Skip to content ↓

COVID-19

Learn more about how MIT Admissions is responding to COVID-19 in this blog post from our Dean and new dedicated FAQs.

MIT blogger Sabrina M. '21

Countdown to Burnout by Sabrina M. '21

the clock is ticking

Earlier this semester, I met with Junot Diaz, acclaimed author and professor at MIT,01 a nice MIT perk is that you can just email most professors and they'll usually respond, in my experience, no matter how famous and I lamented about my fears for the future, coming back to MIT, and feeling a bit lost. He gave me a lot of sage advice, most of which I had wish I wrote down and saved, but I didn’t. One that struck me a lot wasn’t even something new, but something that gets thrown around a lot in the context of life, MIT, what comes after. It’s all just a marathon, really. It’s difficult, requires a lot of training, and there’s no time to dwell on anything else except the feeling in your legs and the feeling of your throat getting dryer. In that moment, that’s all I felt towards MIT, fearing the run before I’d even really started. Now, it feels more like I’m in a sprint, going through my classes relatively unscathed.02 so far, i can count all of my semester's bad days on one hand. maybe two. What could go wrong?

So, picture this: you’re running a marathon (a metaphorical one, there’s no winning or losing, or cheering from the sidelines every step of the way, no stakes or day drinkers or monetary gain), legs sprinting one in front of the other, arms pumping. There are endorphins running through your body, coursing through you like small jolts of electricity. Even though you’re sweating profusely, small hairs sticking to your forehead and face burning up despite the slightly chilly weather, you feel on top of the world. The wind blows through your hair and the ground seems to spring up in response to your feet hitting the ground. You feel joy, pure and unwavering. You can do anything.

Now, to extrapolate to real life.03 for those like me, who are not marathon runners, or runners at all Let’s say you’re having a really good semester, whether you’re already in college or still in high school. Even for just a moment, you somehow feel really on top of everything. You’re doing as well as you want to be in your classes, keeping up with your friends and health, and even have time to have fun once in a while. Although your metaphorical arms are sore from pumping, you feel the endorphins coursing through you, and you can handle it. After all, you’ve kind of been training your whole life for this, right?

The worst part is, that this feeling, as great as it feels in the moment, often doesn’t last forever. Unfortunately for the metaphor, life isn’t exactly analogous to a marathon, where all you have to do is reach the end and rest your legs for a while. For an even better analogy, life feels like one really long, continuous marathon with a series of shorter sprints in between. MIT is one of those four-year long sprints, with occasional “breaks” in between.04 think: stopping on the side of the road for free water in paper cups then getting right back to it High school, and all school leading up to that point, is like it’s own sprint, too. Life after, the jobs and the possible child rearing and the endless list of responsibilities, a sprint, albeit slower depending on your outlook and path in life. And, I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure the human body cannot sustain a steady sprint, or even a simple light run, for about 71 years. At some point, you have to stop, and often, your body makes the choice before your mind does.

I started working at the MIT Museum Studio, a cool space located under the Big Dome by Lobby 10 that runs hands-on “maker” classes.05 nice term that means what it sounds like. you make things, usually art I remember on one of my first few days, watching as a student showed me a quick demo circuit for her project. She’d wired a small LED light to a 9V battery, and asked me why it stopped working even though it had just worked minutes ago. So, she did it again, this time with a new light, and we watched as it lit up brightly, and then immediately start to dim until it blacked out. It strikes me now that this literal burning out of the bulb is the perfect phrase chosen for the feeling, the initial rush of energy until it rapidly decays without warning.

Sometimes after a long, hard semester, all you can feel is exhausted to your core. Sometimes that happens before the semester even ends. Sometimes, that feeling doesn’t go away, sinking itself into your emotions until you stop fighting. Other times, it does, and it passes like a change in the weather. It’s awful every time. Often, it feels like an inevitability as an MIT student. The pace required to stay afloat and do well is much faster than a lot of people are used to when they come in, and can be really difficult to adapt to.

I’m sure most people reading have felt this before, the crash that comes after the high. For me, it feels like my energy06 and my life, in general has often existed on a pendulum: a back and forth where the highs come as soon as they go, making way for the lows, and then right back up, not in perfect motion, but faithfully, like Newton’s Laws are always watching out for me and my emotions. Sometimes, I see people at MIT and wonder how they have so much momentum, so much energy to keep pursuing without fail. Maybe they just have longer pendulums.

a gif of a pendulum swinging

For the first time since I’ve been at MIT, I’ve felt like I’ve been really on top of everything.07 except er, job applications, but who’s counting? I’ve gotten all of my school work done without ever having to do work past midnight, I’ve been writing pretty regularly, I’ve been going to the gym, maintaining my social life, and I still get to fool around on the internet or play video games from time to time. To bring it back to the pendulum, I’m at the peak, or reaching it. Sure, I’ve felt stress—an inevitability of life— and suffered some bad emotional days, but mostly, I’ve been solid. I’m on track to do better grade-wise than ever before, which is something I can’t help but feel proud of as someone who struggled so intensely my first year.

But now, the end is in sight, and my free hours get shorter.08 along with the days I worry about how long I can keep this sprint up when I look at my calendar and see everything I need to study for, or jobs I need to apply to, or whatever I should be doing in January. I worry about how much energy I’ll have next semester, or the semester after that, in keeping this fast pace of productivity. Graduation seems so far away, and I’m not sure how far my legs can take me. When I close my eyes, I can see the road crumbling ahead of me, the wind chill getting stronger, and I feel the anxiety settling into my bones. 

It’s that time of the year. The semester is coming to a close. College application deadlines are fast approaching. MIT Early Action decisions will be out this weekend. The Countdown to Burnout is ticking down, except we don’t entirely know when it’ll reach the end.

I wish I had some amazing wisdom09 i just turned 22 recently, i must have learned SOMETHING right? about avoiding burnout and chugging along, but I don’t. But, if you’re worried you might be experiencing this right now, or worried that you’re heading to that point, one thing I will say is, take care of yourself. I know, it’s clichéd and easier said than done, but really. The stresses of early adulthood—college applications, graduating high school, starting college, finishing college, applying to jobs, anything in your personal life—are equal parts tiring and mostly unavoidable. Exhausting yourself won’t get you any farther, it’ll just make you miserable. It’s ok to take a step back and take care of yourself. As for me? Now that classes are over, along with my major final projects, I just need to get through finals week.

  1. a nice MIT perk is that you can just email most professors and they'll usually respond, in my experience, no matter how famous back to text
  2. so far, i can count all of my semester's bad days on one hand. maybe two. back to text
  3. for those like me, who are not marathon runners, or runners at all back to text
  4. think: stopping on the side of the road for free water in paper cups then getting right back to it back to text
  5. nice term that means what it sounds like. you make things, usually art back to text
  6. and my life, in general back to text
  7. except er, job applications, but who’s counting? back to text
  8. along with the days back to text
  9. i just turned 22 recently, i must have learned SOMETHING right? back to text