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Laura N. '09

Aug 7, 2014

Fake it ‘til you make it

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Miscellaneous

Hi! I’m Laura ’09. You may remember me from such blog posts as What MIT students do on Friday nightsThe Stuff of MIT Legend, and Life, the Universe, and the Energy Content of Gasoline. If you’d rather not spend hours of your time wading through the endless linkbait that is mitadmissions.org (although that is highly recommended!) here’s a quick recap: I studied Course 2, lived on the infamous Conner 2, played on the varsity field hockey team, volunteered on the campus ambulance, and blogged not nearly often enough. Then in 2009 I graduated and was never heard from again.

Until now!

In celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the blogs, I'm back to tell you about my life after MIT.  But in order for me to properly tell the story, I need you to go watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language. I know it’s long, so you can skip to around 15:30 and watch from there. I’ll wait.

[waiting]

[some more waiting]

Back? Good. We’ll get back to this, I promise.

To give us a running start, let's look back at some of my old entries- like the very first one.  How did I introduce myself to the MIT community? Self-deprecatingly, that's how.  Before I'd even been assigned a dorm room, I announced that I was pretty confident that I didn't belong here.  In my second semester, I struggled a lot with my math courses: "Just the fact that most people in the class have already learned multivariable calc (even if they won't use it) is a little intimidating. Like they're all just plain better at math than me. I kind of feel like the dumb one who's in over her head."  There were other ups and downs, but by my last semester, I felt comfortable at MIT.  This did not negate how excited I was to graduate.

After graduation I moved back in with my parents and went back to my old summer job as a lifeguard.  I thought I deserved a relaxing summer after making it through Hell.  In September, the waterpark closed and I still did not have a real job. In January 2010 I started babysitting the 6 month old granddaughter of a family friend. In February I got a temporary job at the census. I tried not to cry when my co-workers made good-natured jokes about my overqualifcations. “Today we’re teaching the MIT grad how to file the scheduling folders alphabetically. Her entire education has been leading up to this moment!”

In April I got a job at a startup in California! In May I packed a suitcase, bought a one-way plane ticket, and moved in with Sarah ’09.  In August I lost my job.

In September I started tutoring neighborhood kids. From September 2010 to May 2011 I barely scraped by on my tutoring income. I would bring nothing but a $20 bill with me to the supermarket to force myself to stick to my budget. I have hateful vivid memories of agonizing over whether I could afford to buy orange juice. (The answer was usually no.)

This is not the story you were expecting to hear, was it?

I won't sugarcoat it. Those 2 years of my life were awful. What MIT graduate can't get a job for two years after graduation?  I felt like a worthless failure. Here, finally, was solid proof that I never belonged at MIT; that I was a fraud from the beginning.

In reality, there were a lot of reasons I found myself in this situation.  First, it was 2009.  You may remember that as the year after the economic apocalypse.  Second, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  Focusing your job search on mechanical engineering is like focusing your volunteer search on charities, and I had no idea how to get more specific.  My previous experience was all over the place.  I explored a lot and earned some great leadership and organizational skills during college.  That might have been okay in 2007.  In 2009, when I was competing for entry level jobs with the experienced employees who had all just gotten laid off, not so much.  

So the real world and my own flakiness conspired against me.  But there's another party here who isn't completely blameless.

MIT is a great place, but sometimes I think it gets so caught up in being "awesome" that it forgets about this little thing known as "reality."  I can't help feeling that in some ways MIT utterly failed to prepare me for the real world.  I wish there had been more emphasis on advisors actually, well, advising.  I wish someone had helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life, guided me to develop a course plan that comprised a useful combination of skills, taught me to find internships that would launch my career, and generally steered me through college as if it were leading me somewhere, rather than just being 4 years of puzzle hunts and robotics competitions for the hell of it.  (This kind of stuff is not remotely obvious to first generation college students like me.)  Also, I'm going to call out Course 2 here: no training in Excel (the most important engineering software in the real world)?  Really?  You also wouldn't have to sacrifice the awesomeness of 2.007 to add in some truly practical Solidworks training.  And I stand by my opinion that 2.005 is a horrible way to teach anyone anything.

My failure to launch after graduation left me truly bitter about MIT for awhile.  Four years of all that stress, and I emerge into the real world to find that I didn't learn anything directly useful.  It took some time for me to understand what the value of my MIT education was- we'll get to that in a minute.

Good news- we've made it to the Turning Point of the story! To reward you for sticking with me through the depressing parts, please enjoy some adorable pictures of my parents' dog, Max:

In September 2011 I started studying for a Master of Public Affairs at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, Indiana. I studied energy policy and economics, and by my second semester I had a research position with the director of the energy department.  (She's awesome.)  In the summer of 2012 I got an internship at a startup called Echogen Power Systems in Akron, OH. That fall I flew to the Netherlands to do a semester at the Technical University of Delft, where I studied electricity markets and pretended to spreek nederlands. In the spring of 2013 I graduated and got a permanent job offer from Echogen.

Over the past year, I've led a pretty awesome, happy life.  As brutal as the 2 years after graduation were, they were a powerful experience.  Not a week goes by that I don't think how grateful I am that I can afford to buy orange juice if I want to.  Removing the financial stress leaves me free to just enjoy my life.  I volunteer at the local animal shelter and library.  I go hiking in the nearby park.  OK, I miss pizza, and the ocean, and my Jersey accent, which hasn't been seen since 2006, but overall Akron's pretty nice.

Last fall, I trained for and ran in a half marathon, for exactly the reason you'd think.  Early this summer I suffered from a stress fracture, and am just getting back into my running groove.  Slowly but surely I'll get to the marathon distance.

Even more recently I enjoyed a mini MIT reunion at the wedding of Sarah '09.  Sam '09, Justine '10 and I were all bridesmaids.  Sam and I found a creative way to cool off from the oppressive Virginia heat after the ceremony.

And finally, this week I'm participating in The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen.  We are losing to William Shatner.

OK, this hasn't been a novel so much as an installation of Game of Thrones, but I promised I'd tie back in to Amy Cuddy's TED talk and we're almost there, I promise!

One crucial piece of information I left out of the story so far is what I actually do at my job. On paper, I’m an Applications Engineer, which means I analyze sales opportunities. Echogen is developing a waste heat to power engine. To put it simply, I analyze our potential customers’ waste heat and figure out how much power (electricity) it can make.

This means lots of thermo. I’m not sure if I ever blogged about it, but I’ll own it right now: I failed 2.005 the first time. It wasn’t a party the second time either. When I started my job, I was terrified. Every day I waited for someone to figure out that I was a fraud; that I was not remotely good enough at my job to be trusted with…well, my job.

But then something interesting happened. Slowly, so slowly I didn’t even realize it was happening, I started to learn. This sounds monumentally obvious, but I promise you that it does not feel monumentally obvious when you are having an panic attack every time your boss asks you to do something.

Then something even more interesting happened. I started to suspect that half the time, no one else had any idea what they were doing either- including my supervisors. If all anyone ever did were things they already knew how to do- well, there’d be no such thing as startups. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people. But they are all human, and they make mistakes, and sometimes they have bad ideas, and maybe, just maybe, on occasion someone asked them to do something they had no idea how to do, and they made it up as they went, the whole time thinking, “Man I really hope no one realizes that I have no idea what I’m doing.”

In other words, I’ve realized that Imposter Syndrome is not about feeling like you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t know what they’re doing. It’s about being the only person in the room who is being honest about it.

You may have noticed that earlier I said I was an Applications Engineer “on paper.” The reality is that, at a startup, your job title is irrelevant. (For this and other reasons, I highly recommend startups as great places for recent grads to work.) Recently my boss left for another job, and I looked around the office and realized that I was the only remaining member of the sales team. Suddenly, my work load doubled. My list of responsibilities tripled.

And this is where I learned the value of my MIT education.

Around that time, the CEO and COO began stopping by my desk regularly for casual conversation. I was confused at first. Then I realized they were checking in on me, worried I was under too much stress. I almost laughed. I wanted to say, “Please! I went to MIT, and you think this is stressful?!” Nothing, and I mean nothing, in my life has come remotely close to being as hard as MIT, and I don’t think anything ever will.

The next thing I knew, I was handling all our incoming sales inquiries. I became our Salesforce.com administrator. I’d never used Salesforce before in my life. So what? They have a “Help” feature. One day the CEO casually asked me to estimate our market potential for some prospective investors. “Oh and they’ll be here tomorrow.” Big deal. It’s not like he asked me to do all that and plan MassCPR that week. As I walked the investors through the analysis, one of them asked me a question. Using an understanding of gas turbines I couldn’t have conceived of a year ago, I whipped up the answer on the fly in Excel. I still think MIT should have taken the time to teach me Excel, but I guess it was too busy teaching me to not be fazed by anything.

This is how experience works. You figure it out. You get by. You make up something reasonable and ask your boss if it sounds right. For crying out loud, you Google it.

I’m not faking it. Everybody’s faking it.

Which is just another way of saying: I’ve made it.

Well, more or less.


Questions? Comments? Adoring fan mail? You can reach me at lnicks at alum dot mit dot edu.

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