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MIT student blogger Phoebe C. '18

17 Things I’ve Learned in the Past Year by Phoebe C. '18

growing, growing, grown

It’s spring break and I’m catching up on alone time. I didn’t exactly plan to not have spring break plans, but I feel like I have a lot of backlogged self-reflection and emotional processing to do, so it’s actually been pretty nice and relaxing to have a chunk of time to myself.

Incidentally, there are a lot of great concerts happening in Boston this week, so I’ve also been doing a lot of concertgoing (relevant zine lol)—on Tuesday night, I went to see Vince Staples for the second time, which was pretty cool especially because he closed with “Summertime,” (warning: explicit lyrics) a song I mentioned in my very first blog post. There may or may not have been tears in my eyes by the end :’)

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve changed during my time at MIT, and I thought I would write this blog post about some of the ways my perspective has changed in the past year. I think that I’ve done a lot of emotional growth this year, and although some of this growth came out of a particularly dark and volatile period of my life, I am grateful that it shaped me into the person I am now.

Now, without further ado, here are 17 things I have learned this past year:

1. What machine learning is

And what it’s like to start studying for a Friday 8AM exam (for a class you’ve attended literally 0 times) at 10PM on Thursday. (It’s not fun, in case you were wondering!!) I took 6.867, one of MIT’s machine learning classes, last semester. I loved to complain about this class when I was taking it, but some of the material was really interesting. I don’t think I acknowledged how cool it was because it’s a class that I and many other people take because it’s an of-the-moment thing that seems important to know, but it was pretty exciting to write code that could classify handwritten digits (albeit only moderately well) and to actually use multivariable calculus to do useful things.

2. It is sometimes okay and necessary to run away from a situation and not look back or apologize.

This is number 2 because it’s important. I guess I’m now able to understand that sometimes people who seem to have your best interests at heart really do not, and I understand how much the onus is on me to look out for and take care of myself.

I’m a big fan of the line “if I treated someone else the way I treat myself, I’d be in jail” (from “Girl Named Hello” by of Montreal)—it basically acknowledges the fact that people subject themselves to a lot of crap (and have self-destructive tendencies) that they would never subject anyone else to. Sometimes it is helpful to stop and think, “How would I react if I was told this was happening to my friend?” or to realize “If my friend told me they were being treated in x way, I would tell them to get out of that situation immediately.”

3. My friends are amazing!

And funny and supportive and complex and talented and creative.

I know everyone thinks their friends are amazing, but man, I have had some of the same friends forever, and it’s been crazy to see them all grow and change over the years. I am grateful for all the memories and laughs we’ve shared, and I’m insanely grateful that they have been there for me year after year, even when I haven’t been there for them and even after we fall out of touch for periods.

I think the main shift in mindset that has happened recently is that I feel less pressure than before to constantly be trying to make new friends. I don’t mean that I’ve shut myself off to new connections; it’s more that I feel wholly satisfied with and grateful for what I already have. I also now feel a much stronger sense of protectiveness and responsibility toward my friends, my family, and myself.

4. Sometimes the wind in Cambridge blows so hard that benches fall over

Learned this last week.

5. How to do growth accounting

Learned this in 14.05, the intermediate macroeconomics class I took last spring. Sadly, I forget many of the details, but I do remember that growth accounting is a way to decompose an economy’s economic growth into changes in various factors. These factors typically include some subset of capital, labor, technology, and human capital. When I first learned about it, I was awed by the ways in which economists were able to use mathematical models to explain patterns in the world. I think I’m a little less enthusiastic now because, ya know, all models are wrong, but the lectures about this and about the Mankiw-Romer-Weil paper (which posited that human capital should be included in the model) were part of what got me hooked on economics. (wow i am a nerd sorry)

6. The bystander effect is real.

Like, in real life and not just in psychology textbooks. Sigh.

7. It is important to take care of your body and physical health!

Health, hygiene, sleep, exercise, diet—it’s difficult to not let these things fall by the wayside when negotiating the insanity of MIT. I still struggle to strike a healthy balance, especially when it comes to getting enough sleep.

I fell into an extended period of mild illness during the months after spring break last year. I was exhausted and didn’t ever seem to have time to catch up on sleep because, like many other people on campus, I am eternally overcommitted. :/ I was regrettably hardheaded about not asking for extensions or going to Medical.

Don’t be like me! It’s great if you can somehow avoid getting sick in the first place, but if you’re already sick, make sure you take adequate time to recover fully so the illness doesn’t drag out. It might seem wasteful to take a big chunk of time to recover now, but spending weeks being sick and recovering halfway usually ends up taking up even more time.

On the topic of fitness, there’s a line from a Dr. Dre interview that I think about all the time: “I just got tired of taking better care of things I can replace…You can’t have a hot car and a hot house and get out looking crazy.” I can think of many people who pay more mind to taking care of their physical possessions than their own bodies. If you’re doing all this work (in part) to give yourself a better life, what is the point if you’re not healthy and able to enjoy that life?

8. It is important to take care of your mind and mental health!

I wouldn’t exactly say I learned this in the past year, but I am still learning how to get better at it—figuring out what helps me and what doesn’t. MIT is a mentally taxing place, but I’m finally learning to take advantage of the resources available to students.

I’m a person who never stops working: even if I’m feeling extremely down, I will get my work done, and it took me a while to understand that my ability to get work done doesn’t reflect whether or not things are okay in my head.

On a related note, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to always be delivering, and even during my time off I want to be productive. I think that on some level I feel like my worth is determined by my ability to be productive (thanks, capitalism) so it’s been a journey learning to actually, really, truly relax.

Mental and physical health go hand in hand, and a lot of activities that improve physical health also improve mental health. Selam recently wrote a beautiful post that touches on the experience of climbing out of the hole of mental health struggles—I would highly recommend reading it!

9. How it feels to teach a class

I’ve done a decent amount of teaching/presentation-giving this year and especially this semester. I just wrapped up teaching an HSSP class on behavioral economics, and my CI-M (communication intensive) math class requires all the members of the class to teach the material to each other. It’s helped me develop more sympathy and empathy for my teachers and professors—now that I’ve been on the receiving end of dead silence after asking a question to a class, I’m more willing to participate in my own classes.

10. Do what works for you!

Over my winter break, one of my friends from high school mentioned that a critical part of the improvement of her mental health was the discovery that “being an introvert is a thing.” I thought that was hilarious and extremely relevant to my own struggles—this year, I finally came to terms with the fact that I get tired if I’m around people for long periods of time and need to spend a sizable amount of time alone to be at my best. It’s not like I was insanely social before this year, but now I feel much less guilty about turning down invitations or spending my weekend nights quietly (although this semester, that’s mostly been caused by my having too much work on weekends, which is a separate problem).

11. Femininity is nothing to be ashamed of.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in one way or another in, like, every single blog post I’ve written this year, but I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that I am a girl who likes to do girly things even though those things are associated with vapidity. I think I’ve had to work through a lot of internalized sexism, and as a consequence I am now more self-aware and okay with myself as a person. So that’s been pretty cool.

12. How to belay

Top roping

Last month I tried top roping (style of climbing pictured above) for the first time—super fun and tiring! There are a number of climbing gyms around Boston/Cambridge—I’ve been to Rock Spot (many times), Brooklyn Boulders (once), and MetroRock (once).

13. What a holomorphic function is

It’s like a differentiable function, but in the complex plane—which means it has to be differentiable from all directions. Learned this in 18.112 last semester; that whole class is on the (many + beautiful) properties of holomorphic functions.

14. How little looks matter

High school politics teach you otherwise, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized more and more that personal style has absolutely nothing to do with how well I will get along with a person or how interesting they are. I feel like I’m realizing this embarrassingly late in my life, but hey, better than never! (On the other hand, I’ve gone through a lot of phases with my own appearance, and I think people have treated me somewhat differently depending on how I presented myself, so in that sense looks do matter sometimes. And on a broader level, yes, looks matter because people will evaluate you based on features like race or gender presentation. So don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that looks in general do not affect how people treat you because they unfortunately do. But that’s a conversation for a different day.)

15. How to do a bunch of puzzles

I dabble in puzzling, and I’ve done a little more dabbling than usual this past year. There was the Google Games in April, then What’s that Spell in October, then SUMS over winter break, and most recently the Galactic Puzzle Hunt, which was created by people loosely affiliated with the hall I lived on freshman year.

16. I’m the actual worst at self-care.

I sometimes put so much pressure on myself to do self-care activities that the effect ends up being the complete opposite of what I intended. So, for instance, I’ll tell myself I should do some creative writing because that’s therapeutic for me, but then I’ll have a lot of work and not have time to do the creative writing, or I won’t feel like writing at all, and then I’ll get so stressed about the fact that I haven’t done the writing yet that it becomes a big burden. Then, when I actually get around to doing the writing, I’m tired and would probably benefit more from sleep, or it just undoes the stress that came from not-writing but not the pre-existing stress. Repeat for activities like exercise and reading.

I guess the effect in the long run is that I’m reasonably physically fit and productive, but I’m still learning to put less pressure on myself. This spring break I am trying to actually relax by not doing this to myself! I am taking a break from setting mental goals for each day, and so far I’ve actually been pretty relaxed and happy and that’s been really nice :~)

17. I am a tough cookie.

I trust myself to get through difficult times. Every single year, I become more sure about this. I think that in one way or another, your college experience will test how gritty you really are, and although there will be times when things will get pretty dark and feel hopeless, they always get better (often after you seek some sort of help, which is an act of bravery and not of weakness!!), and you will eventually come out with renewed faith in yourself. There are like a million adages about this—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it’s always darkest before the dawn, there is a light at the end of the tunnel—and they are often true.

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