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Physics What to do when you feel like you've wasted your potential?

  1. Jun 29, 2016 #1
    I apologize if this seems out of place on this wonderful forum.

    I remember harboring a love for astronomy as a child, and I had this dream of becoming a university professor, I was a bright kid, I used to be a straight A student in grade school without even trying, and I got accepted into a gifted program,

    I remember receiving compliments for my intellectual prowess all the time, then somewhere along the line, before high school, my grades slumped, I started failing regularly, I barely got accepted into AP maths and physics in high school and I ended up barely passing those as well,

    For the past two years ever since I graduated I've been having bouts of anxiety and depression, I always feel like I could have been so much more had I kept myself in check and worked hard, I feel like a failure, like I'll never succeed, the thought of going to university scares the hell out of me, I beat myself down all the time, and the worst part is, after working blue collar jobs in which I find no satisfaction, particularly because there is no intellectual stimulation,

    Throughout those years since I started failing, I've retained my love for the philosophy of physics, I find inspiration in the life stories of physicists and mathematicians, and I still wish to add my name to them, but that also depresses me, because I feel like dead wood, like I'm just a poser, because evidently my maths skills were appalling during high school, so why dare even think about it?

    I feel like I'm wasted potential, like a has-been, like I'll never amount to anything let alone get a degree in physics/math, has anyone ever been through something similar? If so please share your opinion I could really use it.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 29, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 29, 2016 #2
    Start today to change your life. Sounds like you're still young, 20 maybe? Can you imagine how you will feel if you drift for another 20 years?
  4. Jun 29, 2016 #3


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    See a doctor and get a complete medical with blood analysis . Anxiety and depression are medical problems in themselves and they can also be symptoms of other problems .
  5. Jun 29, 2016 #4
    I've had a similiar situation and I see this all the time. Basically although medicine may help it wont fix it, the core of the problem is your attitude towards yourself, being overly critical of yourself, constantly beating yourself up etc. is what is causing your depression. Fix that and your mental issues will go, then you can concentrate on and search for paths that are still open. So to sum it up, be nicer to yourself, not weirdly or unrealistically, but dont 'beat yourself up', instead 'discuss' things with yourself Without Blame, for example: "I feel like Im unhappy, why is that..." "Is my current situation bad or just not what I want the most" "(talking to yourself) What do you think of the situation? Should I change?" then you may look for options you can still take, like astronomy hobbies (maybe buy telescope?), part time endeavors, some uni courses are taught in the evenings to accomodate for full time workers etc
    Remember no blame, you won't be able to complelely stop it cold turkey, but you should stop yourself each time it happens and deem it unacceptable, slowly it will become less frequent until finally you can stop unconstructively beating yourself and instead constructively (and respectfully) discuss, criticise and brainstorm solutions and pathways with yourself
  6. Jun 29, 2016 #5
    There's lots of good advice above. Get checked out to make sure you don't have a chemical or medical issue.

    Beyond that, remember that we are almost all failures at most things.

    I'm no superstar, I'm not rich, I don't give great talks, I was horrible at sports, etc.

    I too had an interest in Astronomy as a kid, but found that while I did well in school, it was hopeless for me to pursue astronomy as a career (it's a very tiny field with tremendous competition for full-time positions and little turnover, and there were much better students in those classes than me). I went to graduate school in electrical engineering and have done reasonably well.

    Don't be hard on yourself. Maybe astronomy wasn't for you, but maybe something that wasn't even invented when you were in school now is. Keep your eyes and your interests open. Read a lot. Talk to people and broaden your horizons. Go back to school if it's appropriate. It's OK to change your mind and your career.

    Nobody is an expert in figuring out how their life will go when they're in college. We all muddle through as best we can. Keep muddling. :-)

  7. Jun 29, 2016 #6


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    One of the dangers of "gifted" programs is that it they can pigeon-hole kids well before they are fully developed.

    I also think that there's a myth out there that if you don't accomplish great things by the time you're 24, you'll never amount to anything. This is garbage and I think an unfortunate source of stress for a lot of young people. There was a post around here not too long ago about how Maxwell had published while he was a teenager. And while it's important to read about historical experiences, you have to stop and think about how troublesome it is for someone today to compare himself or herself to that set of circumstances. Maxwell was a teenager in the 1840s. The world was a lot different then. Science was a lot different then. But even comparing yourself to the exceptional people today, there's still a statistical trap. You hear about the outliers. These people weren't just born "gifted." They had a lot of dice rolls just come up in their favour.

    You don't have a "potential" to live up to. What you have is a unique set of circumstances, a unique set of skills and passions, and challenges. And you can't change your history. You can change your trajectory in life though. If you're not happy with where you are, then start changing things. If university seems like too much of a challenge right now, maybe start with a single course in night school and see how it goes. Maybe join an astronomy club. You don't have to change everything at once. And you might even find that if you're in a better position down the road. It can be a major advantage to attend university with a few extra years of maturity under your belt.
  8. Jun 29, 2016 #7
    I'm sorry but if you're grades slumped before high school than I seriously doubt you were ever really good at real life math or physics just maybe whatever program your middle school may have had. Something I learned in college is that philosophy of something and the actual something are COMPLETELY different. Philosophy is all about talking and asking yourself deep questions but ACTUAL science requires a lot of memorizing dry, uninteresting, mind numbing facts and using your mind more pragmatically and technically.

    If you really are bad at math and physics I think maybe you're just more drawn to the history and philosophy of science instead of real actual dry/boring science.
  9. Jun 29, 2016 #8


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    My two cent philosophy of life:
    1) It's never too late.
    2) There is a lot more value in level-headed common sense, teamwork skills, people skills, and just plain kindness than many people realize. (A lot of very smart people are real useless jerks.)
    3) Judge yourself by how much good work you accumulate through your life, not by the peak achievement. It's all down-hill after the peak, but the cumulative accomplishment keeps growing till you die. Set long-term life goals that are cumulative, rather than peak occasional accomplishments.

    Two of the bosses that I admire most had less prestigious degrees than most of the people they were in charge of. One woman started at work as a tech-analyst and ended up as a good manager. One man never considered college till he spent a year as a machinist. He ended up as my boss.

    PS. If you have any serious depression, you should see a doctor for help. It's not something to ignore or "tough it out".
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2016
  10. Jun 29, 2016 #9
    There's no harm in spending a day in bed reading an interesting book or something.
    (Not every day, but a day here and then)
  11. Jun 30, 2016 #10
    I had a student who screwed up a lot when she was younger. She ended up dropping out of university due to poor performance and overall lack of maturity in life. They are back at university now and they are doing really well! It is still about a year or two until they apply for medical school but I would say they are on the right track. Just because one was once a screw does not mean that they are unable grow and become far more successful later.

    I do agree with previous posters about seeing a doctor. I highly encourage you to figure out the underlying cause of your anxiety and depression.
  12. Jun 30, 2016 #11
  13. Jun 30, 2016 #12
    oh wow and I thought that I was mostly already developed at 26... But I love growing up and becoming more mature. I see age as an acceptable price for the benefits of maturity...
  14. Jun 30, 2016 #13
    Wow, I was feeling down and I wanted to vent somewhere, I guess it felt comforting to have my thoughts "out there", I appreciate all your replies, I never realized that people can be this supportive! The thing about seeking therapy is it's expensive and I have a tendency to pick myself up on my own, however I do agree that I must take some
    sort of action when it comes to my mental well being, something which I'm sure I will figure out one way or another.
  15. Jun 30, 2016 #14
    You don't have to be sorry for anything, in fact your reply was exactly the one I'm after, you are absolutely right, during highschool I mostly struggled with the technical parts of science, the funny thing is I simply thought everyone else "got it" and I didn't, like they just look at a question and a solution is magically formed in their brains, I never really understood the concept of math being a skill, for me it was you either get it or you don't, later on when I had to prepare for my finals ( my math teacher was lazy and never really cared for homework so I got away with never doing them ) it dawned on me, that you actually get better at it the more you do it, physics though was a different story, I got decent grades throughout and got a B as my final grade, math I barely passed, looking at it now, my question truly is nonesense, if I really wanted to do science I would do it and if I just thought I did I would spend my days fantasizing about it while staring at the ceiling, your reply truly inspired me to figure that out already, for that I do thank you my good sir/madame.
  16. Jun 30, 2016 #15
    It sounds to me as if you may be comparing yourself to someone? Perhaps your early caregivers had 'too high' expectations of you in regards to certain subjects. Remember, as much as we are taught growing up to be more competitive and productive, it just isn't true. Life isn't a competition. It's an experience. When I feel like you are feeling now, I try to watch video of stock traders on a really busy day. (A most extreme form of competition.) Or any other similar video - New York traffic and pedestrians during lunch hour on Fast Forward. It makes me laugh. Is this what you want to be a part of? If you can't do math, you're definitely not alone. So why keep banging your head against that wall? Maybe you're an artist. Or a writer.
  17. Jul 1, 2016 #16


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    Hey zxzx25.

    Building on the rest of the advice above, I'd imagine this has a lot to do with what you think others expect of you in addition to what you expect of yourself.

    The subjects you are talking about are subjects that require work - lots of work. Even gifted people have to put in the work and it's often a chore/bore to do a lot of the stuff you encounter in the STEM fields.

    I think you should try and forget about what others have told you (about yourself and your abilities that is) and realize that the only way to do stuff in life is to work as hard as you can and maintain that energy as long as possible to get through a task.

    You will have to believe in yourself no doubt - but work is the most important criteria and you say you did things in your past quite easily and this is really (in my opinion at least) where the problem lies. It seems that you are expecting things to remain that way when in all seriousness they don't remain that way.

    If you can learn to work hard and not put so much focus on yourself or the expectations others think of you and take yourself "out of the equation" (so to speak) then it will allow you to focus on doing the work and acknowledging that it just requires more and more work the harder a task actually gets. If you stop holding on to those things like praise and expectations of the past then it will be a lot easier to just get into things, knuckle down, and focus on the task at hand knowing that the only real certainty is that putting in sound, directed, organized effort will take a person closer to a goal and while they may not be guaranteed to get there, they are guaranteed if they do it sensibly to get closer and closer the more work is undertaken.

    Dreams are great things - but they mean nothing without actual energy.
  18. Jul 5, 2016 #17
    First you have to know that passing or failing an exam do not prove your efficiency. Grade is just a number.Running after good score may add feather to your cap but you will never be happy when you are not doing what you want . If you love astronomy then gradesheet should not deviate you. There are examples of many scientists who worked in spite of the fact that it was not their job. We work for our satisfaction not for the satisfactions of others.It is better to be a mediocre in a class because you are escaping the pressure of always doing well. A topper always faces pressure of maintaining the position. But being a mediocre you can flourish well . And always remember it is never too late. Remember failures are pillars of success. I do not know why people look so low upon the failed candidates. In fact I think failing is not so bad as it appear to be. You are getting more time for reading the same thing so that you could build up a good concept. if you pass then you would not get more time and perhaps you will never get time in your life to read the same topic. So failure is a big opportunity. It is a beginning not the end .So start with new hopes. Best of luck for your future. I believe you will do well.
  19. Jul 5, 2016 #18
    Might sound crazy, but I'm now 40, and don't really care anymore what people think (or at least, no rational reason to).

    Have you had an episode, where you could practically hear (and have time to repeat) what people around you were saying, before they said it? Not sure I'll come back to this thread, so I'll go on as if this sounds familiar. Ignore the rest if it doesn't...

    I have two hypothesis for this, as it happened to me when I was 17. One, the part of the brain that broadcasts your thoughts in the form of brainwaves, if under electrical load, can act as an antenna (epilepsy or something similar). Two, people around you were so simple minded, and you were able to simulate their thought processes with eerie accuracy (can be tested by seeing if you still feel this way around deep/complexe people). In both cases though, the split brain problem makes it such that you cannot be aware of the thoughts, at least not under normal circumstances, but only as a 'feeling' of what is being received/simulated.

    The problem, I believe, is that for whatever reason, you are able to accurately and verifiably tell what people around you think of you, and that once these external emotions are internalized it renders you impotent (when it comes to rational thoughts). This on its own, isn't a problem, at least not for most. But with an inability to self sooth, it could be exacerbated. Therapy might help, or it might not. Just like a person that is a few inches too short because of bad diet when growing up, this part of the brain can likely never grow back to its intended purpose. But a therapist might help find tricks to manage the problem.

    Hope this can help you, it might have helped me when I was younger.
  20. Jul 5, 2016 #19
    Try something a little less mathy. Remember Darwin was not that good at math.

    Try something a little less ambitious. In physics experimentalist always make a contribution while theorist get the glory, but many of them contribute more noise than signal. If you understand how to do an integral and take a derivative that's likely enough. You need statitics -- the math is easy, but the concepts subtle.
  21. Jul 5, 2016 #20
    Zxzx25, I can empathize with you in a variety of ways. A very cheap option for mild depression is St John's Wort which I've been taking for 25 years. Booze can help too. hah

    Regarding your chosen profession, it's a sad reality that very few jobs are truly "fulfilling". I have a degree in Comp Sci and draw my lifestyle from software engineering, but my PASTIME is studying Physics. Have you heard the saying about watching how the sausage is made? If you were burdened with teaching Physics every day of your life I assure you most of the mystery and wonder would be gone, and it would become your daily grind.
  22. Jul 5, 2016 #21
    Be careful with St. John's Wart. It can interact with real medications.

  23. Jul 5, 2016 #22
    I feel similarly to what you are expressing. As someone commented above, imagine how you would feel 20 years from now. I'm like that, but living 40 years later. I've had an okay career supporting science research in labs. Maybe you can get into that. When I feel despair there's one thing that revitalizes me: seeing the amazing beauty of the world and the stars in the sky, reminding myself that what I love is learning, learning everything I can about the Universe. That's fulfilling a pledge I made to myself many years ago, that I want to understand the Universe. They say, find what you love and do that. If you haven't found what you love, then you need to keep learning and experiencing new things. Don't worry about what you think others will think about you. Think about what you really enjoy doing.
  24. Jul 5, 2016 #23
    This is true but I was under the assumption that he was not taking any meds. It's also proof that it is effective, btw.
  25. Jul 5, 2016 #24
    Sometimes we feel like being noob in our past, yeah cause sometimes I feel that too, but still it doesn't that you will stop your dreams, dreaming to be one of them, i dreamed to be one of them too. Forget the past, but remember the goods things in the past of what you are right now, hope the future nevermind those who backstabbed you, and keep moving on and keep better day by day, because you're getting better now than yesterday.

    There's a Chinese saying that says: Yesterday is a History Tomorrow is a Mystery but Today is a gift that 's why it is called Present.

    Live your life into it's full potential.
  26. Jul 5, 2016 #25
    I know exactly what you mean. I'm now 68 and feel as if I wasted my intellectual potential, I'm now starting to use my mind, learning Maths Physics and starting astrophotography. So don't waste your mind even if it means getting a low paid job for awhile to carry on with your learning. I really regret wasting my time, yes the family and the comfort of a well paid job are good, but really really think what you want.
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