It seems odd for an atheist to talk about belief but I believe that life is not a matter of chance. My destiny is mine to shape.
My background was very working class and I grew up in rough neighborhood in England, and like many of my contemporaries I developed a gritty pragmatism that believed only in what could be seen and touched. But I believed my mother when she said I was a juvenile delinquent and I believed my teachers when they told me that I had no academic potential. Finishing high school just didn’t seem important in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t remember applying for work; I just seemed to find myself surrounded by spanners, wrenches and cars. The next 10 years drifted by on autopilot. Eventually I found myself managing the workshop where I had spent 10 years. Some of my customers were academics from the local university and while most were aloof and standoffish, there were a few that loved to talk about their work and they’d lend me books and papers to read.
In the space of two years I learned a lot about geology, chemistry and computer science. One June day in 1982, I was discussing plate tectonics with one of my favorite customers, a crusty older man with a twinkle in his eye whose aging vehicle made him a regular visitor. As usual, I handed him his coffee and put some crumpets in the toaster. Mike always seemed relaxed watching the mechanics from my office and referred to his visits as “field trips to the real world.” He looked me in the eye and asked outright, “Why are you wasting your time here? Why don’t you come to university and study for a degree?”
I offered up several lame excuses; and for every excuse he had a cast iron rebuttal. The truth was that I was scared of failing, nobody in my family had even finished high school, the only people I knew that had been to university came from rich families and everything seemed easy for them.
Mike said one thing which was simple and profound, “You are limited by your own expectations and social conditioning.” His belief in that fact and in me was enough. I quit my job. I struggled and stumbled and graduated with first class honors three years later. A masters degree, an academic position, a book and a prize winning doctorate followed and every time I thought of giving up, I seemed to hear Mike’s mellifluous voice.
So here I am a quarter of a century later, a work in progress, becoming crusty and persuading my own students to have more belief in their potential. Some will, most won’t, but for those who can believe, the world will change and possibilities abound.
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