Skip to content ↓
alan avatar

tenets by Alan Z. '23

or, my only piece of advice for incoming first-years

The fall semester has just started, and the 2025s have poured onto campus, eager to experience MIT and everything it has to offer. Many of them are still bubbling with questions about their dorms, all the buildings on campus, and the classes which they will take in the coming four years. Many of them are also filled to the brim with anxieties about fitting in, about studying for classes, and about joining clubs.

For those 2025s, here is some advice: you will survive this. You will have communities around you full of people ready to support you, and you will have many sage upperclassmen01 not me though, I am not sage ready to give you their tips and tricks for surviving classes and getting around campus and making friends and everything else in-between. Indeed, there have been many, many blog posts filled with advice for first-years. It may take a while to adapt to life at MIT—indeed, it took me three months—but, eventually, you’ll get there.

This piece of advice is a little more fundamental than those other blog posts. In short:

In college, you have agency: own your decisions.

What do I mean by that? I mean that at the end of the day, the choices you make in college are yours. The activities you choose to do, the major you choose to pursue, the classes you choose to take—all of those decisions are ultimately in your hands.02 depending on how you frame the situation, the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) are one exception to this. personally, I think there is still plenty of agency in this realm, both in the timing of <i>when</i> you take each GIR, and, of course, the overall decision to pursue an MIT education in the first place. You should do your best to make sure each decision you make feels like your own; you shouldn’t ever feel like you’re doing something solely because there is some external pressure for you to do so.

I don’t mean to say that you should make decisions in a vacuum. Decision-making and identities are highly situational, and making decisions without considering the external ramifications will likely result in bad outcomes. The point here is that intent matters.03 I am not trying to wander into a philosophical discussion here. the point of this advice is not that your intent necessarily matters to the overall morality of a decision, but rather that it matters to your personal well-being. You should never do something because people generally think it is a good thing to do. You should do something if and only if it is something you truly believe it is a good thing to do. If that thing happens to align with some external pressure, or societal expectations, then that is nice and convenient. If it doesn’t, so be it.  

This should not be construed as advice to be selfish, and it certainly should not be construed as advice to start ignoring the suggestions of the people around you.04 or the people no longer around you. keep calling your parents, kids, but not because you feel an obligation to. call them if and because you genuinely value having conversations with them. You should be generous to the people around you because you genuinely care about them and because you think it is the right thing to do. You should listen to the advice of people around you because they may have thoughts or information you genuinely find valuable, but the choice you ultimately make, given that information, should be the one you think is correct.

Of course, now that I’ve given you three paragraphs about what I mean, I should give you at least one paragraph on why. Why follow this advice? I have two reasons: first, having a sense of agency in your life will make you happier. It is a lot harder to get work done when you do not feel like you have opted for that work yourself, and choosing to do things which you genuinely value will make your overall experience much more enjoyable. Second, it is a good way to start preparing for the future. The number of decisions you have to make as an individual will only grow as you inch closer and closer to full-blown adulthood; if you start making decisions more actively now, you might find it easier to do so when it starts to really matter.05 Or so the theory goes—I suppose that I have not gotten old enough to tell you if this has worked.

This advice is not always easy to follow: indeed, there will be times when life is particularly rough, and it is easy to go on autopilot and just follow where the currents lead you. There will be times when decisions affecting your life seem to come down from people at higher levels: MIT administration, Cambridge City Hall, the federal government. There will be times when the correct decision in a given situation is unclear, and there will be times where the decision hinges on that fundamental, ineffable question of what do I want to do with my life? In these cases, agency may feel more like a curse than a boon—why must I have to make this decision? In another sense, though, being able to choose one’s own meaning, or one’s own goal, is also a privilege.

One strategy that I’ve found useful in my quest to maintain this sense of agency is establishing tenets: basic principles upon which active decisions can be made. They can answer basic questions about “how do I choose between doing x and doing y?” These are just examples—in fact, you should make or choose your own tenets—but here are three tenets which I try and follow when making decisions:

Never regret spending time with friends.

I set this principle before I arrived at MIT, because I was really worried that I would end up buried in my work, and fail to socialize with people. I think it’s worked out for me; some of my favorite moments of MIT so far have been random conversations I have had with friends, many of which have lasted for hours, floating from topic to topic. There used to be an idea around MIT that while at MIT you could only pick two of “work, friends, and sleep.” While I don’t think this is true, I have personally chosen to weight friends over work and sleep, at least to a certain extent. Of course, as is the point of this blog post, you could choose differently, but you should try and make a choice.

Pick classes because you care about them, not because they meet your requirements.

I set this principle before my freshman spring, because I was finding it hard to justify why I was choosing to take certain classes, and I was starting to get too attached to picking classes just because they’d meet a major requirement later down the road. There are a lot of good classes at MIT, and it’s really hard to make decisions between them—but, personally, requirements are almost never the best way to pick. This is kind of similar to the overall point of this post: do things because you care about them, not because you have an external pressure to do them. It is useful for me to write this out explicitly, though, because this is a place where I fall down a lot.

Big impacts and flowery words are overrated: prefer actions which allow you to be a small, positive influence in other people’s lives.

I suppose that this tenet is somewhat ironic, given that I’m a writing major. Yet, I think there is an over-emphasis on producing something “significant” or “impactful” in one’s life, instead of simply trying to work to make things “better”; as I wrote last January:

One popular answer [to the question of what makes life meaningful] which I fundamentally don’t buy is “having a major, measurable impact on the world in some way,” because the probability of that happening is vanishingly small for any individual.⁠ Making that one’s goal seems hubristic and seems to imply that most people do not have meaningful lives, which is surely false.⁠

I think one of the most direct ways people can make each other’s lives better is just by supporting others; there are many opportunities to do so around MIT and in life, even if those opportunities sometimes seem small. This is especially important because many of us owe a lot to the people who have supported us, even in the smallest ways. It is also one thing to say these things, and another thing to actually support and care for people; I think that sometimes I fail to follow up on this, especially when times are hard, but I try my best.


Of course, the thing about having agency is that you can choose to take as much of this advice as you would like. I, personally, think it is a good way to live one’s life—you may not. Regardless, this is the point in your life where the balance of agency starts to tip over in your favor. Own your decisions, and make sure they are yours, uniquely. This advice won’t guarantee that you’ll always succeed: nothing can. Hopefully, though, it’ll provide a little more structure as you go through the next four years.

Good luck, and have fun!

  1. not me though, I am not sage back to text
  2. depending on how you frame the situation, the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) are one exception to this. personally, I think there is still plenty of agency in this realm, both in the timing of when you take each GIR, and, of course, the overall decision to pursue an MIT education in the first place. back to text
  3. I am not trying to wander into a philosophical discussion here. the point of this advice is not that your intent necessarily matters to the overall morality of a decision, but rather that it matters to your personal well-being. back to text
  4. or the people no longer around you. keep calling your parents, kids, but not because you feel an obligation to. call them if and because you genuinely value having conversations with them. back to text
  5. Or so the theory goes—I suppose that I have not gotten old enough to tell you if this has worked. back to text