Two weeks ago, I was selected as one of 50 most promising talents of the Netherlands, of 2022 (I even appeared on the cover of the magazine!). The newspaper (FD) had organized a meeting on Teams to celebrate the release of this special issue filled with stories of those 50 talents.
During that celebration, something really embarrassing happened...
The editors had prepared a small quiz for all the talents on the call. There were some cool prizes to win, like a lunch with the chief editor of your field (and I've learnt by now that having connections with journalists is very useful...). To answer the questions, we had to type our answers in the chat.
Questions included things like: 'What's the average age of all the selected talents combined?', and 'What issue are these talents most concerned with, climate change or polarization in society?' About half of the participants made it to the final question, which was: 'In what year was our newspaper founded?'
This was the only question that wasn't multiple choice, and that required us to guess a year (without quickly googling the answer, of course). Whoever would be closest to the correct year would win the first prize (meeting the FD editor).
Now here's the thing: I had no idea when this newspaper was founded. My first instinct was to go with the first half of the 19th century. But then I saw the guesses of other people in the comments: someone guessed 1955, another person 1940, the next person 1958, and another guessed 1948... This developed into a stream of answers all guessing somewhere mid-20th century.
When 'playing it safe' backfires...
So I began to doubt myself: Wouldn't I look really stupid? If everyone was guessing mid-20th century, wouldn't they be right? I had to decide within seconds, so I followed along with the others and guessed 1960 (I was on the upper side, I felt it was a strategic move).
The right answer? 1796.
The person who ended up winning was the only person that hadn't guessed somewhere mid-20th century. (She'd put 1660, but admitted this was actually a typo, as she'd wanted to put 1960...).
I felt super embarrassed. Because now I was the person with the worst guess of all.
Later, when I reflected on this, I realized how interesting this situation had been. I'm sure more people had felt just like me: unsure of themselves when they saw all these similar answers coming in. Self-doubt, fear of looking stupid, thinking 'the others must be right, if everyone seems to think this'...
When, in reality, if I had gone with my initial guess and ignored the chat, I would have totally won!
Embracing the rebel spirit
This may seem like a small moment, but it actually reflects my experiences at large: my biggest accomplishments in life (such as completing 3 degrees in 3 years' time, my research award at Cambridge, and even this cover feature), are all a direct result of my REBEL spirit.
I've reached new heights every time I said: 'you know what, I'm gonna do this my way. I'm going to follow my own path regardless of what others do or say'.
That rebel spirit is something that I have to keep training, day after day. Because it is not easy to go in the opposite direction of everybody else. It often feels scary, uncertain, sometimes even lonely. It helps not to pay too much attention to what others are doing or thinking, and to focus on yourself instead (that's where I went wrong with this quiz).