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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

soulsearching / naubos na by CJ Q. '23

in which i ramble about purpose

One

Naubos na’ng kaluluwa
Pinilit kong tumulad sa
Kanilang lahat na
Tila patay na ang diwa

My soul’s run out
From trying to be
Like everyone else
Whose spirit seems dead

There was a time, last year, when I really wanted to do an internship over the summer.

I don’t know what, exactly, made me feel like I wanted to do one. I knew that I didn’t want to spend my summer at home, and that it would be nice to make some money. The way my financial aid works was that I was expected to contribute an amount based on employment through the school year and on expected savings through summer employment, so I guess I needed to make money somehow. I also thought it’d be nice to have a little more runway throughout the school year.

The Fall Career Fair happened in September, and I didn’t really actively try to look for an internship, although several of my friends did. I talked to a couple companies, asked about which ones had opportunities for first-years, dropped off my resume in several places, and filled out interest forms. But mostly I just collected free stuff.

Later in the year, during November and December, I sent out maybe ten or so applications, none of which I cared a lot about. I thought that, maybe, if I got an offer from one of them, then I’d strongly consider doing an internship there.

I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t get any callbacks or anything; for a lot of them I just never heard back again. It seemed even more disappointing when my some of my other friends, who were first-years just like me, did get callbacks and offers. And while I was happy for them, I couldn’t help but feel a small bit of envy.

At the time, it seemed to be impossible for me to get something to do over the summer. I remember thinking that if someone, anyone, gave me an offer, then I’d just take it. I was so utterly convinced that if I didn’t get an internship, then I’m a failure of a person.

And I get it! It’s literally just my first year here at MIT. It’s not as if all of my friends are doing something, because that just isn’t true. I’m not going to irreparably damage my life even if I don’t do anything this summer. And it’s not like I was desperate, it’s not like I was really trying, it’s not like I wanted one that badly or was hurt that much. It was just a passing thought.

But why was that thought there in the first place?

Two

Araw-araw bumabangon
Na ’di alam ang dahilan
At para bang gumugol lang
Ako ng oras sa wala

Waking up every day
Without a sense of purpose
I’ve spent all this time
For no reason

MIT has an office called CAPD, or Career Advising and Professional Development, which aims to help students and alumni with things surrounding employment. They review resumes, help run career fairs, have infosessions about job hunting, that kind of stuff. Towards the end of January they posted that they were holding mock interviews, specifically aimed at first-years. I signed up for one, not really knowing what to expect.

The guy who talked to me was an alum, who graduated several years ago. We conducted a mock interview, and when I didn’t know how to begin, he asked me what I, ideally, wanted to do this summer. But I don’t know what I want to do, so that didn’t make it any easier to answer. I picked something anyway. I said that I was considering doing something maybe related to education.

We did the rest of the interview. He asked me about my background, asked me to talk about a specific time when I took initiative, asked me to demonstrate explaining a concept. He gave some helpful advice, the most memorable of which is to aim to answer the question within the first few seconds, and to gauge whether the interviewer wanted to hear more or not.

I shared to him that I felt absolutely clueless as to what I wanted to do that summer, much less what I wanted to do after I graduated. He reassures me, and tells me that it’s fine, and that I’ll figure it out. About how the job interview process, and all of the stuff surrounding that, isn’t just about looking for an employer that’ll hire you, but looking for an employer you want to work with.

For some reason, the thought felt so novel. I had a choice of what I could do. I’m not bound to whoever wants to hire me. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard in so many different forms before, but before that night, I’ve never heard it so clearly and plainly expressed.

Registration for the spring semester happened shortly after that. MIT students need to take several STEM GIRs in order to graduate: a biology, a chemistry, two calculus, and two physics classes. The students in the class of 2022 and 2023 were put on an experiment, where they could choose to take three of these on Pass/No Record any time before they graduate. Because of that, I’ve decided to take biology and chemistry later on, probably in sophomore fall and spring.

My adviser told me that he discouraged me from doing this. He posed the question—what if I found out that I liked biology, or chemistry, and decided to pursue a career in that instead? It would have been better, then, if I knew what my major would be earlier.

And while I’m fairly certain I won’t enjoy a career in either biology or chemistry, it stirred up more questions about things I’ve been thinking about recently. What do I want to major in? How will that tie in to what I want to do in the future? And what do I want to do, really?

On the Friday of the first week of class, I went to one of the faculty lunches that the First-Year Office arranges. It was with a professor in Course 1, which is Civil and Environmental Engineering. We didn’t talk about engineering at all. Instead, we talked about deciding our majors, and in careers.

We talked about the virtues of exploring widely and trying many different things, but also of doing something deeply and getting a lot of experience with one thing. We talked about taking our time, and he said that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, because we would always feel like we were going too slowly.

I get that all of this advice is well-intentioned. I get that all of it is supposed to make me feel okay about not knowing what I’m supposed to be doing right now, and that it’s totally fine if I don’t have everything planned, and that I can take my time to figure things out.

But despite all of that, it still feels overwhelming, in the sense that it only prompted me to worry about these things even more.

screen capture from the Naubos Na music video linked later in the post. guy sitting on a chair talking. caption says “Nakakapagod na.”

nakakapagod na. it’s exhausting, in the sense that it didn’t used to be. screenshot taken from naubos na

Would I really pick a company just because they align with my values? Does it make sense for me to think about that right now, even when doing something as seemingly inconsequential as picking somewhere to apply to, or do an internship with? And what are my values? What are the things that I care about?

What’ll make me happy?

Three

Ano ba talaga?
Ano ba ang halaga?
Ako ba o sila?
Sino’ng mas mahalaga?
Sino ba?

What is it, really?
What do I value?
Is it me, or them?
Who’s more important?
Who?

My answer to the question, what do you want to do in the future, has always been something like this: Oh, maybe I’ll go into grad school and do math or CS research. Maybe I’ll go into finance, maybe I’ll be a software engineer. It’s a well-paying job, and if I pick the right one, I’ll feel like I’m making a difference in other people’s lives, right?

Now that I stop to think about how I got these preferences in the first place, I realize that I only say these because it felt like the “default” option. Somehow, it felt natural. It felt standard. It felt conservative. But above all, it just vaguely felt like the right option for me.

I was aware, to some extent, that I picked this up from others, but I didn’t consciously realize this until I read this piece that Brian C. ’19 wrote:

I felt unquestioningly for a long time that I was suited, maybe even somewhat obligated, to continue studying math (doubly so because math is an absurdly flexible major at MIT) and to pursue a “math career”: if not pure math research, then research in an adjacent field like computer science or economics, or some comparably logicky or quantitative endeavor like finance or software engineering. I felt I should be looking for other people who did well in math contests and doing things similar to what they did, which in most cases happened to be all of the above.

In the moment, of course, it’s not that I consciously think that. It’s not that I think, yeah, I want to do a software engineering internship this summer because all of my friends are too. It’s more of generating explanations for why I didn’t want to do anything else.

Why not become a writer, if I love writing so much? Because getting published is hard, making money is harder, and being consistent is the hardest of all. Why not be a high school teacher, then? Teaching high school students is something I’ve loved doing since I was in high school myself. But part of me holds back, and wonders what a shame, then, to go to MIT and be only a high school teacher.

Then here, why not dedicate myself to writing textbooks, or do something about research debt, which is an issue I care about? It’d combine my interest in math or computer science, in teaching, in graphics design, and it would address what I think is a huge problem. But it’s not as if someone says that they want to become a textbook author. That’s not a job. Not a career.

And these reasons feel fake to me now. I could very well dedicate my life to, say, research debt. I could be a writer while picking up tutoring jobs on the side, if I really did love writing that much. And only a high school teacher? Where did I get that idea from? When did I start viewing teaching in high school as such a low profession? I literally could not be here, right now, if not through the kindness of all of mine.

Now that I think about it, I realize that all of these are borrowed reasons. Explanations I’ve picked up from other people over the years that I’m now applying to myself. Not reasons that I’ve come up with independently, because if I did, I probably would have gotten different conclusions.

And it’s easy to say I shouldn’t compare myself to others, and it’s easy to say that I should find my own path, and it’s easy to extol innovation and being unconventional. But putting it into practice means going against resistance.

It means having to deal with this imagined disapproval from others that I’ll get if I do choose an unconventional path, if I do decide that I don’t want to go into grad school or software engineering or finance. It means bearing the risk of doing something I haven’t seen other people, or at least people I know personally, successfully pull off. It means actually having to look at myself, and think about what I want to do, which is infinitely harder than copying what others are doing and borrowing their reasons for it. And when other people accuse me with what a shame for you to go to MIT and only do this, it means standing up for my reasons.

I can’t pretend that I don’t want approval. I feel hurt when other people don’t like my choices.

But how much does that really matter to me? How much should that matter?

Whose approval do I care about more: mine or theirs?

Four

Lagi na lang pangalawa
Sa karera ng buhay
Iniwan na, ito’y sumpa
Lagi na lang pumapalya

Always second
In the race of life
Left behind, it’s a curse
Always failing

So what do I enjoy? If I could shrug off all practical reasons for choosing a job, then, what would I pick? I’ve been so far removed from this question that I actually don’t even know where the answer would start.

The concept of doing something I want is just so foreign. I’ve been told, for example, to take classes that I’d enjoy, but I feel like I just picked my classes this semester based on convenience. I intentionally didn’t pick classes I was interested in because the lectures were before 11 AM. I’m taking three classes just to tick off requirements.

Sure, the other classes I’m taking, I’m taking “for fun”, or because I’m actually interested in them. But I only picked these classes because I knew a lot of other people who are taking these too. For 18.218, Topics in Combinatorics, for example, I realized on the first day that I knew a third of the people in the room! Although I’m not sure if this is a bad thing, it doesn’t really work with finding my own path and all that jazz.

Most of the enjoyment I currently get, I get out of my everything else in my life. I love working with MIT ESP, because I love teaching. I really enjoy dancing with Tech Squares. I love board games, and puzzles, and the people on Floor Pi, and all of my friends in general.

My priorities have shifted to the point that I care about these things more than keeping up good grades. Sure, I do care about doing well in my classes. But I’ll procrastinate on doing work if it means getting to spend a couple more minutes in the lounge playing Tichu. Or, if I had to choose between going to lecture and grabbing lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in several months, I’m probably going to skip lecture and ask notes from my friends later.

And I wonder how my priorities will change over the next few years. How much do I care about finding a job that I like doing? How much do I care about making a positive impact with my career, or about feeling I’m doing something meaningful? How much do I care about keeping in touch with my friends, or about getting to do puzzles and play board games and having free time, or about how much money I’m making, or about how good I am at my job? Which of these do I care about the most, which of these do I care about the least?

It’s a step up, I guess, from focusing too narrowly. As someone who’s struggled financially, I used to put a lot of weight on having a good salary. As someone who used to worry about being approved by others, I used to put a lot of weight on having a high-status job. But I realized, and cue the Disney music, that these things matter less to me than being satisfied with what I’m doing and being able to fit my job with the rest of my life.

And I realize, now, that it’s an incredible amount of privilege studying at MIT grants me. The fact that how much money I’m making isn’t my top priority is a testament to how privileged I am. It would make me feel guilty, in a sense, to be dealt so much privilege, if I choose to do something that wouldn’t be helping others. So I care about that too—I care about helping people with my job, and about helping people really well.

So yes. If I end up making the same choices as I would have otherwise—if I end up wanting to do software engineering or math research or finance—if I make the same conclusion as other people I know—then so be it! The value doesn’t just come from whatever career I pick, but also in the process I go through finding one, right?

Five

Naubos na’ng kaluluwa
Hindi naman nakuha ang
Malinaw na hinaharap
’Di na marunong mangarap

My soul’s run out
I didn’t get the future
That I clearly looked for
Don’t know how to dream anymore

So—why was that passing thought there in the first place? Maybe it’s just because I put undue pressure on myself to be like others, when I’m dealing with questions that are inherently personal. And maybe that imaginary pressure I was subjecting myself to faded because I realized this. That I was in no particular pressure to do something right now, and that I had time to figure things out.

I was talking to a friend, also a first-year, who pointed out that he felt he didn’t have time. We were comparing MIT to summer camps. He said that MIT felt much more important, and that he didn’t feel comfortable wasting even a single week here. In MIT, he had to make important choices. His priorities included figuring out what he wanted to do in the future as early as possible, because he was interested in so many different things. And that because it was so important, he felt like he needed to do an internship to rule out some of the things he was interested in.

I disagreed. I said that MIT and the summer camps I went to felt similar, in that I lived next to my friends, which was so different from anything I’ve ever experienced. That I was free to spend a lot of time hanging out and getting to know people. And I felt that life at MIT felt slower, and somehow, less important. As if my priorities have shifted to the point that “real life” felt more “fake” than everything else, and because of that, I didn’t feel like planning what I wanted to do this summer was so important.

He notices that this isn’t a response to his point—why didn’t I feel like I needed to figure out what I wanted to do right now? Sure, I’m thinking about it, but he implied that I should be prioritizing this issue more than I currently do. He said that I should be trying more things in order to find out whether I like them or not. And that this, then, should be a reason why I should do something this summer to figure that out, whether it’s an internship or a UROP or something else.

I didn’t really have a good reason why. I just felt like it wasn’t that important of an issue. I felt like it was important to figure out what my priorities were first, what I was looking for in a career, before I actually try things out to see whether I liked them. And I felt like I just really did have a lot of time—I had seven more semesters, and it wouldn’t be bad if I graduated without having figured out what I want to do, right?

He argued that maybe it is bad. That seven semesters isn’t actually a lot of time. That I couldn’t possibly have a reason, and that these are all just things I’m telling myself, and that there isn’t any possible reason why I shouldn’t feel this sense of urgency. That maybe my conclusion, I don’t want to look for something to do this summer right now, came first, and that all of this reasoning about priorities came later.

In other words, maybe I was just saying all of this so that I had an excuse not to try. And I said that maybe the real reason I didn’t want to try was because I didn’t want to see myself fail.

He said that felt like a truer reason than anything else I’ve said.

Six

Hanggang kailan ipipilit?
Hanggang saan bago tumanggi?
Hanggang kailan magsisisi?
Hanggang kailan, hanggang kailan?

How long will I force it?
How long until I say no?
How long will I regret?
How long, how long?

I’ve been working on this post on-and-off for around two weeks now. During the early drafts of this post, Oh Flamingo, one of my favorite bands, released Naubos Na around a week ago. I heard about it when this tweet popped up on my Twitter feed. It was pretty appropriate timing, since I was planning to write this post in the first place, and the song’s lyrics really resonated with the point I’m trying to make.

So there I was, right? Lying in bed, exhausted after my last class of the day, with all of these things about career and friends and priorities fresh on my mind.

I watched the music video, and by the time it ended, I was crying.