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the hardest you’ve ever worked by Amber V. '24

the firehose strikes again


“It’s just a few more weeks,” my mom told me, on the phone, as I hurried down the Infinite and out into the cold. “Junior year is your hardest year.”

She told me this five years ago, back in 11th grade. “You work harder in high school than college,” she said; she had, as a math major at a tech school in the ‘80’s.

When was the hardest that I worked?

I told myself, in freshman spring, that I would never take 4.67 classes and a UROP all at once again (because come sophomore fall I’d take six classes and a UROP instead, and join several new communities, and addict myself to new sources of caffeine). 

When we stress-test welds in shop we weld two pieces of steel together, then clamp one down and slam the other with a hammer until something bends.

I remember going on a run just as the snow was melting and the baby geese were coming out. “Objectively you have a limit,” I thought to myself. “Somewhere north of four classes and south of sixteen. You don’t need to find it. You don’t have to watch yourself break.”

But I enjoy — of course I enjoy, at this place — the feeling of thinking something is impossible, and then doing it anyway. Sometimes even doing it well. It’s my addiction, every semester telling myself, ‘no way in hell this will work.’ 

I know all my little justifications: that I can’t write consistently at MIT anyway so why not do *everything* else to make up for it, that this is my one chance to take a lot of cool classes, HASS classes aren’t that much work, et cetera. 

I’d also applied for many classes which historically had low acceptance rates: a lotteried MIT writing workshop, a few Harvard writing workshops, 3.096: blacksmithing, and How to Make Almost Anything. I got into all but the last one. I figured I would take as many as I could,01 the MIT workshop clashed with something else since I didn’t know if I’d get into them again.

On top of that, of course I know a small handful of people who are taking more classes than this, and still find time to be in clubs and socialize. There are people who are taking many classes and also pour time and energy into a UROP. Many people, regardless of classes, put time into clubs and exercise when I cannot seem to find any time. I know that each person has their own limits, but part of me always protests, maybe these people don’t just absorb content faster or get through psets efficiently;02 ”though maybe they have a system that helps keep everything in balance, and if I can figure out a system, I can fit more into my balance, too.

This summer I felt happier than I had in a long time, more put-together, whole. The world felt right for the first time since covid ripped me away from Europe years ago. This came partially from having time to sleep and run and work on projects, the way that one cannot do at MIT in general, but especially not when one is taking 5-7 classes. I wrote two dozen poems and a small handful of stories, and came back to MIT in summer. Everything was green, so green it shocked me. 

I’m happier than I was, I reasoned. Therefore I can take more classes than before! :D

This was very good and solid logic, so I registered for eight classes.

Then I had to drop one because it unexpectedly had mandatory attendance and overlapped with another mandatory attendance class. So I only had seven classes.

me holding two yellow monsters

I do not take pictures of work apparently but here is me holding two monsters

I really liked those classes. I’m learning about Celtic folklore and picking up a lot of writing tips from my Harvard writing workshop. I spend three hours each week discussing poetry. I made a sword with a dragon head for a hilt. I read about 100 pages per week, 70 when I was slacking. I pulled my first pset-induced all-nighter this September, my second in October. By now, I’ve lost count. Each week I have three days blocked off where no people can squeeze in, and the following two days are frequently a sleep-deprived haze. On the weekends I collect myself and start the work again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Last night, at 6 am — I’d finished a pset at 5, but I’d drunk half a Monster to do so, so my brain was skittery and wouldn’t fall asleep — I looked in the mirror and thought, “this is the hardest I’ve ever worked.”

I don’t know if that’s true — how does this compare against my 5-class freshman spring, when I could only talk to my pod? I felt like I was working harder then, since I didn’t have a wider social scene to take breaks with.

I thought that sophomore year might be my hardest, since I was taking 5-6 classes of all-new content, and 2.007 conquered a good quarter of my life.

I’m not trying as hard on psets this semester, but I seem to be spending more time doing work nonetheless. Maybe there is more work. For the first time since freshman year I’m completing nearly every assigned reading. Maybe this is my hardest semester.

I’ve noticed this pattern in myself before but only recently have I come to see it as not just a strength, but a double-edged sword. It’s good that I can manage this workload, and it’s lovely that I care. I feel secure, knowing that if I choose to, I can graduate a semester early or drop any class that is particularly nasty. On the other hand, I feel like I’m one rough semester away from burnout. 

The most frustrating times are when, in the middle of Celtic Folklore or Writing & Retelling Fairy Tales, I get a good idea for something to write, or a new way of seeing one of the stories I’m playing with. I scribble it down, look at it in a few different ways, and think, I’ll elaborate on this tonight before realizing that no, I won’t, I’ll be coding. And the next night I’ll be writing equations for some mass-spring-damper system, et cetera, et cetera. I will not in fact have time to let these ideas ferment and grow until winter break. 

We live in a culture that values hard work and productivity. I often say MIT enables us to lean into that even more; it creates this bread-and-circuses of money and workshops to make projects and free food to gobble up. There are posters in the gym that say things like ‘8 hours of sleep are important!’ but the structure of this place makes 8 hours seem luxurious.03 opinions are my own, of course. There are students who prioritize work-life balance differently than I do and carve out schedules with more time for cooking, sleeping, etc There is too much else to do.

I like MIT’s culture; it suits me. If I didn’t go here, I’d probably be doing about as much work, but it would be harder to do in a culture where that is the exception instead of the rule. Even so, right now? I need to step back from the grind just a little.

During seasons of writing, when my output is ~8-10 pages per day, I don’t feel exhausted. I know that I cannot write on little sleep so I take care of my body. That sounds kinda fun! I kinda miss it.

I seem to hit this near-burnout place at least once per semester. Sometimes it takes me sticking my hand into fire multiple times before I look at the bubbled scars and realize, yep, that burned. I’m hoping that now, finally, I can teach myself to schedule in rest.

I’m planning my classes for next semester, blocking out bigger chunks of time to run or work out. I’m trying to make my schedule more flexible so that I can join more impromptu social activities without missing out on work. I’m planning to take a day or two of rest, instead of having a day or two become unproductive due to sheer exhaustion. I’ll absorb the classes I do take more deeply.

I think it will be elucidating. We’ll report back on that in spring.

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