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unquantifiable growth by Rona W. '21

progress that can't be measured

I like to quantify. I like magnitudes and metrics. It’s incredibly easy to measure my life at MIT by courseload units, GPA, hours slept, money earned and spent (mostly spent). In fact, I often conflate progress with quantifiable successes—exam scores, for example. And sometimes this is fine, but in the last few months, I’ve been trying to step away from quantitative measures of growth.

I first realized my tendency to quantify at the end of last semester. One of my final assignments in a literature class was to write a letter reflecting on what we had learned, and I decided to be honest:

The reading journals were difficult for me because they were open-ended and I was used to formulaic writing within literature classes; sentences were patterned and it was my job to dissect those patterns for function. Similarly, this cover letter is difficult for me to write, because it is open-ended, and I usually am not expected to reflect upon what I have learned.

Parse a text for irony and allegory? Simple. Scrutinize a block of imagery for theme and characterization? No problem. Analyze my own educational progress in some non-rigorous manner? Um . . .

Don’t get me wrong. Quantifying can be useful. (How else would I keep track of how many times I’ve gotten Chipotle this semester? The answer, by the way, is 12.) But even at MIT, not everything can be measured.

When I signed with my literary agent in early September, she said, “I’d like to go out on submission this fall.” Essentially, I was supposed to finish revising my novel by October, so we could send my manuscript out to publishing houses. Keywords, supposed to, because it’s May now and I’m not yet done. In fact, within the last few weeks, I’ve realized that this isn’t the novel I want to put out into the wider world, and it was no longer something that spoke to me.

The last few days, I’ve been a little sad. I wrote tens of thousands of words, and yet have nothing to show for it. I wasted my entire sophomore year on a project that was never going to sit on bookshelves.

Except, as I realized, my sophomore year wasn’t a waste. Far from it.

There’s been quantifiable progress. Last semester, I got straight As for the first time, after a freshman year that can best be described as “oof.” I joined a couple of really awesome projects (one of which won $10,000 at the IDEAS challenge last Saturday!). I got to publish a short story collection—it’s still wild to me that there are people out there reading my words!!

But there’s been unquantifiable progress, too, which might be much more meaningful. I’ve only written one article for The Tech this year, but that doesn’t describe the many hours I spent in the office, bonding with the other wonderful staffers. My debate partner and I drove to Wesleyan University for a tournament, only to lose every single round (well, we won one by default, as the other team ditched); our win-loss ratio can’t measure the memories we forged on the trip.

Sophomore year as a bright conglomerate of friendships new and old: three a.m. conversations, impromptu 7/11 runs, acapella concerts and play readings and dance showcases, meme tags.

In the past eight months, I’ve learned how to manage my time better (thanks, iCalendar) and how to use a mop (apparently you’re supposed to wring it out first). I’ve become more compassionate, more introspective. I decided that it’s okay if my growth looks different than other people’s—it’s okay if I don’t snag a tech internship or take engineering classes or join lots of clubs, because I’d rather allocate my time in other places. It’s okay if I don’t sell a novel before I turn twenty-one; revising my last manuscript taught me so much about writing, even if it didn’t directly translate into publication. It’s okay if my growth can’t be measured along some numbered axis.

I still like to quantify, but I’m learning how to reflect upon life without metrics. So here’s to the unquantifiable: laughter, dreams, and the first sunshine in spring.