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MIT student blogger Natasha B. '16

Sal Khan, Gabriel Abrantes, and the Man in the Shiny Red Satan Suit by Natasha B. '16

Yesterday was crazy, or: How to Quit your Job, Learn Everything, and Think about Art

2:50 PM, Wednesday, May 8

I am in a café on Mass Ave, waiting for a roast chicken-mashed avocado-jicama sandwich and talking to my sister on the phone. A tall, tattooed man walks in wearing a skintight red devil suit and horns. He stands around for a few seconds, looking like he might order something, then walks up to the man working the register, throws his arms in the air, and yells:

“I’m SATAN!”

The man at the register looks up, smiles, and says “Satan! I’ve been waiting for you!”

“I’ve been looking all over for you, kid!” booms Satan. “Let’s get you back to hell!”

“Hell?!” says the man. “But, Satan! I thought I was already in hell. I thought I’d been there all along, working at this godforsaken JOB!”

The manager has sidled up to the counter and is standing behind his employee, smiling very uncomfortably and waiting for the scene to play out.

The man from behind the register climbs onto Satan’s shoulders, shouts “I QUIT!” , and piggybacks out at a sprint.

“Order up for Tasha?” calls an uncertain coworker.

By the time I grab my sandwich and get to the door, both men are out of sight, and I am laughing in the street.

 

I make it back to campus just in time to hear Sal Khan tell his story to President Reif in Kresge. I’ve been looking forward to this all week. If you can’t spare an hour to watch the interview here, have a look at these lovely faces:

Pri and Mira, ’16, with the creator of Khan Academy.

Khan talks about how he started out, what he thinks of MIT, and why Khan Academy works so well. The key to the success of his early videos, he says, is the humanity: remember, he was making them for his neice, not for Bill Gates’ kids. The human element, the aim for connection over professionalism, was the necessary component. Also key, Khan says, is to enjoy the subject matter. Before each video, after striving to understand the material intuitively, at a deep level, and exploring the concept visually, Khan makes himself smile. “Force yourself to smile–” he says, “force yourself to laugh–that energy will carry over into the teaching.”

Here are the best things I hear:

On MIT’s responsibility to lead educational innovation: “Everyone wants to wear the jeans that Jennifer Lopez wears.” We’re the celebrity role model everyone wants to emulate. This is a hit with the audience.

On choosing to make Khan Academy non-profit: “What’s a home run in the for-profit world? You get acquired or go IPO. A home-run as a non-profit… that’s something epic, really cool.”

On working as a hedge fund analyst: “At 2 PM on the West Coast, my boss would say, ‘It’s not about working hard, it’s about working smart. Go home and have a life.’ If not for that, there’d be no Khan Academy.”

And, my favorite, on creativity.

“Everyone here is a creator. I cringe when someone says ‘I’m not good at engineering; I’m creative.’ There is nothing more fundamentally creative than engineering. By definition, you are making something that wasn’t there before.

What is important is not your GPA, not your credentials. It’s what you make. It’s about going and building things. When you walk out [of MIT], the most important part of your experience–and this is already the case, but I don’t know that most people realize it–will be what you’ve made.”

****

I borrow a friend’s camera and walk over to the Media Lab. Today is the opening reception for the spring exhibits in the List Visual Arts Center; filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes is giving a talk.  It is beautiful. It makes me want to learn about film, politics, the global economy, colonialism, liberty, art, and Angola. I am not sure is there’s a major for this. “If there were a Ph. D. in learning everything, I would do that,” said Sal Khan. Now the curator of the List is talking about cross-pollination in art and media. “Reduce painting to its constituent elements,” he says, “and it begins to resemble sculpture. Break down sculpture, and it starts to look cinematic.” This reminds me of something someone said last semester. “Physics is basically applied math, and chemistry is pretty much applied physics. Biology is applied chemistry. Applied biology is… the humanities?” It’s a stretch. I enjoy the reception. I feel like a grown-up.