I competed in a lot of robotics competitions throughout high school, so I knew what to expect by the time I became a senior. Each round had the same format: the autonomous stage and the driving stage.
- The driving stage is what it sounds like: you drive the robot around the arena with your controller and score as many points as you can.
- The autonomous stage comes before the driver stage, where the robot runs on its own and gathers as many points as it can before time is up.
Coding autonomous mode for our robot was a pain in the ass. It was all about calibrating, re-calibrating, re-calibrating. Progress was never an upward linear progression. One day, the robot may score a lot of points. The next day, the robot may score zero points, simply because a motor screw was loose or a small bump in the mat changed the whole trajectory of the bot. And then we have to tweak the code, tweak the bot, line the bot back up, and try again.
Even though a majority of the attempts were spent watching the robot ram into the wall and destroy bits of itself in the process, we’d stay up until 2 a.m. in hopes that we’d get to see a sliver of change before we call it a night.
Figuratively speaking, that sums up the past few months. Despite countless attempts to re-calibrate myself so that I’ll finally be on the right track to succeed in my classes, I keep banging into a figurative wall over and over, until something figuratively comes loose and I have to spend extra time figuratively fixing myself back up. And then I get up every morning to start the cycle over again. And again.
All while hoping that going through the damage will all be worth it.
That’s been something eating away at me lately whenever I think about my major. “Is getting through this courseroad all going to be worth it? Or am I just putting myself through an unnecessary struggle?” Why I didn’t major in something I had prior knowledge in, compared to my pitiful background in anything AI-related, still eludes me.
On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with majoring in Artificial Intelligence and Decision Making If I could pick any single major that I could immediately absorb knowledge from without going through the coursework, it would be 6-4.
But what do I really want to do with my life after undergrad? I don’t know. Industry? Academia? I don’t even know if I want to go to grad school.
That’s fine if I don’t know what I want to do in the future. I can just do my best now and see where that takes me. But it gets harder to hold onto that hope when my “best” turns out to be mediocre at most. Student Support Services emails, office hours, and spending whole weekends catching up on class content seem to dissipate into nothing every week.
It’s been hard to stay motivated, especially without a goal to aim towards after undergrad. No matter how much effort I put into my classes, I can’t seem to get a result that I’m happy with. I don’t have a lot to show for my interest in AI other than a string of personal failures.
Most adults I’ve asked have told me that it’s the journey that matters and not the grade. It’s a beautiful thought, but I feel really stupid when I keep preaching the same thing to myself when my exam grades can’t hit the class median no matter how much effort I put in to make a change.
How long can I hope that this time, maybe this time, I won’t run into the wall again? How many more changes do I have to make to prevent the same disappointing outcome, all while I’m running out of time and energy to even get back up? How many more hits can I take until I collapse?
How do I know that I could’ve been better off majoring in something that I had more experience in, instead of sustaining all of this damage? Would I have been more well-adapted doing anything other than 6-4?
Something I learned from high school robotics is that you can’t predict how a robot is going to look like by the end of the season. Every competing robot has to play the same game. Maybe you’re stacking cones one year, or picking up cubes the next. Those are invariant qualities of the game that you can’t avoid, in the same way that I can’t avoid getting through strenuous coursework to graduate.
But you might start and end the season with a completely different robot that plays the game more efficiently than the bot you envisioned in the beginning. It’s a winding journey, and it sometimes takes watching your first robot completely fall apart in front of a live audience, or ram itself into the wall over and over for three hours straight, with no improvement in sight.
Inevitably, you just have to suck it up and take the robot apart yourself so you can make it into something better. The very robot you put so much time, energy, and unrelenting hope into.
Those were the some of the most vulnerable moments I’ve experienced on the team. I didn’t have anything to prove my skills when the robot’s nothing but scattered pieces. I had no clue whether the next design will be any better than the one we had before. It could all just be a big waste of time. It hurt to fundamentally change something we worked so hard on. But if we didn’t take those steps back, we wouldn’t have gone as far as we ended up going.
It hurts to change myself at a fundamental level because of the crushing vulnerability that comes with it. It hurts to break myself down—and my past methods—because I have to change myself in order to move on after a failure. I have to change the means of success that I relied on for so long.
One quote that’s lingered in my mind a lot lately is from Everything Everywhere All at Once:
“Most people only have a few significant alternate life paths so close to them. But you, here, you’re capable of anything, because you’re so bad at everything.”
Failure is not the antithesis of progress, or even success. But damn, is it painful. It sucks failing an exam. It sucks getting internship rejections. It sucks to make a promise that I’ll be kinder to myself this semester, only to beat myself up every morning for not doing better.
I don’t have a grand lesson to wrap this up. But if there’s something I’m trying to improve in, it’s that moving forward requires a lot of faith in yourself. That’s hard for me. I like to say that I’m a realist just to stroke my ego, but I’m more pessimistic than the average person. I have a bad habit of focusing on all of the outcomes that could go wrong.
I just need to remind myself that calculating the pros and cons of every possible outcome isn’t going to help me optimize my life for the better—it’s just going to make my anxiety worse. Plus, multiple successes in a row doesn’t necessarily guarantee a greater outcome. Some of the better outcomes have failures thrown into the path. In hindsight, that’s how it’s been for me in the past.
I have to accept that there are some questions about the trajectory of my life that only time can answer. It’s not my job as a puny mortal being on this earth to answer them. In the meantime, I just have to tell myself that I’ll be okay and I will find a way to get over these failures, no matter how many of them get thrown at me.
It’s not wishful thinking. It’s the best I can do for myself.
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