(From 39 things)
2. Pretend you have it less figured out than you do.
6. Look beyond the surface.
39. Don’t aim for achievement or greatness. Aim for happiness.
Last winter break, I picked up a picture book from my childhood called “Hope for the Flowers.” It’s about a caterpillar called Stripe who finds a huge pillar of caterpillars, climbing over each other all trying to reach the top. They don’t know what’s at the top, but they all want to get there. Stripe meets Yellow on the pillar; they become friends and try to climb together. But when they get very high, Stripe has to climb over Yellow to continue. Yellow climbs down, convinced that there must be a better way. She finds another caterpillar who teaches her to make a cocoon. Stripe, on the other hand, grows lonely and disillusioned high in the pile—he tries to talk to the other caterpillars but they are impatient to continue, even pushing each other off the pile. Yellow flies up to Stripe to tell him to follow her example, and teaches him to become a butterfly too.
The illustrations are simple but help convey the message: at first, all the caterpillars in the pile look the same, but at some point, Stripe realizes that they’re all individual caterpillars he has to climb over to reach the top, and then each of them is drawn differently. And there’s a point when it zooms out, and you see that there are tens and tens of these piles.
I feel like we all have established pillars that we try to climb—scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, the successful MIT student, etc., and when we compare ourselves to those who are successful, we tend to use a 1-dimensional (or low-dimensional) scale of brilliance. For MIT students, there’s grades (GPA), number of classes, and research and internships done, among others.
My pillar has been theoretical math; in high school brilliance depended on Olympiad results; in college I looked for another scale. When I first came to MIT, I devoted myself to math. I viewed college as a fresh start: now that contest math was over (Putnam wasn’t as important), I could spend my time learning “real math,” math that would eventually lead to future research. At first I still felt a little out of place among the math community, especially when IMO friends greet each other like old buddies.
Sophomore year during the fall, when we didn’t have a credit limit anymore, I took 7 math classes. Partly it was because I thought I could, so why not? More simply, it felt like a way up the pillar.
I’m somewhat well-known for taking a ton of classes that term, but I don’t care for the attention. Focusing too much on classes made me forget that there are more valuable things to learn from activities besides classes. Having gone through the experience, I know that a person’s accomplishments on the surface aren’t necessarily a good indicator of success: It’s easy to do things which look good to other people on that 1-dimensional scale of brilliance, at the cost of actually making progress. I didn’t learn Algebraic Geometry well that term, just enough to get the grade, and it’s still hampering some of my studies now. One of my classmates, a successful math student, said he always just took one or two math classes per term. But you can bet he learned them very thoroughly.
That semester went alright, but when spring semester rolled around, I felt like I could never load up like that again. Maybe I was burnt out, or perhaps I just realized that I didn’t want math to take up my entire life like that. In the spring, I took fewer classes but didn’t keep up with the work as well. Like Stripe, I was high on the pillar, having climbed over a lot of others, and feeling disillusioned. What I needed to do was get off the pillar I had been climbing for so long.
I took a creative writing class that semester. My classmates wrote stories full of drama, and I felt like I was missing something in my life. When I was small I liked writing stories, but I stopped when I got into math competitions. The class reawakened my desire to be a writer in the future. I felt like I needed to experience more, though, in order to come up with ideas.
That summer I did a research project, at a prestigious REU in number theory. The project was frustrating. We had to spend hours figuring out details our mentor left out. The summer convinced me that if I was to learn math, I needed to do it a lot more rigorously than I had been doing. If you want to do research in something, you have to spend time learning the details. I thought I had been climbing up in the fastest way possible, but I found I didn’t actually know the subjects that I had taken classes in.
I branched out more in junior year, took fewer math classes. I took two classes on Artificial Intelligence because it seemed like a cool topic; the second was called “The Human Intelligence Enterprise” and it’s been my favorite class at MIT, and the one class I learned the most from. Professor Winston gave an overview of the entire history of AI and told us lots of stories and life advice (I wrote on his communication advice here). I continued to take classes in creative writing. It was very discouraging: they brought down my GPA. It made me indignant: I didn’t have to take those classes, I could have just stuck with taking math classes and gotten easy A’s. Why was I being punished for having the courage to explore something different that I wanted to do?
But things like grades fade in importance after a while, and my writing is slowly improving because of what my professors said. That’s what matters. On the surface—on that 1-dimensional scale—it seems the world doesn’t reward you for doing things you feel like are right for you, but you just have to look beneath the surface.
Last summer I decided to try something new. I worked at Gliya, an educational startup. I wanted to do something with a larger impact on the world. Pure math research doesn’t fit into that picture. I wrote part of a high school geometry curriculum. Working with Mathew Crawford really changed my idea of what it means to teach. It takes a remarkable amount of effort to, in his words, write a “conversational welcome mat to a mathematical topic in a world in which most math is dryly presented and students are on their guard to avoid.” I respected teaching a lot more after the summer. Because I used to pin my goal on “brilliance,” I think it’s made me blind to the contributions of people of all professions. A teacher would be nobody on a conventional scale of brilliance. Doctors, lawyers, actors, mathematicians, you name it, all rank higher on the scale. But when I realize that there is something to being a good teacher, it changes my perspective.
I’ve listened or taken several classes on education since then. Some of the students have amazing stories. They wouldn’t have gotten into MIT if it weren’t for this one amazing teacher they had, and because of this, they want to be the amazing teacher in future students’ lives. Another one said he wanted to be a teacher, and then maybe run for office after that, so he could institute educational reform. Hearing them talk, I’m convinced they’ve found a purpose in life, what they want to do.
During my senior year, there was an influx of freshmen in our dorm entry. They’re all so excited. They have time and do stuff because it’s cool, like souping up motorbikes. We went on a lot more entry outings than we used to. On one of them, we were talking about classes, and one of the freshmen said, he cared more for learning the material than about getting the grades. It’s simple advice but it can’t be overstated.
I tried “live action role playing (LARP)” for a little bit. I was pretty bad at it, but man, there’s a whole subculture of MIT there. It takes quite a bit of spunk and wit to run around acting out science fiction. And writing one of these games must take enormous dedication, too.
Senior year, I had a lot of interesting conversations—sometimes, conversations that went on for a few hours. Some with my friends, some with people I just wanted to get to know better at MIT, some with old friends from high school, and some that were totally unexpected. Through these conversations, I’ve gotten to know people a lot deeper during senior year than all previous three years.
A remarkable number of my friends become more certain about what they want to do in their future. One of my friends who did well in IMO but struggled in college math classes (and didn’t feel that motivated) found that he liked economics more, and he’s going to grad school in that. One of my friends decided to do statistics—existing methods don’t work very well, he said, when you can’t make assumptions on the distributions, and it’s a field that’s less popular among pure mathematicians even though there is a lot of theoretical math involved. Another of my friends has decided on mathematical physics: he cares a lot about solid theoretical foundations but is frustrated with “divergent integrals” that physicists hand-wave. I went on a grad school tour; one thing I learned was how everyone has a very distinctive style of research; mathematicians are not a caterpillar pillar but rather a group of distinctive butterflies. Academia is only as closed of a world as you wish it to be. It re-enchanted my own future prospects.
In another direction, one of my friends decided that she wants to be a writer more than she wants to do math or computer science. Two of my friends dropped out (temporarily? permanently?) to do startups, another studied classics in college and writes and when I talked to him, he said that being a bookstore manager is one of the best jobs in the world.
Some people are still unsure, and that’s fine too.
When everyone is anonymous it’s easy to think about just climbing, but after connecting with people, I see that life isn’t all about climbing.
Senior year moved fast and I felt like I needed to figure out exactly what I want to do, yet I wanted to explore more subjects than I did two years ago. College made me look broader, rather than be more focused on one pathway. My summer work involved both a lot of writing and math—I had to put little narratives in the curriculum I wrote—but it made me feel valued for both my interests. It’s hard to find common ground between writing and math, but my work convinced me that somehow they can both coexist. I want to do something with math, writing, and education in the future, though I’m not exactly sure what form that’ll take.
Life at MIT can make us feel a tunnel-vision that life is about climbing pillars. We climb pillars because it’s the easiest thing to do when we don’t see very far ahead. We all want to get high, but we need to do it in a way that respects our own individuality. Everyone has their butterflies inside.
As parting words, my education professor Justin Reich told the class:
One of the potential threats of coming to a place at MIT is that you can become convinced during your time here that there are a limited number of highly developed pathways for you, as there are a number of well-designed recruitment systems… some people follow these pathways because they’re passionate about them… I hope that you recognize you have a ton of talent and a ton of possibilities; you can do anything. There are all kinds of pathways, established ones and ones that are not yet made. The established ones may very well be the ones that make you happiest, but if they’re not the ones that make you happiest, then don’t do those things… When I graduated from undergrad, I had no idea what I was going to do next, and that was totally fine.
Maybe, college has been a kind of cocoon. Or just the beginning of one.
After growing up, when I revisit children’s books I understand them more: the world is messy, and a well-written children’s story or fable is trying to teach us something about it in clear language, with a compelling metaphor. (When we’re small we don’t have examples in our own lives to draw on, so we don’t understand them more deeply.)
When I was small, I thought Hope for the Flowers was a good story, and when I reread it in college, I see it as a metaphor for people competing with each other for something everyone sees as valuable (for me, it was math contests), when the right thing to do is listen to yourself (and friends), rather than what everyone else says.
There’s a lot to learn about writing from good children’s stories: they contain somehow, the essence of a story, the minimum you need to make it touching and meaningful. And in this way, they are not just children’s stories, but stories for all of us.