Some Thoughts on Procrastination and MIT

Warning: Long MIT-related rant ahead! No pictures, sorry! IHTFP of the non-paradiso variety. (oh and it might just be 5 F-ing PAGES…)

Video of the day – Dreamer by One OK Rock:

This question might be interesting for people that have had a chronic problem with procrastination. Or that still do. Or that still might “relapse” (me? everyone else?).

OR that are wondering if MIT is for them, or that are MIT students wondering if others are wondering if MIT is right for them.

So.

How does one go from…

    Reading fanfiction all the time
    Watching stuff online all the time
    Basically taking breaks to study or do whatever else is needed only when one finally mustered up the willpower to/it’s 2 in the morning
    Sleeping at 5 in the morning every night
    Getting to everything and I mean everything late
    Eating tons of servings of dinner and snacks all night
    Eating chocolate or some kind of baked good every meal…

To…

    Not having any baked goods or candy at all, just an almond cashew dark chocolate bit trail mix – maybe less than half a handful a day
    Spending an hour at the gym every day (soon to be just 6 days a week)
    Getting to work on time
    Barely watching anything online but music
    And fulfilling some special goals, such as writing a little every day?

Or

    No sleep, no exercise, overeating, horrible time management and a bad internet “addiction” to fanfiction and TV shows

To

    Sleep, exercise, healthy eating, time management and no more “addiction”‘s…

in less than a WEEK?

Well, let me say to begin, that I’ve been wondering for all of two years why MIT hasn’t quite been working for me.

Stuyvesant, my high school, is apparently a magnet school, and I did do quite a bit there, had my share of successes and failures but overall felt successful. I loved practically ALL of my classes, in any discipline. (Especially Humanities, European History, Microeconomics, Chemistry, Calculus BC…)

So, MIT. First off, I like my engineering internship now, and sure, I’ve seen and learned a lot of inspiring things and gotten a better sense of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur or researcher or whatnot, can list innovations that are talked about in events or on MIT’s website homepage…

But I don’t love all of my classes anymore. I don’t like all of my classes anymore. And I don’t understand what’s going on in lectures.

MIT wants to drive students to major in what they are good at, or what they have enough love and drive for to spend all of their time studying and working on them. Where people still find the material interesting even if it’s taught dry, fast, and hard. Or study because they feel a need to stay in that top ten or five or one percent, to be part of the crowd of the “smartest.” Oh, and know what they want to spend the rest of their life doing. Have decided it, ideally, before MIT or at least by the end of freshman year.

First, I don’t care about being the smartest person out there. I swore off cutthroat competition in high school – hated it, didn’t study more just because someone had a GPA that was 3 or 4 points higher than mine, etc. I wanted to study because I enjoyed the material and wanted to learn it, and I had the belief that as long as you were above that threshold or something like it, you’re fine. You’ll make it. (Wanted to even start a new branch of economics based on that mindset.)

Back in then, I didn’t have many distractions at home. My parents weren’t overbearing (“we’d still love you even if you didn’t get A’s!”), usually only butting in when I had issues with writing long papers in a short period of time. I always handed in my daily homework, always made it to class (8am mornings were STILL a bit iffy though, not a totally new problem there), and was doing running/Tae Kwon Do and clubs, eventually starting my own. When I “procrastinated” it was to work on the club and build the website on Joomla or contact vendors for the Earth Day Festival I was organizing, when I took a day off it was to make sure all of the logistics for our festival including our food vendors and signs and permit permissions were set. I watched dramas and anime but it never brought my GPA much lower than a 95 – ended with a cumulative 95.9.

Then, MIT. Man, I thought it would be only a bit harder than Stuyvesant (as alums generally say college is a “breeze” after Stuyvesant) – but nothing I couldn’t handle. But the ENVIRONMENT was different. So many distractions, so many new things to take care of like food and more decisions to make every hour of the day… and work given to you in classes that you could only do fully if you were at peak efficiency.

Especially since I was no longer understanding lectures as they were being taught.

The teachers here teach for the students majoring in their fields. Linearly taught classes, going over applications of what we were learning beyond theoretical research… nope, none of that. Intro physics wasn’t so bad, I think, as its classes are more structured, and there was a slower-paced class for students who preferred it – but I think it also depends on who your teacher is. (I lucked out with Dourmashkin both terms.)

But biology, ecology, chemistry, vector calculus and differential equations? Even micro-economics? Studied hard for those tests, sometimes go to office hours, would think ‘I studied and did OK!’ and then get a 50.

And it turned me off.

I was excited about economics – wanted to write articles like they have in the Economist even, analyzing what one decision’s impact will be on the world – but my enthusiasm was cut off with the axe of the class. I was always that 99th percentile in math, 800s on math SATs, loved my classes. After one point I didn’t want to take any math classes ever again. But I probably will need to if I want to do things like analysis, statistics, algorithms, etc. …

See, I’m an idealist. I want to take classes because I love them. MIT’s made for realists (or perhaps more precisely practical people). They take classes because they need them.

MIT’s trying to turn me into a… practical-ist and the idealist in me is screaming. Because if I can’t live, breathe, and love what I’m learning and go to each part of the job that I want to do with enthusiasm, with that drive to excel and interest in what’s going on still there, then I’m forcing myself to act, to not be myself, to lose that flaring passion that I had while trying to make sure I can do all of the mundane calculations that the job requires of me. To not be myself.

I was incredibly excited about college in high school. I dreamed about it. I dreamt about small classes, great teachers that would draw me in with contagious enthusiasm for their subjects, and interdisciplinary classes – where I could see how one thing relates to everything else. I looked for strong environmental studies programs. I imagined calculating carbon footprints, going to Alaska or Iceland and doing research on the ice, planning festivals at these schools as well. Making connections with the professors and networking from there. Collaboration rather than competition.

And then chose MIT over that kind of school.

I think in the middle of freshman year I decided that I preferred being one of the kids that didn’t kill themselves every week and managed to avoid C’s or failing in most classes than one of the kids that studied for hours and stayed up late for classes, went to office hours all the time, and didn’t have a life – or was barely satisfied with the bit of life she had, let’s say – and ended up getting B’s and a C (pass/NR at MIT) anyway.

Sophomore year I started reading fanfiction pretty frequently, until it was ALL THE TIME. I had a social life at my living group, but I kind of used it to procrastinate too. It got to the point where I would open my computer, check my email, and start my search for fanfiction in a blink, and start working on tasks after I had read 1, 2, or 5 stories. Or I don’t even know how many stories. It was bad.

But I ended up with a slightly higher GPA this semester than I’ve had any semester, by dropping all extracurriculars! And going a month without exercise!

Yeah, so my fanfiction “addiction” cut my efficiency by about 80-90%. But what happens when I leave MIT, worried that I might need to go on an “internet addictions anonymous” program to ever be as functional in real life as I want to be, and maybe lose the computer or get fancy web-site-blockers?

I get a job that I’m EXCITED about, resolve to exercise, go, and…

No fanfiction in over a week! No drive to go back, no need to read about Supernatural or watch an Asian drama! No more internet addiction! I’m cured!

Or… am I?

They all call it “internet addiction” – what if it’s simply avoidance?

What if I am the person that I want to be when I’m doing something I’m happy with?

What if I thrive when I’m not competing with anyone but myself?

What if I’m still looking for careers that would help me make more of an active difference in the world, and getting excited about them… when I became completely apathetic about them during MIT?

Is that what MIT does? Make people apathetic in places that they were passionate about before?

I think I just haven’t found my passion at MIT yet. I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to do something environmental, but I hadn’t decided exactly how.

I had been leaning towards policy. The mindset in this school in general is that policy is almost one of those “soft” subjects and that you should study science and math because you can “pick up” policy otherwise, but it doesn’t work vice versa (i.e. if you study policy that’s all you can do, and you don’t even know the science of what you’re looking at in depth). Decided to go into environmental engineering because it was an “interdisciplinary” subject that looked at ecology, policy, and engineering.

But I don’t like my environmental engineering core classes. Or design classes. Sure, I like my engineering internship enough, not that I’m designing anything new but rather trying to solve a relatively simple problem. Does that mean I should change? Should I save the classes I like for later and focus on getting a degree?

I don’t know. I honestly do not know. But I am resolved to be the person I want to be for this summer, at least, even if I can’t bring myself to be at MIT. Yet.

7 responses to “Some Thoughts on Procrastination and MIT

  1. Hey Marcela —

    Aww sorry MIT has been treating you rough; I’ve been talking a lot recently to people who have been having similar experiences. I guess it’s funny how when people tell you about schools, they say MIT is hard but you don’t realize that it’s not just hard in the material, it’s also hard in the way it sort of breaks the idealist in people. Which is fine if you aren’t one to begin with.

    We should hang out in DC some time next week! I’ll call you =)

    – Cathy

    • CATHY!!!!!!!! =DDDDD Thanks so much for commenting! It means so much to me to see people reading these posts =) And yes, we should definitely hang out!

  2. The internet can most definitely be an addiction. I went through a very similar thing to you when I was at highschool. The day before my exams I was reading fanfiction. I would think just a little more! Sometimes It would go for a while but always came back. Then I went away for 3 months and couldn’t check all the websites as no Internet and when I came back I was like… What did I used to spend all that time on?! I still read fanfic tho. As Ive got older I’ve read less and less. At the mo I haven’t read any in a while tho check occasiOnally to updates. Im down to just checking email and Facebook regularly and not a lot else! It seems I havto force myself to think of websites to go on even. So maybe this is just somethi g that does go with time, certainly I have done far more exercise this year than any other in my recent life!

    In regards mit it is a hard one. At the end o the day happiness is important and we say why don’t I just drop out and go live on a mountain but then we realise that to have the life we want we probably need money so stick with stuff. Another thought. I’ve had is whether being intelligent we have a duty to study? Or to do research? Do something with it you know? Weird.

    Anyone keep it up sounds like you are doing great.

    Check out the website bodyrockers (google it) think u may like it.

    Make sure you are eating the right diet as this is just as important.

    J

    • Hey Josh! =D Good luck on that modeling thing!

      And yeah, I read fanfiction at one period in middle/high school for manga, but I called it one of my “obsessions” – had it for a few months like crazy, faded away. And it didn’t hurt my studies – I still put them first. Dramas were the first thing that threatened any of my activities, but I still put grades first – I had some difficulty managing track and Tae Kwon Do at the same time though, and watching an episode here or there on a weeknight (cut it to the weekends soon enough, parents helped keep me on task when I asked them to) didn’t quite help matters. But I was still really liking my classes.

      Since around sophomore/junior year of high school I’ve felt a duty to improve the world, that is the living world, and reduce the footprint society leaves on the planet. I’ve felt more and more engaged reading about political issues around the world and want to have a voice in analyzing them and helping us choose the best solutions to them. And I want to write stories that could change the way people view the world, even if it’s just to see more wonder in the natural world, like people saw wonder in the magical world with “Harry Potter”, or thought about the consequences of a structured society differently after “The Giver”. That last one might be a bit ambitious.

      Anyway I know that nothing big gets done without back- or mind-breaking work, but sometimes I would rather be a turtle and actually absorb lessons and enjoy learning than a short-legged rabbit at MIT racing against all the others. But other times I enjoy the opportunities it’s given me. I just get fueled by chances to make a difference (like my job now, to an extent!) and not as much by abstract research, unless it’s something philosophical.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! =DDD

  3. what you write resonates a lot with me!! I’m so glad to see you thinking it.

    As someone who was a in a few different learning environments before MIT, I found it difficult to give up that kind of intimate relationship focused, pursuit of well-rounded intellectual, learn because it’s your passion, go to class on time and never cut because teachers and classmates (and you) uphold some expectation that you’re there because you want to be there, not because you need to be there, environment.

    MIT is at times the antithesis of nurturing (though have been continually impressed by our department’s commitment to care (humanly) about its students relative to other departments). MIT does have amazing resources, it’s very easy to feel grateful, overwhelmed, and somewhat taken aback that you’ve made it into this world. But something has always felt a little off for me – I really think it might come down to something in the ideology/philosophy that students, teachers, and administrators all perpetuate.

    The whole idea of sink or swim reminds me of the public high school system, and considering how devastating that system can be, anything reminiscent of it feels pseudo-sinister to me. I don’t like participating in that mindset overall. I like being at MIT because I like being inspired by students, I love the networking capabilities, the access to incredible research facilities; the name-brand recognition on my degree is something that will last, and I really like being connected in some way to great minds that have shared my geography.

    But I don’t know how many of the multiple opportunities MIT has given me have been strictly “educational.” It can occasionally feel more like being part of a special club, with certain requirements to being a member. Sometimes I find that I recall more from earlier classes where I was intellectually engaged and actively enjoying myself than my most technical MIT courses. (For those classes it’s a different kind of scenario, where I don’t remember much but I have the confidence that I could relearn it, just because I survived (against all odds kind of feeling), funny).

    Regardless of curriculum this or that, I think it’s healthy to be in environments that foster self-care and self-respect. MIT hasn’t always been one of those places for me.

    What do you think? I don’t know if the Institute will change. You already have essentially the full core of an Eng major, there are a lot of smaller, more intimate, prestigious, equally rigorous institutions around (especially in MA/New England). Would you ever consider pursuing happiness elsewhere? Alternately, there are some amazing environmental-themed study abroad or exchange programs if testing out a different environment might appeal to you.

    whatever you’re doing, take care of yourself and protect your happiness above grades/recognition/less important things! 🙂 YAY, hope you’re enjoying making a difference in DC!

  4. hey marcela,

    the stuff you are saying about “Idealists” and “soft subjects” is stuff i totally agree with.

    mit is a great place, but i do feel like it can be stifling. what you are saying reminds me of this ted lecture i watched recently. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY)

    no pressure to watch – the main point is that people have different types of talents, and that often times people get pressured to pursue conventional paths, when they may be much happier (and more beneficial to society) doing what they enjoy.

    i agree with the above poster that there are other places that i think are more like your “college ideal”. i think colby college has a great environmental program, small engaging classes, and passionate professors.

    if you decide to stay at mit, i guess i would say don’t let mit change you from an idealist, and don’t be afraid to be different. it sounds corny, i know. i feel like you have so much potential and energy (and possibly a really good drug dealer, jkjk) and that things will turn out awesome if you do things the marcela way, and not the everyone-else-at-this-place way. 🙂

    stephen

    p.s. your paragraph on “cutthroat competition” reminds me of this (apparently your type of person is happier :] )
    http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2006/06/are_you_a_satis.html

    • I’m watching that TED talk right now! The guy is SO funny. =)

      So I don’t know. I suppose when I said ‘change’ I had meant change majors, I don’t know if it’s a bit late to change and there’s the whole thing of ‘I’ve come this far.’ But if you look at my post from about 10:30 on Monday (today) you’ll see that once I’m away from MIT I start dreaming of doing a million things again… dreams that would inevitably go to MIT to die. Unless I change the way I do things fundamentally and find a way to make things work at MIT. That’s me being realistic. (Whoa look it’s a phenomenon!)

      If I did switch, Swarthmore would be interesting, I SHOULD have applied and was one essay away but didn’t because they didn’t have an “environmental studies” major. Don’t think they had environmental engineering when I was looking at them either. But they have everything liberal artsy and engineering-y that one could look for. But I want to try a bit more here!

      “Kids who are intelligent, creative, brilliant… believe they’re not because schools don’t recognize or reward them… the whole educational system is designed by university admissions…” this Ted Talk is SO GOOD

      Anyway thanks again for commenting! =DDDD

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