Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Being a Sponge in Oxford

On Sunday evening, I sat down, looked at my schedule (let me tell you, it's a full calendar I'm keeping these days), and realized I had absolutely nothing, no workouts, nada, planned for Monday. So I went ahead and bought myself a train ticket for the morning and headed on over to Oxford (about an hour outside of London) for the day.

Oxford is, in one word, stunning. This is the quintessential university town --- dominated by large, gothic, Hogwarts-esque spires (parts of Harry Potter were filmed here), students on bicycles whizzing by on their way to class, eccentric professors with tattered blazers and disheveled hair making their way across the street with large stacks of papers under their arms.

In a way, although they are very architecturally different, Oxford reminded me a lot of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived for three years. As I stood outside the various Oxford colleges listening to the leader of our walking tour describe each building's historical significance, I emphathized with the poor students pushing their way through the camera-wielding crowds. I remember in law school, walking across Harvard's campus, and being a bit put out and bewildered by the tourist groups. What could be so interesting about THIS? It's just a school! And don't they know I'm just trying to get to class? So yeah, now I'm on the other side.
I spent the afternoon just wandering around, soaking up the feel and atmosphere of academia. I sat in a restaurant and eavesdropped (subtly) on the two professors next to me, discussing their views on the modern welfare state. I looked, somewhat longingly, at the textbooks the students were carrying. I heard them complaining about their most recent exams, and in a way.....I was jealous.

I know I talk a lot about beer and running and manatees other mundane ridiculousness on here, but there was a time, not that long ago, when I was a total egghead. I absolutely loved college. I know a lot of people say they love college because of the drinking and the parties and the football and the freedom, and yeah, I liked that stuff too, but mostly, I fully enjoyed the classes. I fancied myself a budding academic. I found an area of scholarship that enthralled me (international development economics) and I read everything I could on the subject, got an internship at the World Bank, took every class I could find that was even remotely related, forged strong relationships with my professors, wrote a ridiculously long thesis on sovereign debt relief, just dove in head first.

In hindsight, I should have continued down that path. Instead, I applied to law schools, got into Harvard, and despite not being sure that I really wanted to go to law school, I couldn't convince myself to turn that slot down.

Once I got to Harvard, it took me all of two days to have a crisis of confidence. I looked around, assessed the pedigrees of all my classmates (fancy prep schools, Ivy-league undergrads, Senators' kids, etc.), and determined that I was the dumb one. Before we'd even started classes, I'd decided that I didn't measure up, that I was average at best. So I did what was expected of the average students.... get through the classes, stay quiet, get decent grades, then go work at a big law firm with all the other average (yes, I realize this was a relative term) students. I gave up on my interests in international development, figuring I had nothing substantive to contribute. And, during law school (and after), I never had anything even remotely resembling the passion about learning that I had in undergrad.

The point of all this.....

My trip's about fun, but it's also a lot about figuring out what to do with myself. I say I'm not "looking for myself," but that's kind of a lie. I am. But as much as I wish I'd have some great epiphany, in reality, I'm not going to find the answers overnight.

I did a group bike ride the other day, and had a great talk with one of the other riders. I've found that while Americans have been generally supportive of my sabbatical, its the Brits who truly get it. For them, to take a year off to travel is completely normal and understandable. "Sensible, even" (as my riding friend said). It's a cultural difference.

Anyway, my new friend had a great view on things. He says that we're all a bit like sponges. No matter how strong we are as individuals, when we are put into some sort of institutional framework, be it school, or a job, or whatever, like a sponge, we start to mold into whatever it is we're trying to fit into. We get squished and crushed and re-shaped into a new form. It's just the way it is.

But, he said, when you remove yourself from that situation, you start to gradually revert to your original form. Decompress, if you will. It may take weeks, it may take months, it may take even more than that. But eventually, it'll happen, and the original sponge shape will return.

The image kind of hit me. I started my leave three months ago. And getting back to my original form has been slow, to say the least. I spent a couple months thinking as little as possible. I just didn't have anything (other than my training) that interested me mentally. It worried me.... have I really become this boring? Is triathlon really the only thing that engages me enough to devote my mental energy? Is this it? It this what I was looking for? For someone who used to truly love learning, that seemed scary.

But no....it's just a process. I'm getting back to my original shape. It'll come. It's just taking a while.

On Monday, in Oxford, I made a big step. I think I was inspired by the university setting. I popped into the Oxford University Press bookstore, where they sell all the academic books they've published. I started browsing around, and found myself drawn to the economics section. I found a book called, "Overcoming the Developing Country Debt Crisis." That was exactly my area of interest, ten years ago, before I told myself that I wasn't smart enough for it.

I took the book down, a bit intimidated at first, but sat down, opened it slowly....and immediately found myself completely engrossed. It was tough reading -- it was a very academic text and a lot has happened in this area since I stopped paying attention. I had to read slowly. But an hour later, I was still completely into it, and I ended up buying the book. I kinda can't wait to read the rest. I'm maybe becoming a nerd again. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

I don't know what any of this means, what effect this has on my journey or my life or anything. I just know that sitting there, reading that book in that university town, I felt different. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was truly THINKING again. It felt good. It felt like me. I'm still not back to my original shape, but I'm getting there. Slowly but surely.

Someday, I'll be a real sponge!


  1. I SO completely get where you are coming from (in my case, it was just the University of Chicago that beat me down into feeling inadequate). And I too am working on getting out of my corporate cubbyhole and back into something that excites me. Who says we can't change our paths this late in the game - for once I'm excited about what the future holds outside of my triathlon life ;)

    1. Molly, I've got to say that I've been completely inspired by the new direction you're taking. You're right, it's definitely not too late!

  2. Amanda, this post is wonderful! Thank you so much for including us in your journey. As a professor's wife, and an ivy-leaguer, I am all about nerding out and getting engrossed in what inspires you. And as an actress, I am always falling into the abyss of who's better than me - for this role, this show, this career. What you are doing is incredibly inspiring to me, as I sit in your condo tying this email. In many ways, this first year in Chicago is also a discovery period for me. Who am I now, in this city, in this stage of my life? I'm digging the sponge analogy and thinking about what it means. It's exciting to rediscover your natural shape, and then to see how you grow as you absorb even more.