Introducing . . . The Yes Woman

The world of academia I’ve been cocooned in is by turns satisfying and weird, but now it’s time to choose life. I will be saying yes to something new each week for a year

Laura Kennedy: every week, this Yes Woman will be trying something new – from the weird or challenging to the trendy. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Laura Kennedy: every week, this Yes Woman will be trying something new – from the weird or challenging to the trendy. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

People who can do something with genuine dedication are an admirable breed.

More admirable, though, are the people who can dedicate themselves to something while maintaining a life. Having been immersed in academia for nearly eight years, I frequently encounter people who are very devoted to what they do.

To survive in a notoriously competitive and often aggressive environment like academia, you need to be single-minded, enthusiastic and dedicated. You need an “I won’t marry till I’m 50; I was too busy thinking about string theory to put my trousers on the right way round” sort of dedication. The sort of dedication that makes you incredibly good at one particular thing, but not necessarily a terribly well-rounded person.

There are masses of well-adjusted men and women in academia, of course. But it isn’t unfair to say that it is a profession rife with oddballs; some lovable, others not. I count myself among them, and have a particular affection for the kind of person who can speak 11 languages, but cannot knot their own tie.

It is unsurprising that these mystical, betweeded creatures can generally only exist inside the protective hub of a university. While some have an effortless articulacy that renders them mysterious, fascinating and achingly cool, others lack social skills altogether.

They may be able to wax lyrical on the poetry of Donne or the bone density of a long-dead creature, but the exchange of pleasantries is a distressing ordeal for them, sort of like a discussion on bone density is a distressing ordeal for everyone else.

Undignified pursuits When I was at university in my late teens, I did not socialise as a general rule. While the other students were at the Trinity Ball, rutting clumsily against the dignified edifice of the old library, I was at home with a book considering myself quite above such base and undignified pursuits. I proceeded to stay at home with a book for a

bout seven more years, and that has had consequences, both good and bad.

One day recently I found myself having a discussion with a rather grizzled academic. He politely listened to my thoughts on some niche idea, bedecked in mismatched socks flanked lovingly by battered sandals. As I jabbered on effusively, he fell quietly asleep in his chair. Not wishing to leave unannounced, because that would be rude or something, I settled for making a strangled coughing sound.

That did the trick. He opened his eyes, looked right at me, and said in a calm monotone, “Well, I like to think I’m open-minded, but as sure as Oscar Wilde was a fruit, you’ve run mad.”

When I left his office, I came to the realisation that nothing about the encounter had struck me as odd. That struck me as odd.

I have an unmitigated love of learning and of other weirdos who love it too. That said, in my callow eagerness to understand the world around me, I had neglected to . . . do anything. Travel, relationships, and the active seeking of social interaction had all been overlooked.

My mother reassured me that I have devoted friends. Indeed I do, and they won’t mind a jot if I declare them all to have something, somewhere, somewhat unscrewed. The degree varies, of course: some are more sociopathic than others.

It was this realisation, along with some other factors, that led me to take a frightening decision: I have decided to step outside the walls of my bookish haven, and spend a year out in the world, where people are purported to live. Exposure to just one group of people has influenced the way I see the world.

This could be true of any of us, but my experience has made me somewhat uncomfortable with . . . everything. Talking with people can be wonderful and enriching. It can also be abrasive and tedious in the extreme. I’m not particularly comfortable in either scenario, so I’m going to change it.

New learning curve When a situation involves people, I’ll generally say

no. For the duration of my time out of academia, I’m going to say yes. Yes to new things; yes to things that frighten me. Where before I would feel a spark of longing before dashing it away in fear, I will simply say yes.

Every week, this Yes Woman will be trying something new – from the weird or challenging to the trendy – and reporting back here. I fully expect social awkwardness, crippling embarrassment, fun (whatever that is), the learning of many new things, and possibly minor bodily injuries.

I will not, of course, say yes to everything. Only to those things that are positive and provide an opportunity to learn. There’s open-minded, and then there’s crazed. So I’m not swimming with sharks, and I’m definitely not going to the Trinity Ball.

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