The new MIT Class of 2018 Facebook group is a warm, fuzzy place. Posts include “It’s an honor and a privilege to be in here with you all,” “I can’t wait to meet you,” and “I already feel a special love for all of you. Is that weird?” (No, it’s not weird!) and virtual group hugs abound.
It’s also a very intimidating place. Scrolling through, my eyes are glossing over from all the acronyms (FRC, MOSTEC, RSI, ISEF, HSSRP, MITES, …) There’s a whole thread dedicated to sharing research experiences, with jargon like “dendrimer-encapsulated nanoparticles”, “cardiac stem cells”, “microbial contamination tracking”, “mesenchymal stromal cells”, “graphene oxide filters”, and “radiation shields.”
Among the excitement and bubbliness, there’s insecurity in comments like “I…have NO idea why I was accepted.” Of the 80-ish responses to the poll question “How did you feel when you got accepted?” around 20% have said that “[MIT admissions] made a mistake.”
As a peer to these prefrosh, I’m stressed – and as a senior who knows what’s ahead, I’m sad.
In the fall of 2012, The Tech (MIT’s student newspaper) conducted a survey on stress called “Under Pressure.” You should take the time to check out all the results, but for this post I’m going to highlight one result in particular:
Some might call this modesty, but I would call this a warped sense of reality. The truth is – and I think it’s pretty clear, both from living on this campus for 3.5 years and from looking through the results of this survey – that most MIT students respect and admire each other much more than they respect themselves. But what about that time y-no, no, that’s not that great, not compared to what everyone else has done. But you’re so passionate about-NO, no, EVERYONE here is passionate about something, that’s not special. Have you done any research? WELLLL, nothing crazy like everyone else on this campus, but I have done a little bit of this and that.
This Tech article came out hot on the heels of Lydia‘s blog post, Meltdown. In it, she describes insecurity and despair, partners to high-pressure environments like MIT. Her story broke my heart, and I was shocked and horrified when it emerged over the next few weeks just how many MIT undergraduates can relate to passages like this: There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid…There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. There’s something to giving everything and always falling short.
Lydia also wrote that Eventually we’ll walk out with a deep understanding of our fields, a fantastic tolerance for failure and late nights, and raised expectations for ourselves and for humankind. Someday, we’ll look back on these four years as the best years of our lives and the foundations of the kinds of friendships that can only be formed with some suffering.
At some point – I think it was freshman spring, when the workload really got crazy and I started pulling consecutive 4am bedtimes – I believed that there were good reasons for all of the stress and insecurity around me. I think I thought that all of this would make me tough, so it was worth suffering through.
But I no longer think so. I’ve seen friends graduate still feeling like they didn’t belong here. I have friends who are graduate students and post-docs — and from them, I hear that it doesn’t get better.
It’s not worth it. There are better and healthier roads to success.
Dear Class of 2018:
Let me introduce you to Imposter’s Syndrome. Chris described it in a blog post last spring. Essentially, Imposter’s Syndrome is the belief that you don’t belong, that you’re a fraud, that you’ve been lucky so far and that all your successes are really nothing to be proud of.
Imposter’s Syndrome is rampant at MIT. Maybe you’ve already felt it, scrolling through the Facebook group and thinking “I DO NOT BELONG, I AM NOT WORTHY!” (honestly, it’s hard for me to keep those feelings in check, getting to know you guys!)
You will arrive at MIT at a time when the fight is underway — but is still at the beginning stages. Student journalists and bloggers like Lydia are working to make us more aware of the phenomenon. Outgoing Chancellor Eric Grimson has called for changes to our culture — to be less tough with each other and to celebrate achievements, where being super stressed does NOT count as an achievement. Student groups are tackling the issue from a Mental Health perspective.
I wonder if Imposter’s Syndrome takes root right from the moment when prefrosh meet other prefrosh (and current MIT students) and don’t know what to do with the fact that their classmates are all so incredibly accomplished. This Facebook group could be a great thing, or it could be a terrible thing: it could be a place where accomplishments and interests are celebrated and shared, or it could be a place where self-esteems come to die. Or both. Please make it the former, and do whatever you can to prevent the latter.
Don’t feel the need to impress each other. You’re already impressive to your peers, I promise, and frankly anyone who disagrees can go take a hike. When you describe your research and your interests, use language that anyone could understand: after all, your goal is to connect with your peers and help them understand your interests, not to create unnecessary disconnections.
Don’t think of a peer’s accomplishments as evidence of your lack thereof. Think about them as an addition to. You guys are building a class and a community. You don’t need to apologize for what you haven’t done: it’s fine if you haven’t done any research, it’s fine if you don’t play a musical instrument, it’s fine if you’ve never participated in a math competition, it’s fine if you aren’t valedictorian, and – WOMP WOMP – it’s fine if you don’t like bubble tea* (those of you in the FB group know what I’m talking about). The point is that you bring something special to the table, even if you’re not entirely sure what that something is.
*actually, I’m not sure about that one. Bubble tea is really good.
And know this: you deserve to be at MIT, you are and will be valued here, but it can and will be hard to remember that sometimes.
Recently, Chris linked me to this article. Hey guys! This is the year to eradicate Imposter’s Syndrome. Speak up, Band together, Reach out. I know that you guys respect each other — let that be the most prominent theme of your interactions. Take advantage of the fact that you’re already getting to network with each other. This is a wonderful chance to begin fighting Imposter’s Syndrome right from the beginning, and to set the right tone for your class: to celebrate accomplishments without undervaluing your own.
Your challenge: make the Class of 2018 MIT’s most self-confident. Trust me when I say that there are no imposters among you, because I helped cross-check your name against the list of admits when you sent a “Join Group” request. :)