Skip to content ↓

Please note:

MIT and the admissions office will be closed November 24–25 for Thanksgiving break, and will open on November 28.

work by Alice L. '24

thoughts on productivity and a post-mortem of my spring semester

i.

I took thermodynamics last fall, where I realized that a bomb calorimeter was actually a pretty good analogy for my life, and then I decided I had a problem.

 

In my head, work is an escape. Working is how I avoid thinking about the other things I need to do but have not done and do not want to do; working is how I run from my fear that nobody will be there to catch me if I’m anything less than conventionally successful; working gives me a reference frame to force my thoughts into some semblance of order instead of confusion-despair-and-fear, and suddenly my ignored problems have piled up like the laundry that I keep washing but not folding.

 

To get back to the thermodynamics analogy, I’m a little particle ping-ponging inside of a box. I also want to get out of this box, because this box is sad and boring, and there’s a whole wide world of Experiences to enjoy outside of this box. I also have some options for the way I sproing around inside of this box:an illustration of work vs heat

Work is directed motion, and sometimes directed motion is good — like when you power pistons, or push a cart, or carry a box up the stairs. Doing things with a purpose is good, and useful, and sometimes it helps me get to cool places that I didn’t really know existed before.

 

But sometimes, the only reason I’m doing work is because I’m being squashed: a pink particle inside a box looking concerned, with arrows pointing up to illustrate the direction of motion. There are weights pushing down on the top of the box

And the more squashed you get, the more work you have to do to pretend you’re not being squashed: a pink particle inside a box looking concerned, with arrows pointing up to illustrate the direction of motion. There are more weights pushing down on the top of the boxand then at some point I tell myself that this is Actually Good, and the work is meaningful, and in reality I should probably just: if those kids could read, they would be very upset right now meme with sign that says "find literally any other coping mechanism"Which is not to say that I can’t escape this box of gloom by doing a lot of work. I probably can’t, because this box is really really big and actually pretty analogous to a bomb calorimeter, where all the work I do is measurable but ultimately dissipates into the vastness of the box that I’m in. But it’s possible! Unfortunately, when you put in enough work to make a bomb calorimeter stop being a bomb calorimeter such that everything inside is now outside…the same box as before, but now in shards; weights lie scattered around the shards

This is bad for the undergrad.


ii.

I started writing this blog in the fall, when I was crying on a semi-regular basis, dropping my classes, and generally wrestling with a whole lot of thoughts. That was a bad semester, and I resorted back to work-as-a-coping-mechanism for the spring.

 

The spring, in detail: 01 <i>not </i>a typical MIT schedule

  1. 6.036 (Intro to Machine Learning, 12 units): One of the first classes I’ve taken that counts towards my 6-1 major! I actually really liked the content of this class. I found the homework to be more plug-and-chug than I would’ve enjoyed, and I wish that it had gone more into matrix calculus, but it was overall a good time. I really appreciated that there was open OH to talk about machine learning – I took my UROP work to open OH once to ask for advice – instead of focusing solely on homework problems and exam review and other generally scorable things. My only major complaint is that the fire alarm went off during the midterm, and all our scores got cancelled, leading to the final being a whopping 45% of our grade. Stressful.
  2. 6.129 (Biological Circuit Engineering Laboratory, CI-M + Institute Lab, 12 units): This one’s a synthetic biology class where we designed circuits of genes and then stuck them into cells. It also counts as a CI-M for both 20 and 6, so I’m knocking out two requirements in one class. It’s ten hours of lecture/lab time a week, but there’s very little work outside of that, and they feed you snacks!! Also overall a good time even though none of us got the experimental results we wanted. My group designed the cellular version of a band pass filter, which is surprisingly similar to the electrical version of a band pass filter (i.e. a low and a high pass filter cascaded together.) Given that it’s a CI-M, we also had to write about our experimental design and results. I really enjoy talking about biology and making people tell me how wrong I am, so this was fun for me, but your mileage may vary based on how much you enjoy writing papers.
  3. 7.06 (Cell Biology, 12 units): Possibly my favorite class by a long shot, which surprised me, because I haven’t really liked the workflow of biology classes before this. I declared a whole double major because I thought I knew I didn’t want to do biology, and post 7.06, I’ve decided I do want to do biology again. Highlights include our open-book open-internet open-anything-but-other-people exam where the question was basically, “Propose a mechanism for how this phenomenon happened,” and then linked the relevant paper describing the phenomenon from 2021 that stated the mechanism wasn’t actually known. Sometimes I wonder if this was just crowdsourcing for the next paper.
  4. 7.571/7.572 (Quantitative Analysis of Biological Data, 6 units each): Two half-semester grad biostatistics classes that I signed up for because I missed math and I haven’t taken anything here except 18.022. It didn’t have enough math, and I felt like I didn’t learn anything that I hadn’t already covered in two years of high school statistics.02 AP Stats + a post-AP-stats class I did learn about some cool stuff like RNA-seq, though, and it was nice seeing research applications of math that I already knew well.
  5. 8.02 (Physics II, GIR, 12 units): I was technically on my fourth attempt at this class. I failed the ASE, thankfully on P/NR; I late-dropped it my freshman spring mid-psychotic-break;03 tl;dr adhd meds went wrong; not a typical feature of freshman springs nor meds in general I dropped it again sophomore fall because I was falling apart and my advisor thought maybe punting a class would help; I’m here again, with a decent grasp of the material and a weird sense of being simultaneously so much more experienced and so much more behind everyone else in this class.
  6. 20.265 (Genetics for Biological Engineering, 6 units): I went to two lectures for this class, and then I stopped going because the idea of hauling myself to another lecture that day made me want to throw up. I ended up punting this after a friend asked me, “What is wrong with you,” after seeing my Canvas while I was flopped facedown on the kitchen floor making gremlin noises with my laptop next to me, which got me down to…a still-ridiculous number of units. The content was cool, though, and I’ll probably give it another go sometime in the future.
  7. 21G.702 (Spanish II, HASS-E/HASS-H, 12 units): I took Spanish I over IAP, mostly because I felt like a huge failure after the fall and I wanted the little win of doing well in a class. Spanish, because I like languages and I felt ashamed that I’d lived in a predominantly Asian/Hispanic community for 12 years and somehow never managed to engage with people enough to learn their language despite hearing it almost every day. The Spanish I/II textbook subscription lasted 6 months, and I’m cheap, so I decided to take Spanish II in the spring to avoid having to buy it again in the future as I plan on taking more Spanish classes. I really like having a third language to communicate in: it’s cool thinking about the linguistic differences to English and Mandarin Chinese. It took as much time, if not more time, than some of my technical classes, and I’ve learned my lesson about underestimating the time that HASS classes can take.
  8. GEN228 (Clinical Genetics, Harvard cross-registered, 12 units): I read a bunch of papers about rare genetic diseases and then walked to MGH every Friday to talk to people who researched the disease and people who were living with said disease. Every week, a different student group had to present a literature review of the week’s assigned readings, which meant that the only really rough week in this class was the week I spent about 10 hours reading papers and building a slide deck with my group prior to our presentation. Even though I’m generally introverted, I really appreciated being able to talk to people who were willing to share their experiences with their rare genetic diseases. I like hearing their stories, and I want to be able to attach the weight of their grief and the strength of their acceptance to the cold sterility of words like “intronic acceptor splice-site mutation on chromosome 19p13.2–13.3.” I think about the times where I’ve been reduced to my problems, and I walk home reminding myself that I don’t want to lock myself in a little bubble of pipettes that reduces my perception of people to sequencing data and microscope images and clinical outcomes.
  9. UROP (for credit because I missed the funding deadline because I was – guess what! – hosed!; 16 units): I wrote code. I wrote more code. I argued with people about the inputs to my function. I wrote more code. I screamed. I wrote more code. I decided that computational biology is not my thing.
  10. Figure skating club: I took the intermediate skating PE class in the fall, despite having been on ice all of four times prior, and then I took the figure skating class over IAP. They’re surprisingly effective classes,04 this is really a self-roast on how clumsy I am; I once tore my ACL falling out of a chair; now imagine that but on ice and I discovered that I really enjoy being able to go yeet on ice; sadly, club times are from 8:00-9:30 am, and as the semester wore on, I went less and less

    alice attempting a slightly wonky flip

    behold my weird-looking jump, ft. grace and ilani dancing in the background! this is actually the BU ice rink oops

Hours: I don’t even know – I didn’t track – but Alan gives a good description of how MIT’s units/hours are supposed to work here

Units: hitting the triple digits is good cause to deeply reconsider all your life choices

To paraphrase Alan, this schedule is a bad idea. People will tell you this is a bad idea. MIT students will tell you this is a bad idea. Most of me viscerally cringes at the idea of doing another semester like this spring. To stop paraphrasing Alan, I embraced it because it’s a bad idea. I wanted to drown in work so I could not drown in the depths of myself, because – in addition to my usual justifications – people react to surviving a semester like this by thinking of me as smart and impressive and capable while working on myself comes with pity and what’s wrong with her and slightly backhanded compliments like she’s doing well, for someone like her.05 this compliment always makes me feel like suffering makes me someone, and I don’t want to be defined by how many things can go wrong in my life  

 

There’s the start of the semester, where I try to stay a week ahead of my work and wonder when the other metaphorical shoe will drop and something would put me behind. I eat boiled eggs multiple times a day because they’re just about the easiest thing I can cook. I start a new UROP and meet my new PI, who tells me about the time he signed up for a nutritional deficiency study in undergrad, developed kawashiorkor, and then proceeded to drop out of grad school. I google whether eating only boiled eggs and apples will give me scurvy. I walk to Trader Joe’s and buy a 5 lb bag of oranges. I google whether eating only boiled eggs and oranges will give me some other nutritional deficiency.06 I didn't get scurvy or any other deficiency that I know of, but eventually my fingertips started peeling off, probably from the acid exposure of consistently peeling 5 tangerines in one go I go to class from 9-5 on MWF and from 9-3 on TR, and despite psetting before classes and between classes and in classes and after classes, the pile just keeps replenishing itself. 

 

There’s week 5, where I break my brain again by accidentally consuming an ungodly amount of caffeine07 sometimes people ask me how I <em>accidentally</em> consumed >1g of caffeine. the answer is that I fill my hydroflask with black tea instead of water; banana lounge has free coffee; 6.129 had free coffee; I went to trident cafe with a friend to study and we shared a pot of tea; and then we got boba off Too Good To Go; and suddenly it's 3 am and my walls are trying to talk to me followed by late-night-psetting, which results in me curling up in an incoherent ball for a couple of days before my GRA hauls me to the hospital. All I remember from that is a psychiatrist staring at me in disbelief and telling me to get new priorities as I try to argue that they needed to let me go because I had an 8.02 midterm the next day and a 7.06 pset due two days later. They drug me and let me out; I take the 8.02 midterm (late) and do considerably better than I expect to; I talk to my advisor, who says alice, please, drop a class or, actually, maybe three, and then I don’t do that. I want to curl back up into a now-coherent ball and sleep for the next week, but instead I sit on the roofdeck and churn out psets and convince myself that This Is Fine. I implement a personal rule that I do not work past midnight after this, which is a step in the right direction.

 

There’s the end of the semester, where I’ve hopped back on the endless pset treadmill and worry whether there’s a third shoe that will drop now that I’m no longer a week ahead, truly dooming me to extension hell. I start three projects08 There’s my Spanish final project (brought to you by the acting skills of my old UROP lab!); my 7.06 final project (where I don’t remember anything I wrote!); and an 8.02 experiment (thank god I’ve taken this class before!) two days before they’re due. I break my midnight rule and pull an all-nighter running around doing bits of all three and hoping that I won’t end up turning in three half-completed projects.  I scramble to finish code for my UROP while my fellow undergrad in a Harvard lab tells me about the yacht party they’re having to celebrate the end of term. I learn how to pronounce “yacht” correctly for the first time. I curse myself for not applying to Harvard while I still had a chance to – it’s way easier to mentally normalize my stress as something inherent to MIT than it is to acknowledge that I have an unhealthy relationship with work.

 

I think about getting home most days and crashing on my floor, too tired to pset or find food or haul myself up onto my lofted bed to sleep; about feeling like I was hanging on to everything by a couple of stray cat hairs and fully understanding what “hosed” meant; about crashing the second I turned in my final projects and blobbing on my floor for a full two weeks after; and I swear I’m never doing this again, ever

 

— and then I check my grades, see that my semester looks near-perfect on a transcript even if it isn’t by any other metric, and the defunct meatball in my skull perks up again going: you know what? let’s do that again.


iii.

When I was much younger, adults used to say that I forgot the injury as soon as I stopped crying (“她一不哭了就给忘了伤.”) Sometimes this was said in backhanded praise, like when they were asking their kid why they hadn’t a can-do-attitude (胆子) as big as mine; other times, in exasperation, like the time I can-do-ed myself headfirst into the corner of a dining table and dented my skull because I thought the chair next to it looked bouncy. 09 it was! And the resulting scar didn’t really stop me from wanting to try it again! Toddler me really understood the importance of reproducing results

 

I eventually developed a healthy respect for dining tables, but the same trait contributes a lot to my workaholism. I remember the positive results of being a workaholic, and I do a good job of mentally punting the day-to-day negative impact it has on my life. I remember what it felt like for that fleeting moment where I stood on the podium at state championships; now, even as people comment on my weird gait, it doesn’t usually register that maybe swimming through degenerative joint disease might have been a bad idea. I remember getting into MIT; I don’t think about how the hours I spent wishing that I’d gotten to experience just a little bit of high school like a normal kid, nor how burnt out I felt by the start of senior year. I remember feeling pleasantly numb for all of this spring followed by the gratification of opening my grades and thinking wow, I really did pull that off – maybe I’m not too broken for this place after all, and I don’t think about the three whole paragraphs of hell that I just wrote about. 

 

In moderation, this is probably a good trait – maybe it could be called motivation, or ambition, or resilience. In its current form, it’s mostly just self-destructive, and I’m coming to realize that my approach of “do it or die trying,” is not a particularly sustainable one. It’s just a hard trait to moderate in a results-based society when its current form keeps putting more words onto my resume. Reading everyone else’s horror stories never really convinces me that I shouldn’t do it, either. Instead, it becomes almost a point of pride to me that I can do just as much and get equally good – if not better – results, and then people praise me for the results, and the positive feedback loop continues forever.

 

At MIT, almost nobody will ever tell you to stop working. I sign up for too many classes every semester — but I tell myself that I know someone whose pre-registration looks worse than mine, so I’m doing okay by overcommitting myself slightly less than they are. I can always find more things to do in my classes. I can always think harder about my psets. I can always dodge social commitments with “Sorry, I’m hosed,” and nobody ever questions whether that’s true (because I am, and they are too, and we just accept that the hose has devoured another tiny bit of happiness from today.) Telling myself to stop working – when it’s not just MIT, but society as a whole, that rewards working and assigns value based on productivity – is really, really, really hard.

 

Once, while talking to Petey, he mentioned that the most depressed people on campus were just-tenured-professors, because, having earned the thing they spent and sacrificed so much in the last 20+ years on, they suddenly wonder: why?

 

– and I thought about it, and I tried to imagine a day where I’d run out of milestones to accomplish and things to run from and I’d be working for the sake of working10 I really do most things that I do because I genuinely love doing them. I’d major in at least three more things if I had infinite time and money; I’d still UROP even if it was irrelevant to my career plans; I’d probably still learn how to sew and CAD and code in a utopia where 'marketable skills' has no meaning. I just really like making things. Even so, there’s just not enough time for me to Do Everything, and it’s unfair to myself to slowly strip away bits of my life in an effort to keep pretending that I can. , and for the most part, I just got a really strong sense of loss.11 'I wanted to be a normal person for a bit,' is my go to explanation for why I don't swim anymore...except I've just filled that time with psets instead of getting a life, oops

 

This summer, I’m working on a project for iGEM with 5 other students, but it’s considerably less work than I did last summer. I’m trying to find a better balance between working and not-working, and it’s going okay in some ways. I’ve done a lot more art than I have in a long time – before, I really only drew when I wanted to procrastinate, because I could never convince myself it was okay to consciously stop and draw for fun. It’s going less okay in other ways: overworking did really effectively allow me to avoid introspection, and I am – at least transiently – much happier when I don’t think about my problems, so I spend more time sad-blobbing and less time being-productive these days. 

Last fall, I was sobbing in my urop supervisor’s office after dropping half my classes. I’d gotten to a point where I’d spontaneously start crying if anyone asked how are you, because I had too many feelings to keep working; I didn’t have enough work to smush my feelings; and the answer to how are you was failing at literally everything. I remember him saying you can’t work forever, alice. sometimes you have to get worse to get better. and it’s not a linear better and sometimes I still go back to the comfort of drowning myself in work but I did learn from the fall, as painful as it was, and I am better, and now there’s some degree of coexistence between work and introspection. some coexistence between work and art. some coexistence between work and friends. I don’t think my problems are going to disappear because I thought about them. But even if they don’t, some of the other ones are shrinking, and that’s making my little box slightly less small. Maybe one day they’ll shrink enough for me to get out of the box without anything imploding.

  1. not a typical MIT schedule back to text
  2. AP Stats + a post-AP-stats class back to text
  3. tl;dr adhd meds went wrong; not a typical feature of freshman springs nor meds in general back to text
  4. this is really a self-roast on how clumsy I am; I once tore my ACL falling out of a chair; now imagine that but on ice back to text
  5. this compliment always makes me feel like suffering makes me someone, and I don’t want to be defined by how many things can go wrong in my life back to text
  6. I didn't get scurvy or any other deficiency that I know of, but eventually my fingertips started peeling off, probably from the acid exposure of consistently peeling 5 tangerines in one go back to text
  7. sometimes people ask me how I accidentally consumed >1g of caffeine. the answer is that I fill my hydroflask with black tea instead of water; banana lounge has free coffee; 6.129 had free coffee; I went to trident cafe with a friend to study and we shared a pot of tea; and then we got boba off Too Good To Go; and suddenly it's 3 am and my walls are trying to talk to me back to text
  8. There’s my Spanish final project (brought to you by the acting skills of my old UROP lab!); my 7.06 final project (where I don’t remember anything I wrote!); and an 8.02 experiment (thank god I’ve taken this class before!) back to text
  9. it was! And the resulting scar didn’t really stop me from wanting to try it again! Toddler me really understood the importance of reproducing results back to text
  10. I really do most things that I do because I genuinely love doing them. I’d major in at least three more things if I had infinite time and money; I’d still UROP even if it was irrelevant to my career plans; I’d probably still learn how to sew and CAD and code in a utopia where 'marketable skills' has no meaning. I just really like making things. Even so, there’s just not enough time for me to Do Everything, and it’s unfair to myself to slowly strip away bits of my life in an effort to keep pretending that I can. back to text
  11. 'I wanted to be a normal person for a bit,' is my go to explanation for why I don't swim anymore...except I've just filled that time with psets instead of getting a life, oops back to text