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How to Fail: Part 2 by Selam G. '18

Tempering Iron

(Read part 1!)

I will start with a disclaimer–there are definitely things that can and will change at MIT. In fact, that’s what I love about the culture–when there’s something wrong, people are invited to fix it. That includes both robots and mental health. There’s been a lot of debate on campus as of late concerning how to best achieve a safe, caring, healthy environment while still maintaining our academic rigor. One thing I think definitely helps is just talking about it more. When a previous blogger–Anna H. ‘14–posted this blog post to the admitted 2018s Facebook page about Imposter Syndrome, I think everyone responded with relief and positivity. I know I did. That’s part of why I decided to write this two-part post.

That being said, I’ll assume for now that academics at MIT won’t change–indeed, it’s possible they won’t have to so long as the way we think about them changes–for the sake of argument.

Though I left my last post on a happy note, in actuality, the relief of spring break only lasted so long. The calm before the storm you might say. My second round of midterms was not much better and I began to get really concerned. My fiery analytical vigor also only lasted so long. I felt helpless. I didn’t understand. I thought I was doing everything I needed to, and yet my exams, tauntingly, did not reflect that. I worked twice as hard this semester and did half as well.

It was about this time that I scheduled some meetings with my professors–a move I’m pretty glad I took! Asking for help is something I learned to do well in high school. I talked to TAs and LAs, and received many different bits of advice. Probably most striking was when I walked into Professor Staffilani’s office, for 18.03 (Differential Equations). I was doing so badly, I was thinking about dropping her class. She asked me the scores I received on our recent exams and psets, and I told her. Then she said, “Oh you’re doing fine! I would not recommend dropping this class–those scores on psets are about what we look for, and your exams seem all right.”

“But…but I failed the last exam…” O__o

“Yes, but only by one point!” ^__^

Never in my life has a teacher told me I’m fine with a C in their class.

Back in high school, I was on the debate team, and I did Lincoln Douglas debate. Research was really fun–but I was a terrible debater. Not once did I ever make it to finals rounds. I never went undefeated (we only have three matches). I didn’t like debating as much as researching. Some of the debaters could be really mean, too, and were very haughty and pretentious, and I did not like them. I failed so badly, even my parents asked me why I continued, instead of doing speech events, which I was actually much better at. I did this for four years, after all.

Well, I improved in public speaking and arguing a lot.

It was ridiculous. In sixth and seventh grade, I had been extremely timid. I couldn’t even speak in front of a class of second graders. I was very shy. As I said, I was not confrontational–I’m still not, but I can now stand my ground on what I believe in, as opposed to “agreeing to disagree” all the time, and I no longer change my opinions based on whether someone was able to win an argument with me or not. Now, none of my friends believe me when I tell them I used to be terrible at public speaking. I knew how much I was improving, and I knew that this improvement was worth much, much more than any speech ribbon I could have gotten.

I was tempered, like iron, through the environment of debate. I had failed so much–almost exclusively failed, in fact–that I am not even a little bit scared of public speaking. Speaking and presenting is totally different from debating, because when you’re debating you expect people to attack and slash to bits your argument in a way no polite or respectable person in real life actually would. You could ask me to present to Obama and I would not stutter.

I realized how much I’d improved when I went to MOSTEC, an MIT summer program I attended my junior year. All our project groups had to present, and I was the very last person to speak. I concluded the neuroscience group’s presentation, and afterward my classmates and instructors told me I should give TED talks. I had come so far from where I once had been. I had so much more confidence, which I had gained from failing over and over again. Not from succeeding. What’s more is that some of the very same people I had debated actually were not very good at public speaking: they lacked the finesse of reaching an audience emotionally as well as factually, which I had been able to practice from a couple years also doing oral interpretation (a speech event, basically acting without props or costumes). So, debate just wasn’t quite the right environment for me to perform in, but it was the perfect environment for me to train in.

I think that, slowly, I’m starting to see MIT like I saw debate. I greatly enjoy most of the work I do at MIT, but I definitely do a lot of failing. Perhaps the real problem is that most of us don’t realize our frame of reference. We are studying at one of the most intense engineering institutions in literally the world. We all have different specialties, different strengths and weaknesses. It’s fine that the one kid has a 100% in math or whatever–I know that I dislike math and won’t be pursuing that as a major anyway, so why should I be so worried? As long as I pass the class, I’ll be okay. More importantly, as long as I actually learn something, I’ll be okay.

A huge problem at MIT is also selective thinking, or failing to view good things and only viewing the bad. I have a pretty good biology background from high school, but I didn’t think my 7.013 (Human Biology) grades were that great until I realized some people were struggling as much in that class as I was in math. I had actually never noticed. I was so obsessed on how badly I was doing that I forgot to appreciate the things that were going well–or at least the things that were going okay.

MIT, like debate, is a place that tempers people, again and again, until we are forged into something stronger and different. Michael C. ‘16 made this post about how well he’d been prepared for “the real world” (*insert choir sounds here*); I’m sure many other alums share similar sentiments.

Maybe the problem is not how much we have to do, but how we think about it. Yes, we work really, really, really hard. It’s very difficult to really believe all this when it’s 3AM, or even if it’s 3PM and you just failed a test for which you studied for three days. Furthermore, we all have different backgrounds, and it’s very easy to simply see others as geniuses and prodigies when you don’t know how much they, too, have failed in the past, or even how much they fail at MIT and just don’t talk about it. In debate after researching for weeks and giving up my entire Saturday to get whooped in rounds by some pretentious kid in a suit, I didn’t want to ever do it again. But you know what? By the next tournament, I was ready and waiting.

It is okay to feel upset; I certainly don’t think it’s healthy to suppress that feeling. What’s important is moving on from that, and breathing. Tempering is not a simple process. It involves fire and pressure and heat. But you can begin with just mud, and in the end there is porcelain.

In the beginning there is iron, and in the end there is steel.