I have mentioned before from personal experience that the same phenomenon seen from different perspectives can, interestingly, turn out to be rather different e.g. my impression of the gadgets from my youth which I greatly adored as a child and now seem somewhat trivial to me in my adulthood (nostaglia notwithstanding). The same applies to professional/academic accreditation, since just as you think that you have completely messed it up, it may turn out to be your best work. There is a famous dictum in Chinese military sciences that ‘if you can know both yourself and the enemy, you can win every single battle’ (知己知彼，百戰百勝) (cf the well-quoted line in The Godfather: ‘Keep your friends close but your enemies closer’). This may be trickier than it sounds, since knowing your enemies clearly requires extensive and detailed research and espionage and knowing yourself involves keeping a cool-headed distance from one’s emotional attachments in order to get a just and accurate view of self-reflection. In military art, therefore, this compensatory analysis of both your opponent and yourself forms the core of military punditry. This translates to the common and mundane tasks in our daily lives too, since every single day of our lives we are faced with endless challenges, some small and menial while others big and complex, and our chances of prevailing over them depends on the size and nature of the tasks and our ability in dealing with them. It is commonly said that one should (non-flatteringly) overestimate one’s enemy and underestimate one’s ability, since by over-anticipating a big challenge one raises one’s game and by putting onself down one heightens one’s focus to the task(s) at hand. In my professional world, I am constantly plagued with the responsibity of reading and writing papers, which is no easy task (for me at least, as I am definitely not a natural researcher, and much envy to those who are), and while it is always gratifying to see the outcomes of my endeavours match my expectations, oftentimes they do not and in ways which constantly remind me to remain humble and attentive. It goes without saying that researching about any particular topic is mentally draining and no matter how hard one works one never feels that one has done quite enough, since awareness and perceptivity should make one realise just how much more one can do. The competition for professional approval is also frantically high, as one often has to face the prospect of being critically reviewed by world-class experts and/or compete with dozens if not hundreds of highly qualified co-applicants. One can only do one’s best but there is absolutely no guarantee that one can achieve what one wants. It is surprising, though, how many times in my career I have been taken by surprise by the positive evaluation of my work, and this boils down to the incongruity and mismatch between external review and introspective self-criticism. What I often do not realise is that even if the external reviewing panel consists of highly critical and qualified reviewers, they may not know about my topic as much and as well as I do, since I have been locking myself away for months (years) reading up on it. Furthermore, even if they know more about it than I do, they are certainly not as familiar with my work as I am, since they are coming to my work for the first time whereras I have been staring at it for months. The way one perceives one’s work is hence bound to be very different from how others do, and what one thinks is total and utter garbage of one’s work may turn out to be rather good to others (and vice versa, though if one does one’s homework properly, it is highly unlikely that one will form a higher opinion of one’s work than one should, since one should always be aware of what more needs to be done). This seems to me to be quite similar to the procedure of reviewing military ranks and army formation in the classic ‘Art of Miiltary Practice’ (孫子兵法): as the general decides on his formation, he is acutely aware of where lie the holes, and any experienced leader would try to conceal and shield them from the enemy as much as possible, whereas the enemy can only see as far as he can from the outside and may not be able to see beyond the outward appearance which, if well and properly designed, should spell more fear and awe in the enemy than the general might expect in all his insecurities regarding the weaknesses that he has been trying hard to conceal. The same goes for our work. Outside readers may be highly critical, but they do not know the time and effort which we have invested in our work, and while we are acutely aware of how much better it can be, it may look much better as seen from the outside. There is no consolation or comfort in this cruel and competitive world, but I still believe that if one works self-consciously and self-critically, one may just acquire the self-deprecation and humility that one needs in order to face our challenges. Don’t give up.
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