It is worth dying on this hill, rather than being on a mountain top that doesn't belong to me
Updated: Mar 1
Going down the wrong path and not letting myself change my course was my biggest failure
Today I hit the submit button of my application for grad school.
You may think, "Well, congrats Kumsal. Good luck!" and "what's the big deal?! what is so extraordinary about this?"
The big deal is that I decided to apply for a Master's of Social Work, after a Ph.D. in Cell biology and 5-years long postdoctoral training. Leaving a career behind at the age of 32.
I might have gotten your attention now and maybe got you thinking "Wow, what took you so long, Kumsal to figure this thing out?" " Why now?" or " You never get enough of those degrees, huh you nerd?"
It's true that it took me a long time to figure this out. Very long.
And no, I am not doing this for the sake of another degree (I mean really? who goes through grad school for fun?? no one!)
It is kind of a big deal for me, not just because I am applying to a graduate program - but the fact that I am finally following my dream, my purpose in life to become a mental health practitioner and aligning my career with my true self and purpose.
There it goes, I said it out loud and written it down. (somewhere other than the application materials)
At least now I am determined to realize this finally, after a 15-year delay.
Well... Let me explain why now and how.
For a lifelong people-pleaser and "good girl" - someone who followed other people's expectations dutifully in my career, in my life, for so long... This is rebellion.
If you ask my parents, they may tell that I have always been a rebel, independent, and very determined person but that's not how I felt and lived my life. I just went along with many things thrown at me.
At the age of 16, I knew I wanted to study psychology. The reason why is a long story. The gist is that I wanted to understand why people behave the way they behave and how can we understand and change our behavior for a better and more peaceful life. I had this naïve idea that if I become a psychologist I can fix my family. The typical wounded healer story...
The Turkish education system at the time was designed in a way that we had to choose our track on 1st year of high school - Math & Science or Literature & Math. I was a good student, your typical nerd to tell you the truth, not a very smart one but a very hardworking one. My teachers at the time saw the "potential" me. I remember one of them telling me " You are a great student so must go to Math & Science track." As if the other track was somehow inferior and for "losers"... (what a shame!)
I thought - "yes of course I am a great student!" Naively followed this suggestion, without questioning it much - what it meant for me, for my future. Two years later I realized I made a huge mistake. That coming from this track, it was technically impossible for me to apply for Psychology programs in the university exam. I could become a doctor, lawyer, engineer but not a psychologist.
Well, that was a bummer.
So I thought "OK do not despair, I can become an MD and then specialize in psychiatry..." Well, that's funny - thinking if you can not become a psychologist, you can become a psychiatrist. That simple. Right?
Only with one catch obviously - I had to pass the university entrance exams with flying colors (Medical schools take only top applicants in Turkey, too) and going through the torturous process of medical school, further exams, and residency...
As a daughter of two medical doctors, maybe I secretly fantasized about becoming a doctor like them, or just desperately tried to fit my dream into the rigid Turkish educational structure. In the end, nothing went as planned with this contingency. I sucked at the entrance exam and didn't get enough points to enter Medical School. I barely made it into one of my choices.
So, there goes my decision as to what to do with the rest of my life. I, who wanted to become a psychologist, faced a big dilemma and didn't know what to do at the age of 18. I could become anything; a doctor, engineer, lawyer but not a psychologist.
My uncle's wife, at the time who had a very successful career at P&G, told us that Sabanci University was a good choice for Engineering. I didn't want to become an engineer but the beauty of this university was you didn't have to commit to a program immediately, that you can decide after your second year.
That sounded good to me - who had absolutely no idea to do after failing to realize my true dream. My parents were supportive of this school as the school's reputation was great and I did what I do best: followed along.
It was not my first or second choice. It was the best choice I had at the time. And I liked it as I went further along in my studies. (It was not love at first sight, yet we liked each other in the end.)
However, something was not quite right. As I reached to end of the third year, "my demons" visited me again. I thought OK, now it is time that I have my degree in biology and I can still specialize in psychology - via psychobiology.
Let's apply for a Master's program in Psychology!
I could study the biology of behavioral mechanisms and learning. I was truly inspired by Eric Kandel's work on memory at the time, so I was determined to combine my biology degree with a psychology Master's.
So as a go-getter. I applied. To only 1 graduate program. In Turkey. Well, as you can imagine, that didn't turn out so fruitful as well.
As a non-conventional student, a biology major in the psychology Master's program applications - I did terrible in the written exam. I was not even selected for an interview.
I was an excellent student at the time graduating bachelors of biology (still nerdish like high school) with a high GPA and a scholarship from TUBITAK waiting for me to enroll in a program. But a failure in the Master's application!
So, this was such a huge blow to my self-esteem. I felt like I was such a big failure. And like a fool for applying to only one program, following this foolish idea.
I still think about this to this day - and why on earth I did not have a plan B,C,D??
We live, we learn.
Now years later - whatever I do, I do all sorts of contingencies and pre-mortem. I took my lesson.
I remember sitting on my parent's balcony - staring at the screen, of the results for the interview results (that I didn't get one...)
and wondering what to do with my life, again!
There was I again, after 4 years, I was failed miserably. In a rigid and strict system that didn't let me transition to my dream career. Life was somehow not letting me, crisscross my way to psychology programs.
I admit that I panicked a little at that moment. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't stay in that feeling of failure and rejection.
I reached out to my senior project advisor at Sabanci University who was one of my references during applications. I asked his advice and whether he would consider taking me as his master's student in his program.
He offered me a place as his Ph.D. student. I knew very little about Ph.D. (other than it's the highest degree you can achieve), especially what a direct Ph.D. meant and entailed (Ph.D. without Masters's) I did accept this offer. I was going to continue working on my graduation project, have a salary (scholarship), and campus housing. At the time I thought this was a good package.
Looking back, I still believe this is a good package. I was able to financially and culturally sustain myself for the next 5 years with this offer. I approached it practically rather than emotionally.
From this point on, I vowed to approach life as a practical thing. I thought to leave these "childish idea" belief in your dreams behind. I hated those demons! I hated the idea that you can become anything if you try hard enough. I put my head down and powered through Ph.D., become very successful, and overcome this feeling of failure by overworking. At least I thought I was.
I know now that this was my way of dealing with failure and intense grief.
I didn't know how to stay in this feeling of failure and rejection.
I was afraid to return back to my parent's house, unemployed, or not enrolled in a graduate program. I thought they would see me as a failure. I sure did see myself. I didn't want to depend on them and afraid of not being able to find a job. I was afraid of many things and shattered emotionally that I failed to realize my dream the second time.
I put this trauma in a box so to speak and become an overachiever. A very successful Ph.D. followed - published several articles and truly wanted to believe that I belonged to academia. In order to become a successful academician, PI - I realized I had to do postdoctoral training. Sure thing! So, I went for it. With the idea that I will return to Turkey and become a PI.
But those "demons", those feelings that I tried to box out - never left me. As I went further along with my postdoctoral training, looking into the future of my career - they came back, even stronger. They shined through every crack. Because they were not demons but my true self. I still loved to understand other people, helping them. So at every chance I got, I found a way to get close to advocacy and mentoring. Understanding people's needs, helping them in my own way. I did this as a side hustle to my full-time scientist job and loved it! I kept devoting my free time to volunteering for advocacy work.
As a scientist, I felt proud of my degree. I liked impressing people when I told them I am a postdoctoral fellow. But that feeling of not belonging where I am, not feeling good enough never left me. The fact that I do not want to become a scientist/PI deep down indeed started to haunt me.
And I started thinking about why I was obsessed with becoming a PI, becoming a successful academician? Whose dream was this? and why I was following so sheepishly?
What was my definition of success? and why it hurt me so much? Why I was not happy after years and years of education and training with what I have?
So, one simple question - What is success?
Success means " the accomplishment of an aim or purpose". But how do we define it? What is our aim or purpose - to have a lot of money, a great career, or a big house? or to realize our true self, helping other people to become their best selves?
Who is a successful person? Someone has a lot of money, or has degrees or has a lot of influence? Are those people successful?
How and when do we define success in life? Are we even aware of our definition of success? Is it the same for all people or different?
The magic started to happen after asking these questions.
To me, success meant never failing. At any arena. To me, success meant going straight for something and following the "path" and getting it and seemly coming out in grace. No matter how hard it becomes. I persevered. It didn't matter whether I really liked it or not. I went for a lot of things because I thought it was the right thing. That it was expected from me. That it made sense. It was "the right path" for me.
I went for high grades and recognition in high school. I went for scholarships, fellowships, degrees for the past 15 years. I fought for them and got them. I was almost going after becoming a PI. Not a dream of mine at all. (Thank god, I woke up!)
What made me wake up is that even though I went for a lot of things, and got them - I did not feel successful. I did not own them. I did not feel happy.
I realized my preconceived, internalized idea of success and my path in academia was not serving well for me. I started to see that it was failing me in a major way.
The more I thought about it, I realized that I have been keeping down a road that is really not mine. I took a wrong turn when I was 16 and since then for the past 15 years, I kept going deeper and deeper.
Because I was very good at what I was doing, I kept doing it and made a career out of it.
With some internal work, I realized that I had to stop obsessing on success and stop seeing life as no failure.
Because going down the wrong path and not letting myself change my course was my biggest failure.
It took a long time, a lot of twists and turns to find out my true self. Again.
Uncover it so to speak. Unlearn the ways that I learned along the way. To survive.
I just left my job as a scientist. and sure I feel like a failure now.
and I own it.
I failed. I failed as a scientist. I left my career behind.
Now I am sitting in this feeling of failure.
I am not running away from it. I am not listening to my internal voice which keeps telling me I wasted my career. I am not feeling pushed to do something that I really do not want.
I am nowhere at the end of this process and I am terrified.
I am terrified that I left my career behind that I spent the last 10 years building as if a part of me is dying.
But the difference now is that - I am not acting on this feeling of failure.
I believe I went through the last 15 years for a reason.
It made me stronger. I was not sure of what I really wanted to do at the age of 16.
I knew I wanted to become a psychologist. But I was not able to defend it.
It sounds brutal but if you have a dream, you have to fight for it. BRUTALLY.
Fight for your life.
Last 15 years, day after day I dreamt of going back and changing my choice to Literature & Math.
I contemplated on the fantasy on how different my life would have been.
At the age of 32, I stop contemplating. I start DOING.
This is my dream and I am going for it.
I am letting go of something that really didn't belong to me. All the skills that I gained along the way are mine.
The journey transformed me.
Made me fierce. And braver.
Because I failed miserably.
I see this as breaking down something that is not mine, to build something new and strong. And mine.
I told people about this change. My friends, my colleagues, my mentors know this.
And they all supported me, cheered me up.
But I still feel lonely and lost in this path at times. Especially after I pressed that SUBMIT button.
My parents don't know yet, because I feel like if I tell them, they would even make more doubt myself, about this and leaving my career and 6 figure job there. I actually don't need them to tell me this, as I keep reminding myself and shaming myself intermittently...
So I am writing this here because shame hates telling things out loud (Thank you Brene Brown!)
And this time I am determined to follow my dream to become a mental health practitioner.
May this be through this school, or another way. Doesn't matter.
I will keep following it, Realizing it.
This time, I will embrace all the failure, and will not let it change my direction.
I will not give up.
It is worth dying on this hill, rather than being on a mountain top that doesn't belong to me.
Lastly, a note to my 16-year-old self -
It is OK. you did your best. I am proud of you, Kumsal. You made the best choice at the time, with the resources and information you have. Please, forgive yourself. Remember: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams" -Eleanor Roosevelt
November 27, 2020
This story is also published on Medium