In 1st grade, there were these 1-sided sheets of simple math problems called “Minute Math”. Some of the strongest memories of my childhood is nose to the paper, pencil poised, ready to race across the page as if those 60 seconds were going to be my last, and then loudly putting my pencil down announcing that I had finished first.
In 4th grade, in computer lab I’d sneak glances at neighboring people’s wpm and quietly gloat about how I was faster. 80wpm!!!
Throughout middle school, I was a proud reigning champion of the visual speed game SET, constantly ‘challenging’ people, knowing that I would win.
But as I moved up in the hierarchy of grades and outgrew the small staircases, my place in the hierarchy of smart people moved down.
Other people started finishing earlier than me.
Other people had wpm’s over 100.
Other people started beating me at SET.
Other people were better than me.
By the time I got to MIT, I didn’t have the problem of “was valedictorian and suddenly isn’t the baddest fish in the sea”.
I already knew I wasn’t that good, I just wanted to survive.
I didn’t look competitive anymore, but it was because I knew I was going to lose if I tried so I didn’t. I didn’t want to lose what little benefit of the doubt left that I was smart.
Maybe this would’ve been fine, except that the ‘Other people are better than me’ simply got stronger.
From the moment I joined the MIT Class of 2018 Facebook group to see everyone’s charged up, jubilant cheers and introductions, that feeling grew. The tears of relief off my face had barely dried from acceptance and I was already feeling inferior. Feeling behind, again.
FIRST Robotics 1st place.
Math Competition X that I never made the cut off for.
Oh and Math Competition Y that comes after X
Wow if I were international I’d never have gotten in.
Hobbies I’d never heard of, towns I’d only heard of, and activities I could only dream of — I was overwhelmed trying to find my place in all of this, let alone hierarchical place.
So I saved myself the trouble and for the past three and a half years, I missed opportunities to grow, to believe in myself, to fail and learn from it because I Truly Believed That I Was Not Good Enough.
Didn’t finish that video lecture in 2x speed in half the lecture time? FAILURE. SLOW. DISTRACTABLE. LOW FOCUS.
Forgot what I was doing for this code assignment and totally lost? STUPID. INCAPABLE. DEPENDENT.
Got a low score on a test that I knew I could’ve done better on? LOSS OF POTENTIAL. DISAPPOINTMENT. BAGGAGE.
For the past three. and. a. half. years I have not given myself compassion.
With the help of an ADHD diagnosis my sophomore spring, my ADHD MIT therapist Dr.Xiaolu Hsi, my wonderful ADHD friend Zoë Redstone-Rothstein ‘17, and countless friends unconditionally affirming my place here, my last semester at MIT, I understand now what it means to love myself.
It looks like giving myself time.
It means that if I need four hours to read this lecture slowly on my own, it means four hours. Not the time that I hoped for, not at the smooth, rapid, pace of comprehension I know at my peak I can process, but instead four hours of hard-earned learning time.
It means that if I have to say I can’t go to this event I had said I was going to, I do it, because that doesn’t come before my own stress level and well-being as a priority. And I remember next time to be more mindful of promising time I cannot promise.
It means. That if I need help, I go on Piazza (Q&A class forum) and ask. Anonymously or not-anonymously. The reason people there have always looked so ahead of you is not that they were smarter, but because they just spent more time running into roadblocks and time overcoming them. In fact, 90% of your questions are questions other people had too!!!!!!
In my last semester at MIT, I have finally learned to love myself and I have an inner peace that I never had before. It’s what it must feel like to accept and be kind to myself. I accept and understand now that taking time does not reflect a lack of intelligence, perseverance, or problem-solving ability.
It’s not expecting of myself a constant level of productivity that’s also considered abuse.
It looks like my planner one year ago looking like this:
And my calendar from this:
And I know, that I wanted to be faster, smarter, to do all the things that I wanted because X, Y, Z person was why can’t I? Because I’m me and not them and that’s all. Not because I’m not doing A, B, C and I can’t D, E, F.
I have my own constraints and that’s all that I have to work with. That’s what accepting myself unconditionally looks like. That’s what love looks like.
I don’t try to do the things I want to do and then make myself fit. I learn and understand myself and then prioritize the things I must do and then the things I really really really want to do, then the things I really, really want to do, and then the things I really want to do because I really want to do everything.
I love myself all the more for having gone through this journey and brought myself to this place. I love my friends who have patiently pointed out for years that I need to take better care of myself before I run around thinking I’m needed and necessary for all the things.
Because I don’t need my value or worth as a person to come from the things I’m doing and by extension, I don’t need my value and worth be lessened because of the things I’m not doing.
By all the metrics I’ve fallen short of in the past, this semester I’ve exceeded my expectation of myself over, and over again.
I am actually able to enjoy learning again when its not a direct causal indicator of my self worth.
I feel less guilty about friendships I can’t keep up with and still acknowledge how important they are to me.
I don’t feel like I’m wasting my potential every day because I know that what I’m working on right now is the most important thing that I could be doing and all the other things I could be doing are just things I could be doing if I weren’t me.
Accepting myself and my limits has allowed me to achieve more instead of falling short.
I can’t expect myself to sprint if I haven’t learned how to walk.
Recently I played Typeracer again. I have consistently proved to myself that when I try to type faster, I make more mistakes. There are rounds that I do hit 111wpm. And rounds like this where I’m so preoccupied looking at the people pulling away from me, that I make even more mistakes and get stuck on a period-looking comma.
Over and over, I learn that the way I do best is when I focus on myself. When I look the next word I need to type. When I care about what I’m doing because I want to learn it. When I free myself from thinking other people are better and therefore there are other people who are worse.
In 1st grade, I read this story called The Tortoise and the Hare. Now as I’m about to finish this race called MIT, I realize it was never a race at all.
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
– Tao Te Ching, 2