Being human @ MIT | A former MIT student talks about the...

Being human @ MIT | A former MIT student talks about the highs and lows of an Ivy League College.


This was first published by Joy Chen on Medium, as a part of the series Inside MIT.

maxresdefaultOnly around 30% of MIT students think they’re academically above average. Around 17% think their own accomplishments impressive.


The whole time I was an undergraduate at MIT, I thought I was below average. I love the place and the 4 years I spent there, but I spent a lot of my time there feeling not good enough. It’s pretty easy to see why.

The girl downstairs was publishing papers and winning awards for them. My next door neighbor was taking 7 classes and seemed unfazed (although he seemed to be sleeping odd hours). On my way back to my room, I would hear two friends debating theoretical physics, and I understand the individual words, but not how they go together. People are building robots and other cool stuff in their free time. We all know there’s no such thing as free time, so there’s even more respect for the makers, innovators. Some were doing all of the above plus varsity sports. There was so much to admire and be awed by.

It’s impossible to look out and not think,”Wow. Why am I not awesome?”

At some point, I realized my impostor syndrome was part of an impostor epidemic. I’m not alone. We’re all being idiotic in the same way.

I’m really glad we’ve started calling impostor syndrome what it is, because we can then begin teaching ourselves to laugh at how silly we are for not loving ourselves and all the things we do accomplish.

mit-campus-stata-centerI helped others about as much as I was helped. I had pretty good grades. I danced. I had friends. I even sometimes made time to run a little, and run to the market, and cook. I slept well, as a general rule.

It’s easier to count those blessings, now, a year after graduating. At the time, it never felt like enough, and it always felt overwhelming.

I remember a conversation in junior year as the first time I realized how jaded we all were. I saw a girl I hadn’t seen in weeks, who I used to see every day around dinnertime.

Me: “Hey, I haven’t seen you down in the kitchens in a while. How’ve you been?”
“I haven’t had time to cook. Not great. This is one of those 70 hour semesters.”
“70 hours as a conservative estimate, yeah?”[Rueful chuckles all around.]

She meant 70 practical hours. Not the unit-hours/week that our registration estimates we’re doing. Those aren’t accurate. The actual predicted hours of work she expected to do. Not accounting, of course, for time spent task-switching and on transportation, among other things. This was normal for us.

640x0Today, I looked at my spreadsheet for classes/commitments and how many hours a week they would consume. I remembered my happiest semesters (under 60 hours) and my least happy (70. ugh.)

I discovered I’ve wiped most of those bad semesters from my memory. I generally remember the highlights. I remember the laughter with friends during coding sessions in Athena clusters, the pots of curry shared, the peaceful jogs through snow, the dance practices in Walker, the dorm-room drinking parties (the first halves of them, anyways).

If I think harder, though, I remember searching for a quiet stairwell to cry in after a test. I remember sneaking out to the middle of Briggs field in the middle of the night and screaming at the sky, hoping nobody would walk between Simmons and McGregor and decide to call campus police. I remember waking up at noon and feeling furious, because I’d meant to only take a nap, and now I’d get no sunlight, because the sun sets at 4, and I still had work to do. I remember sitting on the floor crying after missing a Tech Shuttle to class, and then just deciding it wasn’t worth it, and going back to hide in my room.

There were actually more bad days than good ones. But I got used to it.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a lie.

At various points, I visited Mental Health, S^3, and the Deans to try and get help. I realized at some point that they’re kind people with a hard job, but were really only concerned if it seemed like you were about to give up or hurt yourself.

If you’re still chugging along, and not likely to cut/maim/kill yourself, you’re of-least-concern. That’s fair. They don’t really get us, but I suppose after enough time counseling students like me, they realized that having a shit time of it was taken as something we just expect.

They’re sadly right about one important point.

“Have you considered that you’re overcommitted?”
“Yes. I am. I’m just trying to handle it better than I am, right now.”
“Have you considered committing to fewer things?”

How simple. How impossible. Our values disallow that. We want to know how to be better, not how to surrender. We’re very sensitive about that.

They’re most likely right about us being overcommitted, but we’re not going to hear it.

I had better luck talking to upperclassmen and students who’d graduated. From them, I got constructive advice about being okay with imperfect and remembering how to be happy.

“It sucks, now, but it’ll be okay, soon. You’re actually doing kinda awesome, if you look at it from another angle. Nobody knows or cares about those things anyways. What you’re crying about now isn’t what you’ll remember in a year.
Remember that pie we baked? That was great.”

MIT students are more suicidal than average. I read recently that for undergraduates, even at competitive universities, “suicidal behavior is more often associated with relationship or family problems,” not academic pressure.

However, the fact that we have the same problems as other people and kill ourselves for the same reasons doesn’t make our situation not-problematic.

What’s special about being human at MIT, is that all of the usual ups and downs of life happen over a backdrop of high expectations, stress, and unhappiness. Everyone around you is either going through the same, or appears to be excelling and wouldn’t understand you, anyways. How do you ask for help? How do you dig yourself out of the illusion that you aren’t good enough?

The workload doesn’t make space for a lot of time for each other. We have to make space.

There will always be something you need to do instead of take care of yourself, or hang out with someone who’ll just casually remind you why you’re actually pretty cool.

For those of you still fighting the good fight, remember that taking time to help yourself and let yourself be helped is the most worthwhile investment you can make, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

So, help each other.
You’re the only ones who can.

(Also, you’ll have control of your life again, I promise. )

Quotes from friends who I discussed this with:

“Telling a crowd of people that they’re exceptional (collectively) all day every day seems like a recipe to make the few who don’t have the ego to roll along with it feel awful and insecure.”
“At MIT it’s so easy to focus on our weaknesses and failures, not our strengths and achievements. I had to use happiness lists at one point to remind myself of why I should be happy.”
“MIT trained us to be unhealthy after college too. I still find myself working way more than I need to and not making time for friends, family, and the greater world. I’m convinced MIT played a part in this problem.”




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