Updated: Aug 22
Today I learned that next year the future monarch of the kingdom where I work will be among my students. This is a stunning development. One that led me to follow General Kutuzov's train of thought before the Council of Fili:
Can it be that I allowed Napoleon to get as far as Moscow? And when, then, did I do it? When was it decided? Was it yesterday...? Or still earlier?
At some point, something happened in my life that eventually led me to be in a position to be close to a future queen and in a position to pass knowledge. This is my life now.
It is a stunning development. In the sense that I am stunned. Never in the past 35 years did I think this would happen. It is an astounding thing. I have spent the day thinking about it and what has come out of if is just a lot for scared hubris.
Let me try to peel the layers to try to explain my befuddlement. And let's start with the later events. Beware that it gets tone deaf and arrogant before it get earnest. I wish I could write shorter but sometimes Mark Twain is right.
Layer 0: Introductory economics course at PPLE
In March, I agreed to co-teach an introductory course on economics. This is a bit absurd because, well, I did not study economics. My colleague did at least and the course is on an interdisciplinary program. So the idea is to provide a solid foundation without the need for any real analysis or differential equations. That felt scary but it is doable and exciting.
Layer -1: Arrival at UvA to a strategy group
In May 2021, after a trimester of unemployment and loads of existential anxiety, I was hired to be an Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. This was great but also scary. I was hired within the Strategy and International Business section. I do not know what the latter two words mean, and I do have a very specific view of the first word. But strategy is by no means my stronger suit.
Layer -2: PhD in social science
In 2015, I started an internship to do something scary, study social sciences. My advisor worked in organizations and cognitive science so maybe not full-on social science. But for me, all non-natural sciences were a vague bundle. Yet, the idea of being paid to learn a whole new stream of knowledge was too much to let pass. So I delved into a new big bet at a time when I had no security backing me. I closed my eyes jumped.
Layer -3: Fired from natural science
In 2014, after a year of excruciating impostor syndrome, I was fired from the only career I had known and from one of the best places to follow that career. That sucked. I was not scared but I did lose all motivation. I hit rock bottom. I got depressed. I felt ashamed and I felt bold. If I failed once, what if I just try something new? Something I do not understand?
Layer -4: Work at Intel
In 2013, I applied to a position to do computer science research. Even though, I had never done that. Ever. I was an applied researcher. My bachelor thesis had digital pictures of an oscilloscope because I failed to connect the VGA cable to my computer! Yet, I applied and got the job. I was even told "You were the perfect applicant!" So, I worked at Intel for nine months and I boldly led things. I worked with smart programmers and guided them a bit. I learned though that no. one guided me. I bootstrapped what my boss told me. But bootstrapping is in essence a joke. I felt more was needed, I felt somehow science was not managed well. But who cared? I was going to ETH for a PhD in quantum transport! Not that O knew what that meant.
Layer -5: Thesis at MIT
In 2011, after a year of planning and funding applications, I went to MIT. I arrived and started working on making the smallest dots of gold in the world. I was told that would not work out but somehow it did. It was crazy. My house was robbed. My grandma died. I was very lonely but I did great work. At least good enough to imagine a future in science.
Layer -6: Master's in Costa Rica
In 2010, I decided to do something crazy. I chose to do my thesis in Costa Rica. I decided to finish it in 2.5 years, which was unheard of and I decided to go abroad for my thesis. None was trivial. I could do it only because there had been a new institute and they had started sending their students abroad. This institute worked with organometallic chemistry. I had just a two chemistry courses under my belt. The last taken just the prior semester! Somehow it worked out. I got the job. I went to MIT.
Layer -7: First STM in Costa Rica
In 2010, I decided to built the first Scanning Tunneling Microscope in Costa Rica as my bachelor thesis. This was again, absurd and scary. But as I negotiated with suppliers, as I machined the aluminium, bought the piezoelectrics, and assembled the breadboard, the microscope was built. More than a microscope, it was a story. The story of someone who aimed high. And I used this story to leap even higher. I can barely remember that person and his boldness.
Layer -8: Double major leap of faith
In 2007, I decided to double major. To add physics to my electrical engineering curriculum. I made an agreement with myself to accept that I would never be the best student in class but that I would be very good. I promised myself to get an 8.5 average in both and I did. It took me longer than the program said but less than the average student. It was a bold move and I was scared. The first day in modern physics, I almost had a panic attack. Nothing new. But still scary.
Layer -9: AP Calculus
In 2004, I had an immense panic attack. The first one I had and the worst one to date. It happened because I had chosen to go to the "smart group" in my high school. The AP Calculus group. I knew I would manage it. But I also knew I was not one of the smart ones. As I sat in the first math exam, I panicked. I finished half of the exam and got paralyzed. I promised myself to take things lighter. From then on, I told myself that "being scared is ok, but you chose this, enjoy it also".
Layer -10: Chose to do a Ph.D.
Around 1998, I chose to get a doctoral degree. I was talking with my dad about education and he held a Masters degree. It felt impressive. I asked if that was the highest and he said it was not. That the highest was a Doctoral degree. But that it made no sense as people with it earned less than MBA as him. That day I decided I would do a Ph.D. I was not sure in what. But I knew I would do it somehow.
Layer -11: Chose Saint Francis College
In 1992, at age 5, I chose to go to the school my dad went. I was given the choice of three schools. The one I chose was far from home. It meant hours in the bus. It even meant my mom giving up her job later on. And my mom, sister and me almost dying in a traffic accident on the way back from school. I chose that school because it was a hard school. The hardest school. A school where two presidents of Costa Rica studied. And where my colleagues studied in the best universities after graduation. I struggled there. I was bullied and I had no friends for a long while. But a lot came from it.
Layer -12: Money
Since times immemorial my dad has been a top manager of a major supermarket chain in Costa Rica. This allowed many things. My corneal transplants and top notch private schooling to name three. My life would be very different had my parents not afford it. But my luck goes more generations back.
Layer -13: Grandparents
My grandparents were one the CEO of the Costa Rican National Bank and the other a congress person. When you think of multigeneratonal wealth you think of my family. For three generations my family has been doing well. Before that, it was different. But before that it was the 1800s and back then everyone was poor. So basically since being "new rich" was possible i Costa Rica my family was. And there lies the core of my hubris. The top layers are full of boldness and leaps of faith. The fuel for which was given by the wealth that surrounded me as I grew up.
For decades now I have had a life that fulfils one heuristic: "Would I feel proud of it if I told my younger self that I did X?" I do not think about it much. But at most points as I jumped to a new layer, I felt my inner self being excited.
Today is one of those days. I am stunned still. Also a bit sad. I aimed at writing to try and explain myself how this came to be. The crazy mess of it all. I still do not get it. Nothing in my life would have led me to imagine I would be teaching a future monarch economics. But somehow, I will.
As I recount the layers, I relive my prior hubris. I relive someone who still lives in me but that I cannot talk to anymore. The upper layers were not done for my ego. They were jumped in fear and scaredness. I was unemployed and battling deportation as I got the job at UvA. I was fired and getting divorced as I transitioned into social science.
Somehow, I am not the person I was before but something in me keeps jumping. And something in the world keeps catching me. I am more confused now than when I started writing. It makes sense. I still do not know what I feel.
I started the first draft of this post with "Nicolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince as an application letter to become an advisor to the Duke of Urbino, Lorenzo de Medici. His textbook birthed the field of political science but failed to impress the Duke. Machiavelli was too Ill-equipped to train a prince." My goal was to articulate how even people who are utterly well equipped might not get to educate a prince. But somehow I now have the chance of educating a princess.
I think this is the thing that breaks my head. I do not really understand what monarchy is. And by this I do not mean it as when I say I do not understand what firms and households are and thus I want to research them. But more in the, more naive and ingenue way. I do not understand it. I grew up in a country almost 200 years free, without an army and without the need for it. Up to last year, I never lived in a country with a monarch. Last years were COVID years so I have not gotten into what Amsterdam means to me.
I knew that the city has history. I remembered in my job talk how my colleagues bragged of the university owning the Dutch East India Company budding. And my stupefaction of this symbol of a chiaroscuro past. Now I will teach a future queen. This is probably the most important thing I will do for a long while. And I cannot say anything else than that I am stunned.
I am excited. I guess somehow in contrast to the prior jumps that required my hubris. This one happened because of where I am. Not because of me. It happened because of the work of my colleagues. The realities of the institution I am a part of. The fact I will be co-teaching a course is a side attraction.
That is the thing. Something that stuns me for a day, and has shaken me toy core is not really about me. I guess that is the power of royalty. They can scare the bejesus out of someone and change parts of who they are without even realizing it. I guess this is what living in a kingdom means. What a day.