Sarah Ehlinger Affotey


1+1 MBA





By Sarah Ehlinger Affotey

How geology prepared me for the other pandemic impacting Oxford, the imposter syndrome

There may be a few of us, but geology is not a common undergrad major for MBA students. Studying geology may not have necessarily enhanced my affinity with rocks, but I did end up being seduced by the way geologists think. That thinking has served me well at Oxford.

It is easy to feel insignificant at a school with a 900-year history. The faculty know it – we were welcomed with reminders that “we didn’t admit you by mistake” and “you deserve to be here”. Sessions with historians taught us how centuries of building repairs mean that even the university’s grandest castles are not original buildings. Assumedly, we are those little pieces that shape its identity over time.

Feelings of insignificance are a predecessor to the imposter syndrome, a far too common ailment at Oxford. Upon arrival, you learn very quickly that you will never be the smartest person in the room, and it’s tough to process what that means for our present and future. Are we supposed to stand on the backs of giants and be giants? How?

Metaphors are powerful. In her book “Timefulness”, my mentor and bona fide badass geologist Marcia Bjornerud criticized an oft-used metaphor: if the history of the Earth represented a day, humans would be a blip in the final fraction of the final second in the last hour. The analogy is irresponsible for two reasons. First, it detracts from the outsized influence our species has had on biodiversity loss, climate change, and even stratigraphic layers. Second, it hauntingly fails to recognize the existence of a 25th hour.

Still, the geologist’s appreciation of deep time is valuable in an era when public policy rarely considers the state of the world beyond 5 or 10 years, and businesses are pressured by quarterly earnings.

Dean Tufano once spoke of Oxford as a place of paradoxes. It is both old and new. Active and thoughtful. Significant and existential. Humbling and empowering. My understanding of geology allows me to sit comfortably in the paradoxes. Solidarity can be empowering. History is literally written in the chemistry of our DNA. Our thoughts and theories build off of hypotheses that have been previously falsified. Geology taught me that in a world actually run by the “microcracy” (credit again, Marcia), from bacteria and viruses to social movements, we don’t need to be giants. We are significant. Our choices right now – what we eat, how we move, what we wear, where we work, whom we partner with – matter.

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