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MIT student blogger Rachel F. '12

Doing What You Love by Rachel F. '12

it's both priceless and utilitarian

During a pset party last night, one of my hallmates called her own major, biology, ‘useless’. Shocked, I asked her to elaborate. She felt that the impact an individual biologist could make was negligible because biological systems are so fine-tuned that biologists can only push research forward a little bit at a time in one tiny, specific system. But she loves biology.

I agree; using that metric, biology is useless. (Obviously, that’s a terrible metric for uselessness.) But the same is true, to varying degrees, in every career field, with the obvious exception of the five or ten hotshots per generation whose names make it into the history books. (We probably aren’t them.) A software developer can make a code push that impacts millions of strangers. A biologist can publish a paper that affects twenty colleagues’ work. (I’m completely making these numbers up.) Whatever. This measure of usefulness, while it may give you a warm fuzzy feeling whenever you push or publish something, is terribly valueless to you if you aren’t also enjoying your work.

Look. If you’re smart (you probably are if you want to apply to MIT), you’re good at things, and that gives you a really beautiful opportunity: you can have a job that you love. And getting paid any reasonable amount to do what you love is basically like not working at all. Guys. This is awesome.

But wait. Is it selfish?

Maybe I’m not allowed to tell stories about Qiaochu any more since he’s a blogger now, but he’s worried a couple of times that focusing on math is selfish when the stuff that he studies is so pure that it only has theoretical applications, or at least will take decades to trickle down into applied math. However, Qiaochu is not only ridiculously good at math, but if I somehow managed to cut him off from Math Overflow, he would probably singlemindedly fight me to the death until he got it back, which brings me back to the question in the last paragraph.

In a mentally demanding job, loving your job is really, really conducive to doing it very well. It’s pretty tough to convince your brain to do difficult things that it doesn’t want to do. This means that doing something without a massive impact (but hopefully a not completely nonexistent amount of usefulness, otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to monetize it anyways) that you love will probably produce a better output, compared to the average person working in that field, than doing something with a large impact that you don’t love. You know what I mean?

What I did there was not very scientific — just some very messy rationalization. But you can absolutely take my word for my first point, even though it seems so obvious that I shouldn’t need to say it: having a career that you love is awesome. If you love it so much that you would do it for free, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Speaking of the latter, I went rampaging on another mural marathon yesterday. If software development ever somehow fell through, I would have no objection to becoming a starving artist instead. (I mean, I’d object to the “starving” part, but I’d probably be able to figure out a way around that.)

freehand cover of Deep Sea Tentacle by Missmonster

After that, I coded for the rest of the night (morning?). I was, in fact, sitting around not getting paid and doing two of my favorite things, and I felt like the luckiest person in the world, because one of those things is my career. And I kind of doubt I’d be where I currently am (nonliterally) if I hadn’t met the people I’ve met at MIT. What if I’d gone to another college with an equally good computer science program? I’ve made a lot of connections and found tons of opportunities through living in the Cambridge/Boston area, too — it’s hard not to when such a small, dense place is home to hundreds of tech startups and fifty other colleges or whatever the statistic is nowadays.

Advertising MIT to you on its own admissions site? I wouldn’t dare. And I think I’ve been abusing this word. But honestly, being here and knowing people who love their work is pure awesome.

12 responses to “Doing What You Love”

  1. José ('17?) says:

    The post is AWESOME, I love this sentence “getting paid any reasonable amount to do what you love is basically like not working at all. Guys. This is awesome.”

  2. krithi '13 says:

    wow, this was amazingly useful and helpful, considering I had just been going through identity crises about what I really want to do – it was the exact same question that I faced: doing something I loved vs doing something “useful”…. so yeah, seriously, thank you for this post!

  3. L. '15 says:

    “Having a career that you love is awesome. If you love it so much that you would do it for free …”
    This statement got me thinking. I happen to have a part-time job which I think is the most awesomely fantastic gig in the world, for me, and I can’t imagine doing something else that would make me happier. I spent much of my senior year of high school thinking it was a pipe dream and that the company would never want me, but they did, and now I spend a good deal of time a week doing something that makes me so ridiculously happy every time. The newness has worn off long ago, but my excitement has only increased. I know that logistically, once I graduate from MIT, I have the credentials to apply to work there full time, and possibly I will. But I can’t imagine telling any of my friends at MIT for fear that they won’t understand, that they’ll just say “why would you want to do THAT?” It’s not a super-ambitious job, and I understand where the people who have said that are coming from. But it makes me so gosh-darn happy, and I would totally do it for free. It doesn’t feel like a job to me at all. It’s just playtime and giving back to a community that has been influential to my personal growth throughout my pre-college years.

    Wow, that was long. Your post really made me think. smile

  4. Piper '13 says:

    @Rachel – Coincidentally, you wrote an entry I want to write at some point :D Clearly we should just lie low for a while and write new entries when our current ones are long forgotten ^_^

    Others – Ambition’s overrated. Go out, make an impact, enjoy your life. Some people get so wrapped up in being The Best sometimes that they lose sight of what makes them human and non-miserable raspberry

  5. Ahmad H. says:

    Hi Mr.(L.’15)
    i would like to admit that your post made me really happy , optimistic, and full of enthusiasm,
    BECAUSE \ i was wondering for not a short time , how is MIT people?? , you know , i read alot about MIT , MIT things (mission , culture ,…) , and also some blogs written by either a MIT alumni or a current student , but lately i was thinking about how would i discover the real spirit of MIT (its people) ? may be i found some possible ways , however, in the path of this -thinking- , your post was something that let me see another part of the whole picture .
    your self-acceptance reminded me of Archimedes,and i quote “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” , in your place with enormous ambition -i suppose ,’cause you’re a MIT student- i think you would do anything-literary- even if your work is not “super – ambitious” job as said ,rarely you can find a person from the successful people started in “SUPER-AMBITIOUS” jop , but all of them did not care about people “talks” -which is something i enjoy doing , usually – , believed in there abilities of achievement, and most of all , never forgot there aim\s for a minute .
    L.’15 i hope to see you when i come to boston -even if i don’t know how-
    and i am very sorry for this looooooong post
    wish you the best (^.^)

  6. anon says:

    Out of curiosity, what other stuff do you do besides schoolwork? I mean clearly coding, artwork, and tea are pretty important to you, but are you involved in student groups or open-source development or something like that?

  7. L. '15 says:

    @Ahmad H.,
    I’m happy to hear that my post filled you with optimism! Oh, by the way I’m a girl, though there probably wasn’t any way you could tell. I haven’t been at MIT long enough to really get to know how “ambition-seeking” people around me are here, and I’m assuming that while most people have high standards for their future “social standing,” I’m guessing you’ll find at least a handful (like myself) who are not at all concerned about “prestige,” money, etc. (Of course, there is a baseline, I have to feed and house myself, but that aside, I really just want to do what I love and give back to the communities that I love being with.)

    One of the people I look up to the most is a MIT ’06 graduate who studied course 3, went onto grad school in California, then got her masters and realized materials science researched wasn’t what she LOVED. Then, over the course of the next year, she completely packed up her life and went to pursue her dreams. She is now happily teaching something so unique and cool. It’s not at all prestigious, but seeing her write about how much joy it brings her and how much it means to her… that inspires me.

  8. What I’m worried about is more specific than the stuff I’m doing not having practical applications for decades. It’s the stuff I’m doing not having practical applications ever because, for whatever reason, humanity might kill itself first. Global catastrophic risks may sound like science fiction, but there are serious intellectuals thinking very hard about them, and there are cognitive biases preventing most people from realistically assessing the potential dangers they pose.

  9. M. says:

    I applied to MIT last year and didn’t get in. I’m currently enrolled in my state’s public university and sure, while it’s “higher ed”, I don’t see anything that’s really parallel to my *true* interests here. Y’know, the things that give you the funny tingling near the top of your head and you just lose track of time, diving deeper and deeper into the subject. (Maybe I just need to wait a couple years…)

    Either way, I’m in the middle of trying to find what, exactly, to focus on… or even if I should focus on any single thing at all! The latest things breaking out in SynBio or AI research (+ some human-computer interaction with a sprinkling of cognitive sciences) are what really make my eyes widen. Some visually beautiful math stuff makes my mind light up too (3D graphics demoscene, anyone?)

    But, what really bugs me is what I’ll do (during, and) after my time in college. The *real* cool things that I find interesting (even if they’re not-so-high-paying research fields) are always taken by the “top-10-university” students, leaving me and my public university standing far out of the picture.

    Maybe it’s just the area I live in, maybe it’s just the people around me here. I want to do something really interesting, meet with intellectually inspiring people (I’ve found that I tend to reciprocate the inspiration I’m surrounded with), but… it’s just not here. Maybe I’ll move up to Boston or Sunnyvale after I graduate, or possibly transfer to a university in those areas after a year or so.

    I don’t know. I know what I like (for the most part), but I just can’t find anything that lets me *do* what I like. (“The curse of living in suburbia…”)
    That spark, that drive, that drive that you bloggers here talk about — I want to find that, I know I can handle it if I could find it… but… it’s apparently out of my reach here.)

    Either way, wow — long post. My calc lecture starts in five minutes. I’m out!

    P.S. About Qiaochu’s love of math: I really want to ignite that flame inside myself, too. I want to love math, I just can’t figure out how. Maybe it’s partly due to this semester’s lecturer (rattling off the textbook)?… Hm.

    Peace out, rainbow trouts.

  10. Rachel F. '12 says:

    oh man! it sucks not being physically proximal to intellectual inspiration. i guess we should harness the internet for that purpose more often.

  11. M. says:

    Oops! Didn’t mean for it to sound that way. (I’m not ignoring the value and intellectual treasure that is the internet, don’t worry. I’ve always found awesome info online since forever ago and I’m continually finding really cool things all the time and stuff.)

    But… I just think it’s… different when you can actually interact and communicate with someone face-to-face, y’know? Computers can’t reeeally exhibit enthusiasm and the like — things that make learning and such that much more engaging and exciting.

    Well, whatever. I see your point. Thanks, Rachel!

  12. Rachel F. '12 says:

    M.: no, that’s what i meant! smile in-person communication obviously trumps, but, you know, if the best you can get is a Stack Exchange site, you’ve got something pretty good. (better in some ways, more flawed in others.)

    good luck doing awesome things, everyone