I got an e-mail the other day from a deferred applicant, who said that getting into MIT would have been “the ultimate recognition of all the effort I’ve poured into everything in my life thus far.”
I sympathize – I know how it feels to pour a lot of yourself into something, and not see it pay off in the way you expect, or hope. It’s very painful. And embarrassing. One of the worst parts is when people who believe in you ask “SO HOW DID IT GO???” and you have to break the news, when really you’d rather curl up in bed and put your shades down and never look anyone in the eye again. And then, over empty tubs of ice cream and a carpet covered with tissues, wonder why you bothered to work so hard when it didn’t pay off anyway.
I sympathize, but – as someone who has made this mistake infinitely many times in the past, continues to do so now, and probably will be unable to avoid doing so in the future – I don’t believe that trying to define what “ultimate recognition” is, under ANY circumstances, the right attitude.
In High School, I was the captain of my robotics team. I joined the team as a freshman because my eighth grade science teacher encouraged me to. I was very ambitious: I wanted to become team captain, I wanted to lead us from success to success, I wanted to help us bring in money from sponsors, and win the most prestigious awards that FIRST offers its teams.
I worked my butt off, and the first part of my dream came true – I became captain my junior year. I wrote essays for our awards applications, was on the drive team at the regionals. “Well!” you say. “You got into MIT, so obviously all those things happened, because MIT only accepts the most flawless human beings on the planet.”
NO! We never won a regional, never won those awards; I was heartbroken and felt like a failure. Worse, I hadn’t only let myself down, but I had let an entire team down. When I graduated and passed over the reins, I wondered what the heck the point was. Winning a regional, winning a Chairman’s Award – that would have been the ultimate recognition of all the effort I’d put into that team during High School. Sure, the team had gone from 10 people to something like a 60-strong operation – and sure, I’d spent a bunch of time mentoring middle school kids in Robotics, and yeah, maybe that second grader I tutored LOVED it when I showed him our robot – but I didn’t think about any of that, because I had a very specific idea of what “ultimate recognition” meant, and I didn’t get it, and I was disappointed.
My robotics team is kicking butt now. They won the entrepreneurship award last year. They built a spectacular robot, and made it to the semifinals for the first time in our team’s history. And I realize, only now, when I’m no longer on the team, that all my hard work was part of a picture bigger than myself: the payoff wasn’t on as short of a time scale as I had expected, or hoped.
The ultimate recognition is not ultimate at all, because it will continue: my work – and the work of everything who has ever been on that team – is constantly being recognized, long after we’ve left.
One of my best friends in High School always wanted to go to Hogwarts (college name pseudonym, for privacy.) Since Middle School, or something. She had a Hogwarts sweater, and said that everything she did, she did for one result: get into Hogwarts.
She didn’t get into Hogwarts.
She cried. A lot. We brought her flowers. She asked us WHY she put in all that work, what the point was. It broke our hearts, because she was obviously blind to the fact that she had become a brilliant writer, photographer, journalist – skills that would obviously serve her wherever she ended up going to college (she’s now doing some crazy awesome study abroad program) and beyond that as well. She defined what ultimate recognition would be, and didn’t get it. Her work is paying off in a different way – although it’s not the way she expected or hoped. And it will continue to pay off, even though that Hogwarts sweater is in some garbage heap somewhere.
A final example.
In High School, I (and all of my friends here at MIT) were academic rockstars; we got straight As, we were valedictorians, we won lots of awards, etc. I came to expect that hard work paid off in a specific way. I work hard -> I receive external validation by getting an A. I work hard, demonstrate my enthusiasm for a subject -> I receive external validation by winning an award.
The result: some of us became dependent on those to feel good about ourselves. One friend says that at the beginning of a program, he looks at the awards they hand out at the end, then tries to shape his choices and behavior to fit the criteria for winning that award.
That’s really sad. He’s won so many awards over his life that somehow “winning awards” is a requirement for feeling good about himself; the thought of no longer doing so is totally unbearable. And now he doesn’t always act the way he wants to act, because he wants to be recognized in the way he’s used to being recognized.
I should add that, as disturbing as that probably sounds to you, it’s the same attitude that drives people to e-mail me with questions like “WHAT MUST I DO TO BE ACCEPTED TO MIT???” The answer is: “NOT ASK QUESTIONS LIKE THAT.” That is the wrong. question. just like reading the award description and molding yourself after what you imagine a winner would be like is the WRONG. APPROACH. NO. DON’T DO THAT.
I think I sort of had that approach in mind when I got to MIT. I’d gotten so many As and won so many awards that I had a hard time tearing my attention from the results I wanted.
Then I got here, stopped getting straight As, stopped winning awards, stopped being top of my class, and woah. The foundation of my self-confidence basically disappeared. That happens to a lot of people: we have to rebuild our self-confidence out of tougher stuff than grades or class rank, because we are not longer “the smart kid” or “the nerdy kid” because EVERYONE here is smart and nerdy. And that’s a really good thing, I think.
A final story. And the reason why I was thinking about all this.
I just did poorly on my Quantum II final. I also did poorly on the midterm, way back in October, and it was important to me for a lot of reasons that I ace this test.
Did I study hard? Yes. Did I do every problem they suggested we do in preparation? Yes. Did I do all the homework? Yes. Did I attend all office hours I could possibly attend? Yes. I even crutched to office hours in the rain, once. Was there anything more I could have done? Probably, but there always is – you can always look back and say “I SHOULD HAVE DONE MORE!” but that’s just cruel. I think it’s unreasonable and a little unhealthy to expect 100% efficiency out of yourself.
So, what was the point of all the work I put into that class this semester? WHY did I crutch to office hours in the rain? I did it for a specific result: I wanted an A in that class. I would have liked recognition of all the work I put into it. And now I’m probably not going to get that. And last night, it was a huge crisis and the end of the world and MY FUTURE IS RUINED and THIS IS THE UNIVERSE TELLING ME NOT TO BE A PHYSICIST and WHY DO I EVER TRY EVER WHEN I’M NOT EVEN GOING TO GET EXTERNAL VALIDATION OF MY HARD WORK. And then I talked to two French House alums, both of whom had their serious academic struggles here and are doing just fine. They both told me that whatever grade I get in this class: it’s really not going to matter when I look back in a couple of years. Another of my friends here told me something similar: it’s going to be fine, it will work out, blah blah blah, all the things that are totally impossible for me to realize at this stage because I am so freaking short-sighted.
At this point, though, this kind of disappointment feels familiar. It feels like looking up at the scoreboard and seeing that our Robotics team lost. It feels like listening for my name at an awards ceremony and not hearing it called. It feels like how I’m sure my friend felt when that letter from Hogwarts brought unwelcome and unexpected news. I worked hard for a specific kind of validation and reward, and I didn’t get it.
But I have things to look forward to. Next semester I will take Quantum III, which is sort of the capstone of this quantum series, filled with awesome applications of all the crazy math techniques we’ve been learning. I KNOW I learned a lot in Quantum II, even if it won’t show up that way on my transcript. But it will make Quantum III awesome, and let’s be real – how many people can go around saying they know advanced quantum physics? Whatever I become – a teacher, a researcher – I will be glad I took this class, and I will be glad I worked hard, and it will pay off. The grade is not the “ultimate recognition” of that. I didn’t work the entire semester for one grade. I worked the entire semester for what will follow after this semester, the same way that high school seniors have worked for 17 or 18 years for what will follow those 17 or 18 years; Acceptance To Dream College is just another thing that happens (or doesn’t) along the way, and honestly will not turn out to make that big of a difference in the long run.
On December 22, I fly back home to London for the first time in a YEAR. My mom is wonderful and familiar with my love of theatre, and bought tickets to Richard III, Kiss Me Kate, and Cabaret. She is also familiar with my love of food, and arranged an outing for posh afternoon tea. My friend Davie, who graduated last year, is currently taking a year to study math in Berlin, and is going to stay with my family for a few days right around New Year’s. We’re going to take a tour of Hampton Court palace; way back in my youth, I had the free time to spend weekends roaming through the Hampton Court hedge maze, and eventually had the correct path memorized.