Thursday night was, well, interesting. I was working on my lab for 6.004. Usually the labs for 6.004 are not so bad – they take maybe five hours. For this one, however, we were using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) tools to build the Beta processor. Yeah, a processor, like you’d find in a computer. My TA had suggested that we budget nine hours for it. Ha. Hahaha. She’d also suggested that we start early, but I had tests on Monday and Wednesday that I’d had to tool for, and I had already spent nearly four hours on it, so I figured I’d be all right.
I started out reasonably optimistic and cheerful. I always do 004 projects in the lab so that I can get help from the TAs and LAs. Unfortunately, for several hours there was only one TA there, and lots of people who needed help, so it took ages for those who needed it to receive it. Luckily, there were also friends working on the lab at nearby computers, so we could help each other.
Eight hours later I was less optimistic. Also, I was tired of staring at the computer screen and having no breaks except a couple of trips to the bathroom. There had been more TAs for a while, but in 004 they tend to leave shortly after midnight. I was almost done with Part 1, the basic block…and still needed to do all the branching circuitry after that. Before 6 AM. 004 has this interesting policy where you submit the labs electronically, and the submission won’t work unless you have the whole thing correct. If you turn it in on time, you get full credit. If you turn it in late, you get half credit. Normally I don’t mind this policy, but for this lab, which is worth 12.5% of our total grade in the class, I was not so happy about it.
I hit a point where it felt like I just couldn’t do anything else, at least not without serious help. I started wondering why the hell I was taking this class when I’m not even course 6, feeling my attempt to prove that I’m capable and can do engineering things in interesting classes crashing down around my ears. I sat at the computer with tears running down my face, confused and miserable and desperate, growing steadily more tired, the screen blurring into colors, knowing that without the help of the TAs I couldn’t do the rest of the lab. Every academics-related insecurity that I ever have as an MIT student – the infamous “imposter syndrome”, the fear that I won’t do well enough for my work to have been worth it in the end, and more, seemed to be bubbling to the surface – to say nothing of the short term anxiety that I was already neglecting to study for the 10 AM test (also worth 12.5% of grade) to work on this, and that if I didn’t get it on time I would lose half credit for the lab and do poorly on the test.
Finally, at about 2 AM (having been working for 10 hours without a break) I zephyred Kevin ’06, a good friend who is a TA for the class and lives two floors below me to ask if he was going to be awake and could help. Ten minutes later, I was back in East Campus sitting at his computer. Kevin let me work, explaining things to me when I needed it and occasionally drawing stuff out on his whiteboard.
Kevin, if you’re reading this…you’re a lifesaver. But you knew that already. :)
This didn’t quite end my frustration. I’d been working on this thing way too long, and was hungry and tired, and even once I was done with the circuitry, debugging was pretty nasty. Kevin kindly pretended not to notice that I was intermittently crying at his computer as the 6 AM deadline got nearer and nearer. Being sleep-deprived and having only eaten once since Wednesday night, I was feeling pretty sick as well.
Shortly before 5 AM, things started going considerably better, and it looked like I might actually finish the damned thing on time, which improved my morale a lot.
At about 5:15, Mark “Smark” ’07, who had been a hallmate of Kevin’s as a frosh before moving to TEP (his nickname comes from his freshman year, when 3rd East had two freshmen named Mark – Single Mark, who lived in a single, and Double Mark, who lived in a double), showed up. We were getting errors at the exact same point in the test jig, which caused us to high five each other and find this far too exciting and amusing – too long working without a break, and all that. He had his laptop with him, and the two of us started working very intently.
At 5:47, I ran the test jig once again, pressed the green check button, and got a message telling me that everything was correct and that I could submit the lab, which caused me to cheer and be rather euphoric. 14 straight hours…it was finished.
Rather than instantly climbing the stairs to bed I stuck around to see if Smark made it. With about five minutes left, I started losing hope for him, but he seemed pretty close…
He was running the test jig and counting down the remaining seconds on his fingers. As he was about to say “zero”, the Happy Green Check Button Message popped up. We had to check on Kevin’s computer to see if he’d actually made it in time. Which he had. He was very…excited. *grin*
As miserable as it was at the time, I’m now really quite happy that I did this lab. I designed a complete CPU at gate-level! It’s MIT in a nutshell. Not the CPU, the experience. It’s a fantastic illustration of IHTFP, and ILTFP (the sentiment, not the student activist group), at the same time. We torture ourselves beyond what we thought we could stand, and in the process, we find satisfaction and fulfillment. The people who hate it the most, love it the most, and it’s not contradictory. The more of their soul they put into it, the more they get back out.
This sounded more eloquent in my head than in what I’ve actually written…typical. It’s the intensity. That’s why you come here, all you prefrosh reading this. I’m an intense person by nature, and before I came here, I felt like I had no outlet for my intensity – cross country may have been the closest thing I had to one. Life was nice, and also mostly easy, unexciting, dramaless…the downs weren’t nearly as down, and the ups weren’t nearly as up.
When you think that emotionally, or mentally, or even physically, you’re running on empty, you can run on intensity alone. Maybe not as fast as you want – cross-country taught me that no matter what they tell you, willpower alone can’t win races – but you can still run.