Happy 10th birthday, blogs!!! I made you a cake! (With help from Random Hall’s 40th Birthday Hack.)
Birthdays are special times. Times for cakes, celebrations, and sometimes songs. They are also a natural point to look back and reflect. This year is not only the blogs’ 10th birthday, but also the 10th anniversay of my MIT journey. 10 years ago today, I was just about to start my senior year of high school, and everything that came with it – classes, activities, tests, applications, decisions…
If I look back and remember where I thought my life would go, I wasn’t even close. I would’ve guessed that I would attend UW Madison (wrong), triple major (typical MIT frosh ambitions), become a lawyer (wrong), and be married with kids within 5-10 years (not yet). I had no idea that I would bike halfway across the country, build robots, or do work in five countries. I also had no idea that I could ever fail a test, accidentally set myself on fire while trying to cook, or contract histoplasmosis while exploring a cave.
Looking back at these 10 years, several lessons stand out to me. Some of them, I figured out quickly; others were difficult and painful to learn. I’ve described the lessons that I learned in the order I learned them, but there’s no reason that you need to take 10 years to learn them! I hope that these lessons can be guideposts that allow you to learn, enjoy yourself, and have success in college and beyond.
1. Senior Year of High School: It’s About the Match
College is about much more than books and classes – it’s about the people, teams, trips, parties, and late-night study sessions. When you choose a school, you’re choosing the professors you’ll listen to, but you’re also choosing the atmosphere you will live in and the people you’ll be friends with. Look for communities that you’re excited to be a part of. Then, when you apply, let your passion come through so that the school can see why someone like you would be great to have on campus.
I didn’t understand this when I started to look at colleges and to apply. I started off applying to the places that seemed to have easier application processes – this is about the worst thing you can do when applying to schools. I eventually realized that MIT was the community I wanted to be a part of, and I have never regretted the decision.
2. Freshman Year: Find Your Home
When you’re starting out in college, the most important thing to do is to get your bearings. Whether it’s your dorm, the softball team, or a sorority, find the group of people (or place or activity) that makes you feel comfortable and grounded – keep looking until you find them! School will inevitably become busy, and difficult, and overwhelming. When you get to that point, you need the place that you can go to where you can vent, cry, or just take a break.
For me, Home was BMF Floor in Random Hall, and it saved my sanity many, many times. The chocolate & Disney loving floor of a closeknit nerdy dorm may not be the place for everyone, but it was the place that I always felt absolutely comfortable being my chocolate-scarfing, Disney-song-singing, nerdy self.
3. Sophomore Year: When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going (But Not Always in the Same Direction)
If you’re challenging yourself, there will be times when you have more work than you know how to handle – yet. When that happens, you have to grit your teeth, consume some caffeine, and power through. Then, it’s also important to look closely at the situation, figure out what skills you need, and work on building them, however hard that may seem.
To the left is a representative picture from Sophomore Year. Can you tell that I didn’t sleep much? I had already learned Freshman Year that I didn’t know how to study. I’d never needed to in High School, and now that I needed those skills I wasn’t sure where to start. I would stay up the nights before tests, stressing about not knowing how to prepare, tiring myself out, and occasionally reviewing some material. If I had taken time between tests to learn more about how to better plan and study, I could have saved myself many sleepless nights.
4. Junior Year: Explore, Explore, Explore!
Once you’ve found that community, that Home of yours – leave it! Find ways to go explore and to find out how other cultures compare to yours. College is set up to allow you to do this easily and cheaply – look for your chances to volunteer, study, or intern abroad. Take classes that involve field work. Buy cheap tickets to Europe over winter or summer break, rent a car with friends, and see what’s out there to see. You’ll never again have such easy access to vacation time, you’re still easily able to adapt to less than luxurious accommodations, and you probably don’t have responsibilities to a family of your own yet. Go, go, go. Try new foods, follow an unknown path, talk to strangers, visit a local museum, and take a few pictures along the way.
I wove these opportunities into my experience, and the experiences were amazing. I was able to take the TGV between Frankfurt and Paris, eat crepes with chocolate in Switzerland and fries with spiced mayo in Belgium, ride around Honduras in the bed of a pickup truck, climb Mount Hua in China, and explore the Deutsches Muesum with friends. Keep an eye out for opportunities to travel, and they will appear.
5. Senior Year: Focus
There is so much to explore in college. Topics, groups, events… You need to explore, but once you have explored it’s time to focus in. Master your major, and focus on the extracurricular that you’re most passionate about.
This lesson was a hard one for me – from MIT Marching Band to my service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, I was interested in and involved in a lot of activities. Finding the right balance is still something that I work on, but I know now that it’s possible to get more enjoyment and better results when you’re not spread too thin.
6. MEng Year: Research is What I’m Doing When I Don’t Know What I’m Doing
Become okay with not having all the answers. Sometimes you just need to have an idea, a plan, and a timeline.
I completed a Master’s my 5th year, combining my Thesis work and additional classes with other courses that I had taken in previous years. Research is much more open-ended than even a project-based class, and that aspect was hard for me. I didn’t know which directions would be the most fruitful to investigate or how long I would need to trace down different routes. My advisor gave me a bookmark with a quote by Wernher von Braun: Research is What I’m Doing When I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. That attitude, of confidently approaching a problem and forming a hypothesis and a plan, turns out to be a powerful one to take. It applies not only to research, but also to many other fields of work.
7. The Real World, Year 1: Value People Skills as well as Technical Skills
At MIT (or in school in general), it can be easy to focus on specific knowledge and technical skills and tasks. The real world is not so simple. No one is going to give you a numbered problem set, and no one is going to implement your solution just because you wrote it down.
Out of school, I joined Stroud Consulting, an Operations and Management Consulting Firm. I knew that I’d be helping clients solve technical challenges – and I focused on the “technical” aspect. It turned out that the technical work was the easier portion. I needed to learn to build alignment to a plan, coach constructive mindsets and working routines, and drive goal-oriented actions. I had never thought of these as skills I needed, but I now realize that it’s nearly impossible to work without them.
8. The Real World, Year 2: You Can Always Learn and Improve
This is a tricky lesson to learn: even if you’re smart, your intelligence and your knowledge is not your best asset. Over time, motivation and the willingness to learn from past experience is key. Everyone will have challenges, and everyone will fail. If you’re afraid to expose your weaknesses, you’ll never strengthen them.
All of the above sounds logical and straightforward. In practice though, it’s easy to fall into the routine of thinking of yourself as smart. If other people routinely refer to you as smart, if you occasionally reason yourself out of scrapes or tests you forgot to study for, or if you score well on standard tests that measure IQ and Aptitude, then you too can fall into the trap of thinking that your success is due solely to a fixed intelligence as opposed to the will to learn and improve. I did, for a long time, and it held me back without me being aware. I finally read Mindset by Carol Dweck (nearly 2 years after I was originally assigned to read it.) I’d recommend this book to anyone – here’s an Amazon link to get you started. The ability to see my Fixed mindset and take steps towards a Growth mindset was truly powerful. It’s continued to serve me since I left consulting and moved on to a fast-growing furniture startup in Connecticut. Currently at Lovesac, I work to improve our technical systems and business processes to support 40% year-over-year growth while also improving the customer experience. Given our rapid growth, the ability to learn and quickly adapt is essential.
9. The Real World, Year 3: Learn to Make Yourself Happy
Pay attention to the little things you can do to increase your own happiness. Sometimes, you really need it, during a stressful time in your professional or personal life. Other times, it’s just nice to be happy. :-)
I’m partial to Dodie Smith’s maxim: “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” There are a few other things I’ve added to the list over time – mostly simple things like exercise and massage.
10. The Real World, Year 4: Remember Where You Came From
Finally, make time to go back to your roots. Talk to old friends, read the books you read in high school, and make time for family.
I realized that I’d changed – a lot – in the past 10 years. Some changes are good, but others are neutral or negative. Many of them just happened as I adjusted to new situations I encountered. This year, my focus is on remembering the best of who I’ve been and bringing my favorite elements back into my life.
To the joys and the learning from the past 10 years, and to 10 great years to come!