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lessons on burnout by Masha G. '24

2020 made me realize things

Looking back, 2020 was a very chill year for me. Ridiculously so, if I’m being honest. To understand what I mean, you need context. For the last couple of years in high school, I was in a near-constant state of burnout and exhaustion from all the things I was trying to accomplish on not nearly enough sleep. I could go into the reasons for this – wanting to do too much, having too many interests, putting too much of myself into my clubs, my classes, my research. I could talk about it, but the important takeaway is that starting in around fall of 11th grade, I was constantly just so tired. And then covid came around, and suddenly it’s March of senior year, and all my competitions got cancelled, and I’m quarantining at home, and classes don’t matter all that much anymore because I’m going to MIT, and… I get a break. Or I let myself take a break. A real break, for the first time in years. I spent most of the spring just doing nothing: taking baths, reading books,01 I read so much in quarantine – cries about the 1 and a half books I finished in the fall learning to cook and bake and exercise and take care of myself.

Fast forward to August, and I’m about to start at the Zoom Institute of Technology. So many of my older friends02 who had real, live, fantastic college experiences were asking me, why don’t you take a gap year? And I thought about it, I really did, but a) I really like the number 2024 and b) I was so bored. Honestly, the reason I would have considered a gap year in pre-covid times would have been to give myself a break, but I had already gotten that in quarantine. What would I even do with myself for another year? So here I was, trying to get ready to learn again and kinda freaking out because I felt like I had forgotten how to make an effort. At a particularly low moment, I caught myself on the thought – what if it’s only possible for me to be okay when I’m not actively working/studying? What if I’m doomed to feel like shit whenever I try to be productive?

But the fall semester was perfectly fine. I learned some things, I slacked off on some other things (courtesy of P/NR03 the grading policy for freshman fall, where we either pass a class or it doesn’t go on our record ), I was decently productive while also having a great time exploring a new city. I felt tired at the end of it all, but it wasn’t the bone-deep exhaustion of burnout that had gotten so familiar in high school. And then I started panicking, well, what if that’s all just because of P/NR? How will I be in the spring, when I have to actually start caring about grades? And, well, of course I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll crash and burn in the spring, but something tells me that won’t happen. 2020 was the year when I took a break, and I want 2021 to be the year when I take those lessons and begin to move forward. Maybe I was right, maybe I don’t quite know how to be productive in a way that is healthy but also feels like enough. But just because I don’t know how right now doesn’t mean I can’t learn. I don’t want to go back to the state I was in in high school, and maybe that awareness will be enough.

Even now, this IAP, I feel like something’s changing. I’ve piled up my activities a little, I’ll be honest, and here, too, I was scared that it would be too much. I’m doing a micro-internship04 through MIT’s program to connect students with alumni internship hosts at a sustainable architecture company and taking a physics class, 8.223,05 advanced classical mechanics, which is just lagrangian and hamiltonian dynamics – this is actually the class I died from senior year of high school except now I’m actually prepared to take it for credit. It’s been a week now, and it’s been a lot – the internship is basically 9-5, and then I have a lecture and a recitation for 8.223 every day, plus psets, not to mention all my other ongoing responsibilities and deadlines. But I’m fine. Better than. I actively feel good, and maybe that’s the pesky workaholic within me but she’s not going anywhere even if I tried. It helps that I’m back in NYC now, and can actually wake up at 7 am06 the time that I am writing this and not worry about time zones, because that’s when my brain functions best. I feel alive and active in a way that I think I started to miss in 2020. For once, I think I can make this work.

  1. I read so much in quarantine – cries about the 1 and a half books I finished in the fall back to text
  2. who had real, live, fantastic college experiences back to text
  3. the grading policy for freshman fall, where we either pass a class or it doesn’t go on our record back to text
  4. through MIT’s program to connect students with alumni internship hosts back to text
  5. advanced classical mechanics, which is just lagrangian and hamiltonian dynamics – this is actually the class I died from senior year of high school except now I’m actually prepared to take it back to text
  6. the time that I am writing this back to text