I’m typing this at around 1 PM on a Friday. My head hurts, just a little. It’s pervaded by the soft buzzing that follows too many days of too little sleep. I haven’t eaten since yesterday evening, and I’ve sort of arrived at the level of hunger where your sides begin to tingle as if they’re being held taut under tension. Emotionally, I feel as if I’m caught at the bottom of a sigh, when you can feel some structure in your chest actively hurting, dripping with that bittersweet feeling of disappointment. Now, I should go rectify all of these things… or at least the first two. I’m not entirely sure how to go about tackling the last one. The motivation to write, though, is a precious commodity, and I’d like not to squander it, now that it’s hit.
Why am I disappointed? As is often the case, I’m disappointed in myself. It’s a familiar feeling. That sensation when you recognize that you’re stuck. Today is one of those days, when I have far too much work and far too little desire to do it. I put on the largest shirt I could find because I didn’t want to be aware of my corporeal form. I can’t hear very well, for some reason, and I feel like the physical embodiment of burnout. I feel stupid, unmotivated, inarticulate, ugly, and exhausted. I have worked dozens of hours this week, and all I’d really like is a nap.
On days like these, I often fall into the trap of comparing myself to high school Shorna. It’s a very strange relationship I have with her; I’m honestly mildly jealous. I feel like this past instantiation of myself was just… better. High school Shorna knew what she wanted. She didn’t struggle with emotional compartmentalization. She had the capacity to work 13 hours a day, day in, day out. She was passionate about school. She had unending enthusiasm for learning. There were things that she loved.
I feel damaged, now. That same jadedness that I was convinced I could evade has settled deeply into the cracks of my psyche. Everything just sort of… aches.
Where does it hurt?
Primarily, I think I’ve lost my sense of conviction. I don’t consider myself particularly brilliant, but I’ve always thought of myself as exceedingly driven. High school Shorna was ambitious, motivated, and steadfast. Since 7th grade, I had always known exactly what I wanted. I was going to go to MIT, even if it killed me. I was going to live in 3E in Next house, study computational biology and work at the Broad. And, I mean… there was a lot more to it than that. I was going to live in Boston after school, get an MD-PhD at Harvard, be married by 25, have a golden retriever, and live in a blue townhouse, with sunflowers in the windows.
Which is ridiculous. At this point, I’m not even sure if these are the things I want anymore, much less things I can have. As it turns out, it is very hard to do many of these things, and I worry that I might’ve lost myself somewhere along the way. I’m less convinced of almost everything now – who am I? What do I care about? What do I want out of my future? What is going to make me happy?
Frustratingly, a shocking proportion of my end-of-year identity crisis has been prompted by my classes. I’m in 4 classes this semester, and it’s been miserable. I decided to take 6.00401 Computational Structures , 6.00902 Intro to Programming , and 6.00803 Inference this semester; three difficult lab CS classes. Er, difficult for me at least; I had really minimal experience with coding before college, and I am not great at this skill. The problem isn’t, really, that it doesn’t come naturally; it’s that I just don’t enjoy my classes very much. I just… don’t like coding, and no matter how much I want to be motivated in my classes, I find it hard to care sometimes.
I’m envious of high school Shorna’s clarity. My college essays were, by and large, love letters to biology. I waxed eloquent, detailing all of the reasons that my heart lay with the study of life, and then I decided to become a computer science major. I’m in this perpetual three-way tug-of-war between math, computer science, and biology, now. Interest isn’t difficult to have, but passion? I know what that feels like, and it’s not something I can manufacture. Not for inference, not for computer architecture, and not for anything else.
To be quite honest, part of me was fighting a desire to study biology for a while. Some of this stems from living in Next House. I love Next. 3E is a place where I’ve found people I adore and a close-knit community. In between the foam-leaking plushies and the mouse-infested cabinets, I made a home for myself. But Next is so hard, and I often feel so out-of-place, here. When I settled down my freshman fall, I was struck by how utterly alien the landscape was. People slung around words like ‘utility’ and ‘nonzero’ and ‘nonintersecting’ with nonchalance; everyone spoke a different language than I did. Math camps and computing olympiads had drawn people together in ways that seemed totally out of reach. I walked onto campus without any friends from home.04 PLEASE read Ella's excellent blog about this
I had never written a proof before my freshman spring, and it’s easy to feel outright inept compared to the kids who take 18.70105 Algebra 1 their freshman fall. I walk around feeling as if I have no technical skills, which is also more than a little ridiculous. I knew how to run PCR before the age of 14, I’m a published scientific author, and I’ve done well in multiple difficult classes at MIT. I’m, very realistically, extremely capable. That, unfortunately, doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I’m not.
This is another point at which the comparison with past Shorna sets in. In high school, people were scared of me. I’ll sometimes relay this fact to my close friends at MIT, and it’s a foolproof way to garner a few giggles. My persona here is so different. On some level, I’ve been able to free myself from the mirage of ‘smart brown kid’ which used to be my defining personality trait. I’m an assertive, extroverted, outspoken, vivacious person. I think many of my high school friends might’ve called me reserved and calm. But there was no doubt that I used to command respect. I find it harder to be quite so self-assured, nowadays. I often end up being the butt of various jokes about my age (I skipped a grade and hang out with a lot of upperclassmen), height (I’m 5’ 3”… which isn’t actually particularly short), and hometown (Bentonville, Arkansas really has that Hallmark Movie ring). These quips are usually good-natured and well-meant, but it can be tiring after a long day, and I sometimes wonder if my friends only keep me around because I’m an entertaining communal punching bag.
Biology felt like it contributed to those insecurities. Math was a path to glory and respect. Biology was easier, less confusing, more natural, and softer. Doing biology felt like a cop-out, a statement as to the fact that I wasn’t “quite sharp enough” to be good at competitive math. I took 18.100B06 Real Analysis my freshman spring, for all of the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I enjoyed this class immensely (it was by far my favorite class I had taken at MIT), and I discovered that I did actually enjoy math for what it was; a series of puzzles and a new type of abstract thinking. I also took 6.00607 Intro to Algorithms , which I didn’t enjoy in the least. I didn’t take a biology class my freshman spring because it felt like math and CS were more legitimate, more important, more worthwhile.
In fact, some of the intellectual experiences that I enjoyed most while at MIT have been things that happened in passing. I loved helping my friend with his 7.03308 Evolutionary Biology PSETs last spring. I taught two separate two-hour lectures for Splash; one on Evolutionary Biology and one on Genetics. I spent hours poring over 3D genome organization research literature for my UROP, tapping into enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in months. I walked away from these ‘brushes with biology’ feeling satisfied, which isn’t something I’ve felt in any of my CS classes.
This isn’t an admission of defeat (no matter how much it feels like it is); I’m going to keep trying to do math and CS, but I’ve realized that, if I’m pursuing genuine enjoyment of my studies, they can’t be my primary route forward. I concluded that 6-309 Computer Science perhaps isn’t the place for me. I’ve decided to take more biology classes in the spring (looking forward to 7.0510 Biochemistry next semester!) and I’m debating a major change to 6-7.11 Computer Science and Molecular Biology This decision has made me feel freer – I’m not expecting my spring classes to be a teeth-pulling, head-banging experience in which I’m constantly fighting my desire to walk away, which is what I anticipated coming into sophomore fall. I can feel the pressure being relieved. And, no matter how conflicted I feel now, I have faith that I will, eventually, figure it out. My conviction and passion will return, as long as I keep trying.
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