whether it’s writing or music or drawing, do everything in your power to encourage their behavior and help them be the best they can be. They may get there eventually on their own, but they could get there sooner with your help.

Of course, college isn't for everyone and that's okay. This is aimed particularly at engineers or aspiring engineers that feel their background doesn't align with those of some of their peers.

"Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!" - Rocky Balboa