I'm a master CS student. I had so many troubles in my life. I didn't have proper schooling and were in difficult situations which led to me being not so good compared to my peers now at the graduate school. For example I had problems with math and so and when I got into my new graduate school everyone was almost far better than me. Then I started working day and nights to improve my skills and after a year of really hard work now I achieved almost their skills. However in that time my peers were also developing their skills and doing fancy projects and so on. Sometimes when I get to look at their success and projects I feel stressed and discouraged that I really still have way too long to achieve that. Or that I'm really putting so much work into myself because of the problems I went through but at the end I find myself still far. Whereas my peers are enjoying their lifes and at the same time achieving something. I know life is not fair nor I'm jealous, but sometimes I just feel sorry about myself that I work really hard but without much difference :(. This is also is leading so some self-confidence issue, that whenever I see one of my peers I get stressed and sometimes afraid to discuss a topic with them because I don't want to look bad not knowing that easy stuff for them.

This is always leads to a voice in my head saying: oh if only a professor in MIT or Stanford sees how hard working you are, you might be there now. But of course I won't because I will always be far from the students there because of what I went through.

What to do to overcome this?

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    @CharlesMorisset I have to disagree, while the questions are certainly related the one you linked seems to lack the bit about comparing yourself to others and feeling inadequate or lagging behind, which is the foundation of this question, IMHO. – posdef Jan 7 '14 at 10:24
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    @posdef: fair point, but aren't the answers to the linked question also suitable for that one? (I'm particularly thinking about JeffE's mention to the Impostor Syndrome). If not, it would be useful for the OP to explain how they do not answer the question. – user102 Jan 7 '14 at 10:36
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    @CharlesMorisset sure, I agree... At any rate the OP should check that question out and go through the insightful answer that have accumulated there. – posdef Jan 7 '14 at 10:37
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    This kind of seems like you should be asking a therapist / guidance counsellor, not a QA site. To me this reads like a mild grade depression/anxiety possibly triggered by, but possibly also just projected onto your studies. (They take up a lot of your time, it's likely your thoughts would focus on them whether it's rational or not.) But of course I'm projecting here as well. – millimoose Jan 7 '14 at 17:08
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    All that you've got is all that it takes, and all that it takes is all that you've got. All life asks of us is that we do the best we can with the cards we've been dealt. No more, no less. – user10576 Jan 7 '14 at 22:24

14 Answers 14


I will apologize in advance, because this answer won't give you what you are probably looking for; but it might give some perspective so I will reply anyways hoping that helps somewhat.

First off, know this: you are not alone! It's actually pretty common to look at your peers (at the office and elsewhere worldwide) and feel shitty about the "insignificance" of your accomplishments compared to those of others. To further strengthen the point, I can say that I am battling with this every single day for instance, despite what I hear from others about the quality or importance of my work when I look around and see what others achieve I feel depressed...

Secondly it's also good to try and remember that life isn't a competition. Well, some aspects of life are competitive, for sure, but you cannot go about living your day competing with others in every single aspect of your life. This is a simple but a very powerful insight, also very hard to digest it properly and take it to heart.

Think of all the aspects your life, from research to parking your car, from buying groceries to whatever sport you enjoy the most... I can guarantee you that there will be several (if not more) people within your immediate surrounding that will be "better" than you in each one and single aspect, if you isolate them one at a time. But I can also assure you that they won't be the same people if you consider different aspects. Overall, you are the person you are and constantly comparing yourself to others in single aspects (and focusing on your shortcomings) will only drive you towards unhappiness.

So does that mean you should just relax and go with the flow? Absolutely not! You have to play catch up, if you can identify your shortcomings in particular fields (like maths, or programming experience). It'll be frustration, it'll be long hours, it'll be effort... Try to focus on setting goals for yourself when you are in catch-up phase.

I strongly recommend checking out S.M.A.R.T goals concept which helps in getting things done and bagging that sweet feeling of accomplishment, little by little.

Hope this answer helps to some extent and it all works out in the end!

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  • I'd also like to point out that not only should you look at your weaknesses you should also look at your strengths. Maybe you are better at other things related to CS. Not everything in CS is math and programing. Maybe for example, you are better at communicating your ideas or maybe you get along well while working in a team. These are qualities many CS students don't have. Work on your weaknesses for sure, but also put yourself in positions where you can show off your strengths as well. – WetlabStudent Jan 8 '14 at 5:15

Although, it is customary to give pep talk, the truth is that life is unfair. Your friends might get all the girls of your dreams without even trying (I assume you are a guy), your siblings might be more successful than what you will ever be and even your parents might be more educated than you. You can always blame this on your "hard" life and naively believe that if you actually put another 10% of effort you might minimize the gap between your achievements and theirs. The problem is, that sometimes people around you are more smart, more beautiful and even more hard working. You have to accept this as a fact of life. As Clint Eastwood said "A Man's Got to Know his Limitations". What you can do is work within those limitations and stretch them to your absolute best. But even then, success is not linear and sometimes extraordinary smart, hard working people fall flat on their faces.

So, although you should look to people around you for inspiration, trying to replicate their success is a dead-end. There will be always be someone more adequate, smarter, richer or luckier. So, instead focus on what you WANT TO DO instead on what you want to get. Do the best you can but mainly enjoy the process as well. Otherwise your dreams are toxic and lead you nowhere.

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    Great answer in my opinion. Life is indeed cruel, and the idea, very prevalent nowadays, that "only hard work matters!", is completely delusional and in a lot of ways ultimately detrimental to the recipients of that nice-sounding idea. – jeremy radcliff Oct 31 '16 at 7:35

Sounds like you're engaged in a lot of upward social comparison, which is bound to make you feel somewhat inadequate if you're judging yourself by the different standards of achievement that may apply to them for all the reasons you mention. Upward social comparison might be a good way to form goals, but it's not a good way to judge your progress so far. Even if you'd had the same environmental advantages as some of the people you seem to be focusing on, you'd still both be working with different personalities and aptitudes, and probably different tasks too. Too many factors differentiate individuals' performance to take observations of your peers quite so seriously as reflections on yourself.

The ideal approach would be to judge your progress by your standards. You've known yourself long enough to have some sense of whether you're growing and performing at your usual rate. If you're improving steadily in these regards, I'd say that's plenty of cause for a decent amount of self-esteem. If you find yourself doing worse than usual, consider what's holding you back, and consider whether you've defined your goals realistically. I'm not saying you can't be responsible for underperforming—you should be able and willing to see fault in yourself—but you shouldn't blame yourself immediately without considering other factors that might be affecting you. This is all part of the broader matter of managing your expectations, and separating them from your hopes and aspirations.

I probably wouldn't recommend relying too heavily on downward social comparison, but it is also an option if you need to calibrate your frame of reference with others in general, and it sounds like you might. You sound very focused on what you have had to overcome, not the fact that you've overcome it, and focused on what others have done with advantages you didn't have, rather than what others have done with the same disadvantages you had. How many of your peers had problems like yours in the past? How many people do you know with similar backgrounds who haven't made it to grad school?

Be careful not to get caught up in depressive cycles of ruminative thought as well. You sound stressed for at least two reasons that should "cancel each other out" in some sense:

  1. You had a hard life...
    • But you still made it to grad school!
  2. You have trouble keeping up with people who haven't suffered the same disadvantages...
    • But you know you've had to deal with a lot of unusual problems outside of school!

That you are still in the same program as those people who had it easier should help you feel better about your life, because it's only held you back somewhat. That you have been held back by your life's circumstances somewhat should help you feel better about being behind somewhat. Nonetheless, if you focus on each source of stress separately instead of focusing on these connections, each will make you feel bad independently, and each will remind you of the other reason to feel bad. Focus on the reasons you are where you are, not just where you are, and focus on what you can do about it, not just how you feel about it (see also problem-focused and emotion-focused coping)...and never forget how far you've come already.

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I think you shouldn´t compare yourself with others all the time. We need to be better than we were yesterday... If you are doing your part, don´t worry. There will be always people you consider better than you as always there will be people considering you better than them. CS is very vast... Don´t try to be the best in every field, it´s insane... Focus in something you like.. Good luck... And sometimes we need a break, relax, have fun to study better later... The important is the path, not the final line... Life is it, we are always trying to get in a new point.. And when we get there it takes only seconds and we start another run for the next. So we need to try to be happy during the path!

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    This answer almost says what I was going to write. Be happy with what you have and be proud of what you have already accomplished. If it took you more effort than your peers to get to where you are now, be proud that you have the strength of character to preservere in the face of challenge. Stop comparing yourself to others, you are here to be you in your life not to live up to the expectations or progress of others. Be the best you that you can be. – Kmeixner Jan 7 '14 at 20:21

I totally disagree with "Accept it" part of answers. Well, accept it. BUT.

The people who are getting their success easy will eventually get bored and stop. Your habit to working hard WILL get you ahead of them sooner than you might expect (at least, after graduating high school. Life is not like high school, it has no target to be teaching you while you're having fun in a campus). It's like having higher speed and acceleration while starting behind: EVENTUALLY you'll get ahead.

Persistence beats it all. It beats being smart, rich or naturally strong.

Go strive for those fancy projects too. In the beginning, you will be doing worse, that's normal. And then...

Second thing: trying to catch up with a someone's success is one of the best motivations I had in my life.

Go on.

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    Unfortunately, not only are there people smarter than you, and with more fortunate backgrounds than you, who have been luckier than you, who are taller and richer and better looking than you, there are also people who are more persistent than you. The only way to win this game is not to play. – JeffE Jan 7 '14 at 22:32
  • @JeffE, come on. If it feels like looking for excuses, just know it's your worse part trying to undermine your life. I don't think that on OP's class has more than 2 more persistent persons, and being one of top 3 is a great result. – Victor Sergienko Jan 8 '14 at 9:48
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    @JeffE, yes, the way you stated it - outbest everyone in the world - you probably cannot. But admit, it's a non-SMART target, feels more like an excuse for doing nothing. – Victor Sergienko Jan 8 '14 at 9:52
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    Admitting that other people are better than you is only an excuse for doing nothing if being better than other people is your only motivation, as opposed to doing the best you can. – JeffE Jan 9 '14 at 5:48
  • Great point. Probably I have different assumptions: I'm assuming OP is already doing what he wants. And I believe there's a difference between "aim to do better than others" and "aim to do (what I like to do) as good as someone near me can". – Victor Sergienko Jan 9 '14 at 9:42

If you're looking at a lot of profiles (this is common when you're doing academic job searches or literature reviews) you might have a tendency to focus on the accomplishments that other professors have, and then lump them all together into some kind of imaginary "summation superhuman".

One institution hired that guy because he invented XYZ. The next hired the other because he has N papers in Science and Nature. The other one hired ABC because he got K dollars of funding. Suddenly, they're all molding together in your head and you feel like you have to invent something, get N papers in Science and Nature, and get K dollars of funding before you can even have a hope of succeeding.

When you look at a lot of CVs and profiles they highlight all of the good things. Don't "sum" them up into some kind of super researcher.

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Hopefully I can give you a different answer, from my perspective.

First of all, everyone's achievements are different. If they are not, they are in direct competition in their careers - so don't try to achieve what they do. You have unique stuff to offer. I have hired a lot of academically smart people, but they have no people skills or street smarts - at all. The CIO I work for said what makes a good CIO is one who naturally has great people skills and social smarts, everything else can be learned.

Be the turtle, not the rabbit, in the race. I suggest you try to make small achievements, and document them in a vita you should keep. Try to write an article on what you do.. perhaps applying people smarts, not tech smarts. Look for a perspective you have no one else around you has, and focus on applying CS to non-CS interests you have. For example, if you like music, do a CS project with music as the subject. Then put that in your Vita.

Volunteering is always good experience the academically smart people may not be doing. Interact with people, socialize, and help others. A good tech leader will have team building skills, personal management skills, task/project management. So perhaps you have a knack for these.. you should look into them. Being a volunteer leader and an average programmer may speak more than only being an expert programmer with no leadership experience.

Don't worry about the tech skills as much as the know-how skills. Every job you go to you will have to learn new skills. The question the employer will have is how can you make my company better if I hire you. They want someone who has enough technical skills to do the job, and then they look for non-tech skills that fit the company's mission and ideals.

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  • Amen! Play to your strengths! Always a good way to go for building self-esteem and trying to define one's niche in the world. – Nick Stauner Jan 8 '14 at 0:19
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    A personal example. I studied music for several decades and was always average or less in performance and composition than my peers. However, in my CS projects and research I applied my music skills. I designed beautiful code that awarded me the Excellence in Programming award. And I can safely say I am the only one of my music peers to write an Artificial Intelligence program that composes music. Use your non-CS skills to enhance what you can do in CS. Anyone can program, but you need an idea or solution first. @nick is right about one's "niche". – Russell E Glaue Jan 8 '14 at 18:40

So, the question is how do I deal with the discouragement and overcome this.

  1. Like another person said, you are NOT the only one. Actually, you'd be surprised to hear that some of the people you envy feel the same way. Even when by all measures, they seem to be so great and successful. Example: Scott Hanselman is a Senior Engineer (not sure of his title) at Microsoft and published the great posts The Myth of the Rockstar Programmer and I'm a phony. Are you?.

  2. It's all in your mindset. I will never be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but I can always be better than I am today.

  3. Work on some side projects to help you learn more and improve every day. Yes, everyone is busy and this takes time. But, no one said becoming a great developer is easy.

  4. You are a Master's student. You really haven't even started your career. My advice??? Be persistent and outwork your peers. I'll take an energetic, motivated person any day over someone with a little talent that is lazy.

Most people deal with the feelings of ineptness. Just realize it's just a feeling and not based on much reality. You see the success of others, but you have no idea how many failures they have had or how hard they worked to get there. You look at their successes, but you have no way of looking at their failures.

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    #2 is a gold-piece, and should be the mantra of any aspiring scientist, IMHO. (+1 for that) – posdef Jan 7 '14 at 20:42

Many answers here are very helpful for me, as for a long time I've had the same feelings as you do now, and still do, to a lesser extent. I also agree with millmoose's comment in that, while it's understandable that you are seeking for help with your situation, it'd be better if you ask people close to you, or a therapist, for aid.
However, because your position is very familiar to me, I'd like to give you my own answer as well, if only to deal with my own situation.

My problems manifested themselves around the time I enrolled as a student. Whilst I love computer science, and especially it's theoretical implications, I felt insecure because I was weak at math and no programming background.
So, I started and for a long time I too compared my achievements with others'. Without taking my own personal difficulties into account, I set high standards for myself, in order to prove to myself that I was better than they were.
I then failed my own high expectations, and that resulted into me thinking less of myself and more of the others.
This impacted my studies as well: I couldn't read at home, and at class I would not ask my teachers any questions (who actually expected my questions and were paid to answer them) or discuss the topic with my classmates, out of fear of how I'd come out.
To "amend" the situation, I set even higher standards the next time, and so a vicious circle of expectation/disappointment ensued.
This had a great psychological and professional impact for me, but also very valuable lessons to be learned; I hope my lessons will help you as well.

The greatest lesson I've learned is that your mistakes are your best friends, and your best tutors. All of us started knowing nothing at all, and we all learn and get better by making mistakes. Don't be afraid to ask questions; to show that you don't know.The answers, as well as the questions themselves, will help you grow.
But, no matter how much we learn none of us will ever get to know it all, or be perfect at anything. All the people that seem so perfect, they all have their flaws.Beneath the lines of accomplishments by great scientists lie dozens of failures (according to Wikipedia, "Einstein was passed over for promotion [at the Swiss Patent Office] until he 'fully mastered machine technology'".Go figure).
Me and you have flaws too. It's very natural, and it's very OK! :)

It's also hard to get used to this, and not be afraid of mistakes. I'm still trying myself. What helps me is that there is actually no comparison to be made. We are not better or worse to each other; we are all equal, but different. And everyone of us is special in their own way.
I for instance, learned about myself that I may not be great at math, or any other field for that matter, but I'm good at discovering relations between stuff, and that matters too!

What posdef also said helps even more: life is not all about competing, comparing and achieving stuff.Life is about the journey-the goal is just the pretext to get the journey going (see also Ithaca).
It is about enjoying what you do, and enjoying yourself, along with others just as non-perfect as me and you are.

To conclude: just go for it, no matter how it turns out. Get in touch with others and their work and don't be afraid of it; you will learn from their rights and wrongs, and they will certainly learn something special from you too ;)

P.S. This fall I tried to get to graduate school for a master at CS, but didn't get admitted; I wasn't even called for the interview ;)

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Almost everyone feels this way to some extent. Most people have developed this issue over many years. I ran into the issue head-on in the jump from middle to high school. In primary and middle school, I was literally first in my class. Then I went to a better district with more rigorous studies, and I started almost failing my classes while my peers received the equivalent of a 5.0. So I had to consciously figure out how to deal with the feeling of inferiority.

The best way to handle this issue is to keep a few things in mind:

1 – Everyone has a different skill set. Unfortunately, society trains us to focus on our failings. Everyone has standard levels they must reach, but we're not so encouraged to advanced quickly in what we are good at. It's a major flaw of society to force everyone to an inflated level in things they aren't good at.

2 – Instead, you should focus on becoming excellent in what you are good at. Then, whenever you feel inadequate in one field, just remember how good you are in another. If you focus both on improving your strengths and flaunting them, it makes you a productive and satisfied member of society, not to mention very appealing to recruiters and those in charge of promotion.

3 – Some people say life isn't a competition. Others say you need to work hard and play catch up. You have to find your own balance between the two. If you're too far on the competitive end, people think you're a jerk when you're above them in a subject or you feel depressed when you're below others. If you're too far on the peaceful end, you lose the desire to work hard and learn more, regardless of whether or not you need it.

4 – Find out what you like to do, find out what you're good at, and find out where the two cross.


Focus on fixing the bad – The underdog movies "Turbo" and "Rudy" come to mind. Rudy, the shrimp of a kid who can't run fast, wants to play college football. He spends all his time training, and gets one play in the season. He feels like a hero until the movie ends and he realizes that play doesn't get him off the bench for next season. Turbo the snail wants to win the Indy500. It takes a freak chemical spill to turn him into a snail version of a superhero. These are some of the people we look at for inspiration.

Focus on your strengths – "Monsters Inc." and "Monsters University." When Mike tries to scare kids, he fails. He's simply not scary. But he knows everything about being a scarer. Sully's scary, but is horrible at memorization and logic. In the end, Mike doesn't become a scarer; he coaches Sully and plans everything. Mike does what he's good at and gets to be in the same environment he would be in if he were good at scaring. Mike and Sully each use their unique, innate skills to their advantage and come out on top.

Let's say you're good at composition, history, and time management, but you dislike history and time management. Become excellent at composition, keep history relatively neutral, and accept the fact that time management is a requirement for everyone.
By the way, how many people in your field are good at math? Probably a lot. How many are good at what you specialize in? If you do it right, not very many. You can't speak Mandarin, even though it's the most popular language on the planet. What do you do? Forget about it, unless you're planning on traveling to China. Why do you need it? Instead, learn a language that impresses people and is often used in your chosen field. For example, France has a lot of customers for robotic tech companies.

Here's a huge misnomer. "Hard Work" is not actually what people want. Employers don't want employees to stay two hours late every day just to get their tasks done, then come to work tired because of another three hours of unpaid labor at home. Teachers don't want students to be stressed out and think of the school experience as a bunch of bad memories. "Don't work hard; work smart." Use what you have at your disposal. They use the term "Hard Work" to indicate that you can't slack off and not do what's expected of you.
Also, if students come from higher-class high schools, it's basically like they went to college early on financial aid. They've already gone through all these classes. Yes, you're going to have to go through the classes they've already been through.
By the way, I'm in my first year of community college now. There were high school Juniors in my Calc II class with better grades than mine. There are also people into their third year of college failing their third bout of intermediate algebra. We have peers who can barely speak English, and we have foreigners who speak my language better than I do.

In the end, everything is subjective and relative. Don't beat yourself up. Try to focus on your strengths. It's not a necklace, and you are much stronger than your weakest link. If you're not good at a subject, figure out what's the highest level you need to have to be good at what you do.

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While many will tell you to step up, or forget other people and focus on yourself I think it best to do something else entirely. I'm a non-traditional student. I too had fall-backs and work considerably harder to achieve my goals than some of my peers, but what has helped immensely wasn't hoping someone notices me, but making them notice me. So I say to you, find a mentor. Find someone in your field of whom you can confide and ask questions. When you start involving yourself deeply in your field both online AND in person with others who are equally interested in your work, and with those who are willing to listen and/or give advice when necessary you will realize just how good you have it.

We are always comparing ourselves to others, don't stop. It can drive you to be better, to be different. However, remember that you aren't the same as your peers. You don't want to have exactly the same jobs and lives as they do, so you can set your own goals. And in doing so, you will find that you can market yourself differently as well. Be different. Stand out.

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Well, sometimes we are just not that "smart".

I had a class in image processing (graduate level) taught by Dr K. R. Rao (invented JPEG), and I barely hung on by my fingernails and was behind all the other students. The other class members were all international students who didn't party but studied in their off time.

They knew the subject better than me, but I got an A. It was an excellent class, I was persistent, very persistent. The point is get over the feelings and work as hard as you can, all your spare time on it (24/7 like) and see how you do.

But "Smart" is only 1/2 the game. Look at the people in Mensa; 1/2 are nuts, and look at PhDs in Physics; 1/2 are nuts and really out to lunch long time.

I take a hard working normal guy over a super smart wandering type anytime. On the job, I had, as a system engineer, to coordinate and get the primadona engineers all moving in one direction and work together, about 5 guys in 3 locations and they had more than 10 patents each, one had over 50, and they were all older than me. They knew their fields far better than I. We came out with Wi-Fi. Learn to take downs with the ups, gather experience, lots of arrows in the butt, etc. There is high demand for people that can stand the pressure and survive.

There was one guy in grad microwave class that made all 100s, the rest of us were in the Bs, and he busted the curve for us.

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    "Look at the people in Mensa; 1/2 are nuts, and look at PhDs in Physics; 1/2 are nuts and really out to lunch long time." [citation needed] – Joel Reyes Noche Jan 8 '14 at 4:06

WOW, There are many good responses and some good and some not so good advice. I am a 49 y/o System admin/Engineer with no formal IT Training and "Some College". As far as feeling outclassed by your peers, I certainly can identify with that. I am assuming that you are in your 30's. I have been working in IT for 20 years and have seen some very unhappy and miserable people. Constantly clawing and trying to "One Up" their peers. I understand that this is a very competitive field, however understand that your job is not your life. You are an amazing individual, because you are not arrogant and do see your own flaws. Please stay humble. Do not see yourself as lessor than your peers, you are much greater.You have come a long way. So if you ever find some difficulty just remember one of the difficult times in your past and appreciate your present. Often time some say "It is rough but at least I am doing better than ... (Fill the blank). Well, your difficult times are in that blank. Lastly, Put you peers in your shoes and I am sure NONE of them can stand. Love your life, stop and and reflect, pray, meditate and most of all SMILE, laugh, and enjoy. Life really blurs by. Remember your past as a point of reference. Your peers cannot relate. ANY Employer would love to have someone with your experience, because you are an OVERCOMER, and handle difficulty under pressure, that make some of the best problem solvers Experience is more than academics. Good luck, and take life by the horns.

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New Ideas, you need new ideas, new ways of doing things to achieve what you're looking for, and if it's being better than them, I think that's not a bad thing, I mean how many are they 10, 20 people. obviously that challenged you and without this you wouldn't have thought of changing your status Quo. and even better how about something you're interested in that they don't know anything about (it doesn't have to be sports) it could be in the field of CS too, but was left out for some reason, they're a limited no. of people and even if they are 100, they're not the rest of the world, so probably they are not good at something in CS, if you're interested in that thing (only if you're interested in it, passionate about and want to learn) this can be a great advantage of yours. go for it, be good at every other subject in your masters but be excellent at your newly found interest, a hint: it might be something related to business (think gates and jobs left school for a reason), this could be a killer. in my opinion frustration is the fuel for extraordinary success only if you keep at it.

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    Hey, welcome to academia.SE. It's great that you're trying to contribute, but could you try and add some structure to your post? While there's some nice advice in there, it's hard to read and follow, and I can barely get the point. Feel free to edit and improve your answer. – penelope Jan 9 '14 at 10:58

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