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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

To the exclusion of everything else by CJ Q. '23

on making decisions, and how i chose mit

Here’s a post I made in my personal blog, around a year ago, talking about why I decided to commit to MIT. I tried to keep it as close as possible to the original, but I did have to edit out some details.

It’s the fourth post in a four-part series, so here’s some context. I went to the admitted students weekend of another school in the Northeast, which we’ll call U, and my return flight to the Philippines had a connection through Boston. It got delayed, so I had to stay in Boston for another night.


Three.

The process of growing up is that of continual disenchantment, of continually shedding the old enchantment for the new.

Zero. My flight going from Boston to Atlanta was delayed by three hours. This means I was going to miss my connecting flight in Atlanta.

So someone from Delta booked me a new itinerary leaving on Saturday morning, and I had to spend Friday night in Boston. After getting new boarding passes, I then realized that Siva was coming from Chicago the next morning, and that I could have asked for a later flight. But it was too late, ah well.

I was thinking that it was fine to stay for the night because I had friends in MIT that I could hit up anyway. In the worst case, I could probably sleep in a lounge or something, which was still better than sleeping in the Logan. I hit up David, and some other people I knew who were studying in MIT, and of course they came through.

I take the T to Kendall, and sitting on the Silver Line buses, looking at the buildings outside, hearing the prerecorded voice make announcements, it was familiarity driving through me like a train. I get off on Kendall, and it all felt so practiced; seeing those large metal cylinders on the platform that I’ve played with, walking out and expecting to see the Marriott, sitting down, opening my laptop, messaging David, telling him I’m here.

One. David arrives. We walk to the Stud together so he can pick up some food and I can meet up with Jason.

We talk about MIT, of course, because what else have we to talk about? He’s intent with saying that U will be a better fit for me. In my mind, my main reservation about MIT was that I was going to die there. So we talk about his first semester, and what he experienced.

Sure, you can always tell yourself that you’re not going to overwork. That you’re going to choose to be happy, choose not to overload yourself with coursework, choose not to hang out with people who are academically intense. But these things are easier said than done. And I’m afraid that even if I tell myself this, that even if I take all the precautions, I’ll end up disliking it.

Two. When I first started out with college decisions, I had the belief that it would be as simple as collecting information. To me, things like prestige or rank were never really factors; I just wanted to get to know all of my options very well before I make a decision that will bind the next few years of my life.

In one of my favorite blog posts, I complain about the hedonic treadmill. The thesis of that post was that even if my life became better and better, I would still be unhappy. That new problems would always arise, that I would always be dissatisfied.

This turned out to be partly true, partly false. I think a better explanation of what I’m feeling is this quote from one of the lectures I went to during U’s admitted student weekend. There’s a movie called Winter Carnival, the production of which apparently didn’t go well. We discussed a novel called The Disenchanted, written by one of the people who worked on the script, which is loosely based on the author’s experience.

The disenchantment here refers to the events happening to F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the character who represented him. Near the end of the novel, this character gets so drunk that no hotel in New York would accept him, and he ended up in the care of a psychiatrist. His health took a hit after that, and he died a year later, a final disenchantment in a long, gradual descent.

At first, choosing where I would go to college was simply a matter of getting to know each college and choosing which one I thought I would fit in best. And while I went through the process, it felt less and less like learning about the college, and more and more learning about myself.

That in the end, I was going to be dissatisfied no matter which option I pick. That even if my life became better and better, I would still be unhappy. That picking colleges was a matter of picking my poison.

Three.

The process of growing up is that of continual disenchantment, of continually shedding the old enchantment for the new.

Four. We arrive at the Stud and David buys some food. We take a seat and Jason spots us and sits in front of us. It turns out that David and Jason haven’t seen each other in a long time. Both of them even think they haven’t met each other in real life, yet I clearly remember them taking a picture together.

[Did I want to hang out with math people? Do I want to avoid them? If I go to U, I could leave this life behind, and turn away from all of this, and maybe that would be better for me.]

David says he was going to do some more work, so Jason and I walk to Next. Jason kindly agrees to host me in his room for the night, and his roommate was fine with it too. I just then find out that his roommate was Jeffery; oops.

During our walk, we talk about the same things that’s been plaguing me these past few days. We talk about his life at MIT, his social groups, choosing who to hang out with, whether I would like that. I told him that I was leaning on MIT more than U at this point, something like a sixty–forty split.

I hoped that maybe I could learn some fact that would make or break the decision, something decisive, a tiebreaker in a sense. I was still under the delusion that making a decision was a matter of weighing all the information carefully.

Five. After signing in as a guest, Jason shows me his room and pulls out an inflatable for me to sleep on. He introduces me to Jeffery, who of course is surprised that I’m here. And this snowballs into introducing me to some of the other people I knew who were staying in Next. I get introduced to Andrew as well, whom I’ve heard of, and he’s surprised that I’ve heard of him.

I enjoyed explaining like four times why I was in MIT that night. I was going to miss a connecting flight, figured I could stay in Boston anyway because I had friends in MIT, wanted to talk to people about decisions. So we have a discussion.

We talk about classes and courses and extracurriculars and the social life, we talk about the administration and complaints and choosing a place to live in, we talk about the “culture”, how academically intense people are, where and how people socialize.

I ask questions, as if I was going to learn anything new. I did, of course; I learned a lot of things about MIT, I learned a lot of things I thought about MIT were wrong. But in the end, it wasn’t these facts that led me any closer to picking MIT over U, or to choosing U over MIT.

Six. If I could pick both choices, I would. If I could somehow craft my own college experience ex nihilo, create an environment from scratch, I would. I wasn’t going to delude myself into thinking that any single college could capture the entirety of human experience. The simple matter is that the perfect choice didn’t really exist; with all the information laid out before me I knew I didn’t have an option that satisfied everything I wanted.

I liked how U had Professor C, and I enjoyed the conversation we had. U’s size, and lack thereof, was considered one of the factors in building its strong community. Both its mathematics and humanities departments are top-notch, which are two things I care about. Its location would be a great change of scenery. I could see myself being at home there.

Yet MIT felt like home too. Boston is comforting and familiar; and I can’t even count the friends I have there with my fingers and toes. MIT had a subculture that was unabashedly nerdy, something I closely identify with. No one at U recognized the Homestuck jacket that I wore throughout the entire weekend I was there, yet two people pointed it out the one night I was at MIT. I just felt like I connected more with people at MIT than at U.

From Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Seven. Nondeterministic finite automata, in contrast to deterministic finite automata, don’t have uniquely determined transitions. A DFA has no choice involved; it simply goes from one predetermined state to another. An NFA, in one sense, does: it has options on which state to move to, and it could move between states even if there was no input.

Does this make its behavior nondeterministic? No: the same input string, given to the same NFA, would always give the same results. This is because if the NFA gives the accept result given one series of choices, it always outputs an accept result. And if no such set of choices would give an accept result, then the NFA rejects.

So the proper way to think about an NFA is not by making a transition at each state, but by choosing all possible transitions. Like running copies of multiple NFAs in parallel, splitting off whenever an option is presented. Then if any single option gives an accept result, the NFA outputs accept for the whole thing.

It’s like making all possible decisions, seeing where they lead, and then choosing after you know what will happen.

Eight. The disillusioning conclusion of the fit approach is that it’s not really about the college; it’s about me. What do I want out of my college experience? What are my long-term goals out of college, what kind of person do I want to become?

I was avoiding answering this question for the longest time. I kept thinking that the realization would come to me like a singing choir of angels when you meet “the one”. That I somehow would just know what I wanted once I’ve seen it. But here I was: all the information was in front of me and the decision never lay with the college, it lay with me.

Inevitably, our conversation came to that conclusion as well. Andrew asks me the question, and I piece together a half-assed answer of describing what I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to be too academically intense, yet I didn’t want my studies to become a pushover. And everything I said that night ended up being variations on that, because I realize that I had no clue what I wanted my college experience to be.

Nine. But. It still felt unsatisfying. Was it really a question of balance? Was it really a question of figuring out the proper ratio of academics to social life? Was it really just a matter of solving for the right proportion, as if making a decision could be as simple as those mixture problems, as if you could use algebra to determine the amount of poison with each choice?

Ten. Six or seven years ago, I was an active member of the xkcd forums, probably the first online community I was involved in. It was here I was introduced to Mafia, and to today one of the setups that intrigues me the most is called Pick Your Poison.

In it, the Mafia is given a list of five power roles, and discussed among themselves which three of the five would be given to the Town. In the face of undesirable choices, after all, it wasn’t a question of which one would be best.

It was a question of which one would be less worse.

Eleven. Perhaps what most surprised me about this whole college admission and decision process was how much I learned about myself, or in particular, what I learned about myself.

Writing my essays didn’t really teach me anything new. It’s not as if I discovered anything new about my life, as if I experienced something and blacked it out and rediscovered it when I was writing things down. It was more of figuring out what I valued the most about my identity, of distilling the essence of me into a few hundred words for a stranger to read. Presenting myself in a way engineered to be likable had the biggest effect in making me like myself a little more.

Until now, I still can’t pinpoint what exactly I want out of my college experience, but the decision process has at least given me a vague idea of what I don’t want to do in college, and what I don’t want to do after college.

It’s easy, looking back, to think of my life as a journey. We are exposed to stories and biographies and histories that make us believe that history marches ever forward, that each of us has their own path to lead and walk, that we need to become the person who we’re supposed to be, that we have some sort of destiny to fulfill.

And I’ll admit it: why else would I string my life into a narrative? Why else would I think that my life couldn’t have gone any other way? I’m terrified of the amount of variation my life has had so far, how any single different decision over the past two years would change my life entirely, when at the time it felt like the most natural thing to do.

It feels all the more real, right now, how much weight my decisions have. It feels all the more real right now that I’m going to be closing thousands upon thousands of doors with this choice.

Twelve. From the Homestuck epilogues:

DAVE: mr president
DAVE: you said...
DAVE: i reminded you of the adult dave from your timeline [...]
DAVE: anyway no offense but
DAVE: are you really sure i remind you of him
DAVE: there are a lot of times where i dont feel like im at all living up to that guys example
DAVE: a lot of times i feel like im just going along with this shit
DAVE: like my buddy organizes a badass rebellion and im just like duh yeah alright
DAVE: sounds cool guess ill scout around the jungle and rig a bunch of shitty statues of liberty to explode if those are the orders [...]
DAVE: but compared to that guy i apparently turned out to be
DAVE: i dunno
DAVE: i feel like
DAVE: a lesser version of myself somehow
DAVE: not lesser maybe just like
DAVE: i somehow ended up as the version of myself who didnt stay as true myself as i could have
DAVE: like
DAVE: i entered this world already considered a god
DAVE: already famous
DAVE: already celebrated as a genius
DAVE: what was there left to achieve
DAVE: i still did a lot of incredible and stupid shit that i guess im pretty proud of
DAVE: idk
DAVE: something feels hollow about a lot of what ive done the last bunch of years
DAVE: or i guess about a lot of stuff in general

Thirteen. And then, I noticed that I wasn’t confused. I was pretending to be confused.

I was limiting myself to a choice I should make. Believing that there was going to be this optimal choice, this choice I’m supposed to make that would be better for me, some decision that was going to make me happier. That there was an objective way to decide which one was going to make the universe better, as if being a utilitarian really mattered that much to me.

It’s easier said than done to trust your gut, especially when it tells you to make a choice you feel like you shouldn’t make. Because if I’m being honest to myself, all these reasons I kept about wanting to go to U, all boiled down to it will be better for me.

The change of scenery will be better for me. Being in an unfamiliar environment will be better for me. I’d be getting a “well-rounded liberal arts education”, whatever that means, and that will be better for me.

Have I forgotten how I have eschewed a life of “it will be better for me” when I left my parents?

Have I forgotten how much they pressured me into making choices I know I wouldn’t like? Forgotten how they manipulated me into believing I have to get everyone’s approval, or else they wouldn’t care about me?

Then why was I doing it to myself?

Fourteen. After the second day of the IOI, I vividly remember crying into a teammate’s chest for five straight minutes, and crying for about two more hours, and then going to my room and crying myself to sleep that night.

Going to the IOI, I would always be reminded about how much time the NOI.PH staff spent on training us, and how it would be a waste if I didn’t do well. I felt like I disappointed everyone that day; I felt like I was a major letdown to everyone who was cheering for me. That what I did was somehow shameful, that it somehow shouldn’t have happened.

I’ve talked about how my parents have haunted me to the point that, even after they are long gone in my life, they still appear in my dreams, my inbox, my screened messages, my blocked phone calls. Looking back, I realize they were haunting me in a much more real way than that, and it was in thinking that I was disappointing everyone with everything I did.

My parents cared for me, but they only expressed that caring in disappointment with my actions. It took me weeks after the IOI before I realized that I didn’t actually disappoint anyone that much. That just because no one was disappointed in me didn’t mean that they didn’t care; on the contrary, it was a show of support.

I wasn’t going to disappoint David if I didn’t follow his advice; I wasn’t going to disappoint my U interviewer, who went through leaps and bounds to support me; I wasn’t going to disappoint the admissions officer who spent so much time talking to me; it wasn’t wrong if their office spent two thousand dollars to fly me to U and I ended up not choosing it.

When I think about it, all the reasons I told myself that even kept U as an option, all the reservations I had about MIT, I didn’t even strongly believe any of these; I was simply my own devil’s advocate. And when I dig deeper, and tell myself that I kept U as an option because I felt like I should choose it because it should be better for me as a person, whatever that even means, it still doesn’t make sense. And the realization came down like disenchantment.

The reason I was so confused, or pretending to be confused, or deluding even myself to thinking I was confused, was it because I was trying not to disappoint anyone?

Even that explanation doesn’t make sense. I knew no one would be disappointed, no matter which choice I picked.

In the end, the person I was afraid of disappointing the most was myself.

Fifteen. The conversation soon ended, and I went back to Jason and Jeffery’s room to go to sleep. I ask Jeffery if he remembers how much the T costs, and he tells me it’s two seventy-five. He even offers to give me some money for breakfast or something, which was very nice of him, but I did have enough to make it back home the next morning and eat breakfast too. He goes elsewhere, leaving me and Jason in the room.

As I lied down on the inflatable bed, Jason asked me if I really wanted to sleep or if I still wanted to talk. I actually did want to talk. He told me about vim and how much he’s customized it, and how it’s one of his hobbies. He tells me about his social life, and about the people he hangs out with. And sometime during our conversation I fall asleep.

Sixteen. Before I left the next morning, Jason asked if he could hug me.

So we hugged.

He walked me downstairs.

And then I left.

Seventeen. I guess something about that impromptu MIT visit was the crucial factor in what made me finally choose to go to MIT. Not exactly the content of the conversations, but how they felt. Not so much the people I talked to, but the people I watched. Not so much what my friends told me, but what they did.

I couldn’t shake from my mind everything that happened. Somehow that one night in Boston meant just as much to me as two nights and two days in U. I knew that I probably wasn’t going to hang out with this specific set of people if I went to MIT, and I knew that I could find people I liked anywhere I go, but something about what happened just made my gut feeling much clearer to me.

I got a bit lost walking to Kendall, and arrived at the station twenty minutes later than I was expecting. Luckily enough, the Logan wasn’t as busy as I was warned it would be the previous night. I breeze through security, eat breakfast at Friendly’s, and crammed my work for NOI.PH a little bit, before I ride on a plane to Detroit.

Eighteen. I’ve thought so much about the nature of choice these past few days. I’m eighteen now, the age where people are typically considered adults, when people are typically expected to make their own choices. But I know I’ve been thrust into adulthood far, far before my eighteenth birthday.

I know that choosing where I’m going to college is only one of the many decisions lined up before me. Even within a single college there’s a lot of variance that can happen, and I still have drastically different things that I can do with my college life.

Negative one. The term missed connections refers to chance encounters that never went beyond fleeting interactions. You share a glance and smile with someone while walking home, you have a deep conversation with a stranger on the subway but never got their name, met someone nice at the club but never got their number.

It particularly refers to personal ads about missed connections:

You were on your bike on the sidewalk (Sunday). I was walking the opposite direction. You had a plastic parrot on your handlebars. I smiled. You said “Hi” and smiled back. You won my undying admiration for not wearing a football jersey. That’s it. Coffee or a drink?

Missed connection ads are popular because they’re romantic. We can’t help but wonder how different our lives would be if we were only a little less shy, if we only made our choices a little differently. If we could run decisions in parallel, hop to an alternate timeline, find out what would the “better” version of myself would be…

What if, that night, I was at the terminal a little earlier? I got down at Terminal E instead of Terminal A because I didn’t realize my flight was codeshared with Delta.

What if, that night, I rebooked a little earlier? The staff who got me my new booking told me that if I asked a few minutes ago, I wouldn’t have had missed my connecting flight to Korea.

If I didn’t go to MIT that night, would I have chosen differently? If I stayed a little longer at MIT that morning, would I have chosen differently? And if I had picked a different college, how much would my life have changed?

Zero. My flight going from Boston to Atlanta was delayed by three hours. This means I was going to miss my connecting flight in Atlanta.

So someone from Delta booked me a new itinerary leaving on Saturday morning, and I had to spend Friday night in Boston. But I then realized that Siva was coming from Chicago the next morning, so I asked for a later flight…

Nineteen. I guess we’ll never know.