I graduated co-Valedictorian of my high school class of about 160-180 students. It was in a military community overseas, and I had been in that community for six years (three years more than most of the students), and I had been in the top 5 of each class leading up to my senior year. There was something very comforting about this scenario and very intimidating. On the comforting side, I was always secure in my performance, always within easy reach of external validation whenever I needed it. This does mean a lot during the turbulent teens. On the intimidating side, I always felt pressure to stay at the top of the class, to keep myself presentable (for lack of a better word) because I was aware that a lot of people knew me and knew my performance and had validated it in the past. Somehow I made it my responsibility to not let those folks down.
Then I went to Notre Dame and became a decent-sized fish in a much bigger pond. And I really, really liked it. Gone went the pressure, and I was too absorbed in all the cool things I was learning to care about external validation. By the time I got to grad school, I had abandoned the whole concept of peer performance comparison in favor of figuring out what I really wanted to do with myself.
Then I started to pursue what I really wanted to do in life, and I re-discovered the lure of external validation in feeling secure in my own performance. (There's also a problem with the expectation of others at the moment, but that's still caught up in earning money to support the family and thus is at a conflict with my writing at the moment.) I validated what I could by mimicking professional writers I admired (in the sense of creating a writing schedule, working at specific goals, maintaining a blog, watching the market, etc.). And I continue to expand the group of writers from which I model my own writing as a profession mindset. This has led to the bittersweet nostalgia for the Big Fish, Small Pond phenomenon of my youth.
Don't get me wrong. I'm actually enjoying reading the extremely intelligent and insightful discussions on Elizabeth Bear's and Sarah Monette's blogs (Bear on fan-fiction and on blood-letting, Monette on slash and on reviewing; for best effect, read the comments as well). And I've enjoyed the similarly educated discussions on writing and such on Scalzi's Whatever and the Nielsen Hayden's Making Light. But lately I've been getting a bit overwhelmed by the sensation of being just a minnow in a vast ocean. I suppose it's a side effect of switching career goals in my mid-twenties after six years of higher education. I mean, I could join in these conversations and hold my own considerably well had I spent my college years learning rhetoric and comp instead of biology and chemistry. And my education and experience is well-rounded enough that I could even participate in the discourse now, but it would not be anything stunning or I'd probably unknowingly ape the standard freshman response/logic.
So for the moment I watch and revel in the stunning performance of others. Let them be the big fish. And maybe by the time I have learned and experienced enough about writing to intelligently participate, I once again won't give a rats ass about my fish size and the pond. Wouldn't that be nice?