For every test or examination taken at school in Nigeria, you are given a results sheet that ranks students in order of academic performance. Sounds daunting to many, but personally I enjoy that type of methodical evaluation and this system gave me (as a student) and my parents a measure of my academic performance.
Academia was so important to my family. I attended boarding school for my secondary education and my parents ensured I was given extra tutoring during mid-term breaks and holidays. Despite this extra effort, I struggled to meet my personal goals at school, finishing in the top 10 but never ranked top of the class. At my ‘academic peak’, my performance was second best, falling short of my closest friend and forming a slightly competitive bond.
You might think top ten, or second best is still pretty good by all standards but first place came with rewards such as a full scholarship. All my siblings successfully gained – and maintained – top of their classes but despite pushing myself I could never quite get there.
Without diminishing the tremendous efforts of my best friend’s consistent academic excellence, I believe I settled into the second-best position unconsciously. Secretly, each year, I competed for the first position, but my default coping mechanism was never to reveal these goals/ambitions openly for fear of not achieving them, appearing competitive, to relieve pressure, and limit expectations. “What happens if I get first place this term and cannot maintain it?” or “Is it not better to remain firmly in second place than to live through the embarrassing drop?”
I challenged myself each year and eventually found my feet and my academic passion to fix things. I honed this skill to complete my PhD at Loughborough University, and to become a practising Electrical Engineer at Cundall.
Here’s a few valuable lessons I learned along the way.
Let go of the inferiority complex
I began to let go of my inferiority complex when I started viewing life as a journey, not a race. I analysed – and still do analyse – my successes (and the occasional failures) based on what I have accomplished, and my past experiences; consciously putting increased emphasis on enjoying the process of achieving my realistic goal. I do, however, occasionally still suffer from the “imposter syndrome”.
(SOS: If anyone has succeeded in getting rid of theirs completely, please kindly tell me how you achieved this, so that I can apply it to my life!)
As a secondary school pupil, I was confused by what being competitive meant. Being competitive is generally viewed negatively by society – especially for women. But it’s completely natural to have competitive feelings. Like most feelings, competitiveness can have both positive and negative manifestations. In the extreme form, it can prove unhealthy and counter-productive. However, it can also serve as motivation. I have learnt and accepted that it is okay to want to win, so long as I don’t discredit others in the process.
I maintain my confidence by reflecting on my past achievements, developing my knowledge and skills, and by learning new methods. Most of the time, it is easy to get so caught up in always achieving, and the next goal. If you look back at your journey occasionally, you realise that there is nothing the future can bring that you cannot handle without some preparation. My personal and professional journey so far is living proof of this. So, sometimes – just take a break and celebrate yourself!
I am particularly passionate about knowledge sharing. I often recall Michelle Obama’s quote in 2012; “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give others the same chances that helped you succeed”. This inspires me as it shows that opportunities should be shared by all, and you should bring people on your journey where possible.
Be true to yourself
I completed an Accelerated Advanced Level programme, which is AS and A2 in one year. I failed to make the minimum grades to study on the MEng programme at Loughborough University, and I was rejected by my first-choice university back in 2008. I recall feeling very disappointed, like it was the end of the road for me and my ambitions. Reflecting back on this experience, however, I believe that I had set an unrealistic goal for myself.
By being true to myself – and my capabilities – I now set more realistic goals. I may fail, and will make mistakes but these are proof that I am trying. During my PhD, I learnt that failure is a necessary part of the learning process. Just because an experiment fails, does not mean that you abandon the project. You can gain as much – or even more knowledge and experience – from a failure, as well as a success.
And to the young women thinking of pursuing careers in engineering, if you have the passion, go for it!
I strongly believe in the Venn diagram analogy that engineering is the intersection between scientific knowledge and societal need, with both creative and analytical capability for real world problem solving. There’s no gender discrimination in that definition so don’t exclude yourself from contributing, or deprive us of your skills, talent, knowledge and ideas to solve problems.
Never downgrade your dream to match your reality, but work hard, remain focused and most importantly, enjoy the process of working towards achieving your goals. If you have a dream, ambition or goal that feels overwhelming, break it down into tiny bite-size milestones. As you achieve your milestones, you are getting closer to your overall goal.
Dr Ozak Esu is an Electrical Engineer and winner of the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards for the Institution of Engineering and Technology.