Here’s the thing about me: I’m naturally an introvert. Talking to people In Real Life has always kind of freaked me out to some (albeit small, and rapidly decreasing) degree, and my composure will vary drastically based on how familiar with the person I am, how much I know about the topic of conversation, and how much sleep I got the previous night. Not that being an introvert is necessarily bad (check out Quiet by Susan Cain), but it does get frustrating very quickly in new settings. When I took my first steps on MIT domain as a prefrosh, I actually spent a lot more time talking to myself than I did talking to other people. My conversations with myself usually went kind of like this:
Me 1: “Okay. You’ve got this. You’re in college. Fresh start, right? You’ll make TONS of new friends. You’re a brand new man, and the brand new you is confident, composed, and perfectly at ease with social interaction!”
Me 2: “Ah-ah-ah, don’t be getting too cocky. People are scary, remember?”
Me 1: “Oh come ON, making friends can’t be that hard. All you have to do is say hi, shake hands, and ask some stock conversation-starting questions. What’s your name, where are you from, what majors are you considering, yada yada yada. Easy peasy.”
Me 2: “Alright, hot shot, let’s see it. How about that guy sitting at the table over there? Come on, get on it. Say hi to him.”
Me 1: “…Noooooo, he looks busy, maybe I’m bothering him. I’ll just sit over here by myself instead.”
You can see where this is going. Especially because I already knew a good number of my classmates from high school or from the Research Science Institute, it became very easy to fall into the trap of not meeting anyone new. Fortunately, I recognized this early and signed myself up for a ton of clubs. If my brain didn’t want to meet people, I decided I’d have to trick it into social interaction by giving it chances to do social things it enjoys–singing, for example, or dancing, and eventually I’d have to at least meet a few new people.
And as orientation week wore on, passed by, and transitioned into fall-semester classes, it grew easier and easier to simply start up conversations with strangers while waiting for class to begin. The magic of making friends, of course, is that once you make one friend you often get a bonus prize consisting of your new friend’s friends. Soon I was regularly waving hello to people between classes or in the dining halls.
Throw on the pressure of classes and all the extracurriculars I’d signed up for, however, and my newfound social competency got stuck fairly easily. I was trying to get through my first problem sets, sampling a slew of clubs, and losing sleep all the way. It’s true that extreme MIT life is like drinking from a firehose; what they don’t tell you is that doing so is sometimes not so much like a refreshing drink as it is like getting punched in the jaw with a wet and icy fist.
After a few days, I found myself retreating back into my shell of social isolation. I wasn’t confident that I could handle this kind of stress for what now seemed to be an endless four-year marathon to graduation, and it was with an exhausted feeling of frustration that I wandered into Maseeh Hall during lunch a few days ago and popped myself down at an empty seat to poke at the supposedly sweet-and-sour pork I’d loaded on my plate.
As I ate I slowly became aware of someone nearby speaking animatedly about how he was learning to adjust to MIT life. He had structured the way he viewed the world in such a fashion that he was in complete control of his own life, and passionately motivated because of it. It was like God was tapping me on my shoulder, saying, “Listen up! Pay attention! It’s time to fix yourself up!”
Long story short, I was thankfull drawn out of my shell and made a new friend. Fred, as it turns out, is a freshman pursuing Course 16 (like me), an avid blogger (like me), and a lover of language (like me). We even found out we were in the same crew for Dance Troupe. I met with Fred again over lunch yesterday and ended up discussing philosophy, the role of ethics in science, and the power of wordplay and rhetoric (I was a little late to Differential Equations yesterday).
It goes to show, then, the worth and power of reaching out to people around you. I’m beginning to truly appreciate the fact that the pool of MIT resources, so readily accessible to everyone here, doesn’t stop at just laboratories and research facilities–it includes the very people that constitute the community, the vibrancy and the soul of classmates sharing commonalities coming together to bounce ideas around and inspire each other to new heights.
I asked Fred, as a fellow blogger, to write up his strategies for approaching MIT life so that I could share it here with all of you (with his permission). Check it out here: The Power of Choice: Choosing Happiness.
See you around,