A Cautionary Tale of Two Students by Bryan G. Nance
You may be surprised by how many first year students at MIT believe that they can go it alone and be successful here.
Indulge me for a moment. How many times have we seen the movie in which the hero goes it alone to kill the bad guys, and avenge those who dishonored him by stepping on his sneakers in a crowded auditorium. Why do I mention that now? You may be surprised by how many first year students at MIT believe that they can go it alone and be successful here. Even more surprisingly is the number of students applying to MIT that cling to that Hollywood fantasy.
NEWSFLASH… NO ONE MAKES IT AT MIT/COLLEGE (OR IN LIFE FOR THAT MATTER) ALONE! (Except for Justice Clarence Thomas who claims to have gotten into Yale law school solely based on his own efforts without the help of another living mammal in 1966… less I digress.)
In my humble opinion, the world is comprised of two types of students. Student type 1 – we’ll call her Stephanie – is the type of student who defines the world in which she lives. Student type 2 – we’ll call him Mills – is the type of student who is defined by the world in which he lives.
Lets examine Mills first. Mills is a student who is defined by the world in which he lives, thus he is reactionary in his approach to education. Mills looks to his or her peers for validation or rebuttal. He is overly cautious about the learning process and tends to be obsessed with issues such as GPA, class rank. He is quick to shy away from any action that he believes will negatively affect his chances of getting into a “good school.” Worst of all, Mills is the type of student who tends to overvalue or undervalue himself based on the value system of those around him. A good example of undervaluation is how Mills interprets his SAT scores. He evaluates his scores based on comparisons of his scores as related to the scores his “peers.” We know that if he scores higher than the majority of his or her peers then he may tend to think of himself as superior. However, when he finds others against whom he does not measure as highly… From Mills’ perspective his scores don’t quite measure-up.
Nevertheless, despite his reservations, Mills applies to MIT anyway. Much to his surprise, he is admitted to the Class of 2011.
Let’s back up for a moment and also look at a different example. Mills performed well in high school with little effort. Performing well in the classroom and getting good grades seemed to just came naturally to him. In fact, he was more likely to provide help to his peers than to ever ask for help. In this way, he became overconfident in his academic ability, which of course leads to an overvaluation of his skill set.
The real tragedy for Mills is what comes next. Fast-forward a bit and we see Mills walking the Infinite with the rest of his peers. Except Mills is truly struggling. He is frustrated by his classroom performance. How can this be? Complicating the situation is his feeling that he is the only one “not getting it.” “That’s fine” he thinks. He believes that he only has to work harder and everything will be ok. He must work harder because he fears failure most of all. Those thoughts that he’s kept buried deep are beginning to surface. He remembers the harsh stinging comments of his high school classmates who intimated that he was only admitted to MIT because of affirmative action. Maybe his SAT scores are an indication of his ability. (Nevermind the fact that his scores were well within the MIT’s middle 50% of scores). From here as you can imagine Mills is in quite a pickle.
Where did Mills go wrong?
- By working harder not smarter.
- By not self-advocating. He was reluctant to ask for help.
- By buying into misconceptions on the part of some of his peers that he was admitted b/c of his racial/ethnic identity.
- Afraid of failure to the point that his actions became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Afraid to fail, therefore afraid to try.
Now lets take a peek at Stephanie. Stephanie is a student who knows herself. As such, she is more inclined to be proactive than reactive. Stephanie is a bit adventurous as a learner. She is led by her intellectual curiosity rather than by the group-think. She’s the student who will take an advanced course at the local community college because that’s where the intellectual challenge is, not because it will look good on her transcript. Even though she ended the semester with a grade of “B” in the college course instead of the “A” that many of her peers received in the AP class, she still relished her decision. Self advocation is second nature to her. She did not let foolish pride keep her from applying for a fee waiver. She tends to “lean forward” into challenges and when she fails (oh yeah, she will see her share of failure!) she immediately looks for ways to get back on the horse. She tends to learn as much from failure as she does from success. This keeps her humble, honest and in touch with who and what she really is.
The real success is what happens next. Fast forward a bit and we see Stephanie walking the Infinite with the rest of her peers. Stephanie is struggling a bit as well. Here lies the difference. Stephanie is a shameless self-advocater. She is making great use of the support systems available to her. In doing so she has come to realize that everyone at MIT struggles with something at MIT. She is too busy moving forward to actually worry about failure in the way that Mills does. She realizes that this opportunity at MIT should not be taken for granted and taken lightly. She too has fear of failure but is smart enough to use that fear to find ways of working smarter, not harder.
Where did Stephanie go right?
- By working smarter.
- By being a fearless learner.
- By being a shameless self advocator.
- Owning and making her own future.
- By being willing to change in order to be successful.
Never will you actually see anyone as one-dimensional as Mills or Stephanie, of course. The truth is, if we look deeply we will find a little bit of both of them in all of us. I will end this with just a few conclusions:
- Everyone falls down; it’s the winners in life who get up really fast and learn from the experience.
- The person who never stops being an adventurous learner is the one who ultimately wins in life.
- Make sure that you take the time to find, refine and trust in your voice.
- Only after that is done can you make sure your voice is always heard by those around you.