Each time you come home, you’re faced with the self you left behind.
Every hobby I picked up, except blacksmithing, lives in this room. My jewelry supplies are still in the desk drawer, though I’ve taken my best pliers to Boston. In my room, there’s a shelf of books taller than a man, stuffed full of fantasy. My eyes flick to the books I loved, gloss over the ones I once aspired to read. Not far away, there’s a path by the river, carved long ago into different paths: the 3-mile loop I ran in high school, the 14-mile stretch I pounded out over Covid, the 5- and 7-mile loops I run now. There’s all the coffee shops, which I used to save for writing fiction. All my other work, less holy, could be done in libraries or at my desk. At some point in the past, these things made up my life.
Every time you come home you are reminded of how you’ve changed, held up against a cardboard cutout of the person you once were. Or maybe it isn’t static — every piece of you that’s emerged you can trace back. I’ve always loved spaces that value local communities and art. I sought that out at MIT, found it in East Campus, Burton One, and the makerspaces where people tinker at their ideas late into the night. That’s something I want to hold onto forever. I don’t know where I’ll live a year from now, but wherever it is, I’ll look for the artists and the people building something bigger.
I used to wake up at five-something am to squeeze an hour of writing in before school. I struggle to crawl out of bed now, but I’ll stay up late into any night to get done whatever needs getting done. The drive to work to the bone has only grown stronger. I love that; I loved the focus of falling into my 2.009 project. But I’m exhausted, and burnout is settling in. Can I keep this up; how to navigate the cycles of work and rest?
I am supposed to be drafting my writing thesis but the words aren’t flowing tonight. I remember the girl whose characters were always on her mind. Where did she go; when precisely did I beat that out of her?
And who will you become? Which pieces matter now?
I stand in the kitchen with my mom and little sister. We talk politics the way we always do, the things we’ve done and the ways we plan to do more. We aren’t aligned on every particular but we see the same needs for change, and over time we’ve gotten better at applauding each other’s efforts as steps in the right direction. This time around I cannot help but feel how I’ve fallen behind. More and more lately I’ve been thinking about how engineering fixes so few problems; that part of the problem is thinking that just a little more engineering will solve everything. A little more production, making the right thing this time.
I used to think burnout and rest and work-life balance were all well and good, for other people. I still think they are well and good. I am burning out, hard, and not sure what to do about it. I understand how grind culture is harmful, but I love what I work on, and I love my grit, my capacity to suffer, the feeling of pushing my limits. Working hard has brought me far, and it’s easy to believe that I can escape the harm by being better at working hard. I just need to work harder.
I am beginning to see a parallel between work and burnout, and engineering to solve climate change. Regarding climate change, the issues, fundamentally, are mass manufacturing and economics that make waste more attractive than repurposing. We can invent ways to save energy but without changing the system I don’t think the problem will be solved. And yet here I am, paging through start-ups and research groups, thinking that if my product is like the rest but better, then perhaps that will fix everything.
I just need to work harder.
And anyway I’m so normal now and so far from the fight, and I need to get back. I’m so normal now and when I am alone I dream of walking the open road, or wandering streets crowded with people, or curling up in a room full of my friends. I do not dream of writing, don’t grasp for the beyond, don’t worry at the snags in my characters and the holes in my plots until each one is smoothed out and filled. I have not done this in so long.
And I’m happy. I love my friends. I love learning and in time I’ll strike upon work I love, too. I’m surviving and I love the intensity of work as it burns me. I’m burned so hard I cannot feel. I think this is what MIT does to us. I’ve seen it happen before. But I — am I upset? I feel only tired, and comfortably numb. And there is so much good in this life. I think I need a couple months, time to regroup, and then I’ll be back in it. I’d better be back in it for something that matters, a tech that causes good, a story that means something.