Curiouser and Curiouser…
Why being at MIT is like being Alice in Wonderland
On my first day of grad school. I drank a magic potion from the firehose! And there I went, down the rabbit hole…
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
This red queen hypothesis pretty much summarizes my first 2 years here.
I was the Alice being dragged along at an exhilarating pace, feeling that adrenaline rush and constantly trying to keep up (or maybe move ahead)! My weekdays were spent running to catch up with classes, psets, recitations, projects, advisor meetings, research, papers, grants, conferences- and I was still doing less than everyone else. So I added weekends of sailing, gym, networking, dancing, going to bars, museums, hiking, meetups and I finally felt I was doing just about enough to keep up with everyone here! Phew! While I was running as fast as I could to barely keep up, some were way ahead – raising families while doing all of this! What is it about the 02139 zip code that breeds so many overachievers? I was addicted and overwhelmed at the same time.
And then, I was burnt out.
The next year, I was the Alice that had lost her sense of scale. Trivial problems seemed larger than they were. I was losing the vision of the big picture of what mattered and what did not. On one day a code crashing would feel bigger the universe collapsing and on another day a significant progress would feel like unworthy accomplishment in comparison to the high bars everyone around was setting.
Overwhelmed and exhausted, the Alice in me screamed, “This is impossible!”
And the many Mad Hatters of MIT uplifted my spirit, “Only if you believe it is!”
Alice: “Have I gone mad?”
Mad-Hatter: “I am afraid so. You are entirely bonkers! But I will tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
And of course what else makes this place more of a wonderland is the opportunity for serendipitous encounters!
Fast-forward to the summer of 2018. I was back in the workshop grinding away building prototypes on a lazy summer afternoon, cursing my fate for spending a week cutting metal, screwing motors and hammering away a nice sunny day that could be spent by the Charles. A Cheshire Cat (read: a very famous professor) casually walked into the workshop and started chatting with the workshop supervisor about his sabbatical. What I expected would be random banter of summer getaways turned out to be a crash course on watchmaking! One second I was cursing having to spend a week cutting and screwing metal. Another moment I was learning how the professor in his 60s spent his sabbatical building wristwatches from scratch using microscopes. He laughed about how he snorted many of the tiny pieces during the process.
Me: “Why would you do this to yourself while on a vacation!?”
Cheshire Cat: “Oh well, I am a collector of skills!”
Workshop supervisor laughed: “Ha! You are crazy! But the good crazy!”
What makes this place special, in my experience, is not that it has overachievers and the stress of surpassing high expectations, but that everyone is so willing to help you reach your goals, no matter how high or impossible they seem. The only thing you need to do is– seek guidance, and all the crazy Mad Hatters and wise Cheshire Cats will go out of their way to make you believe why you belong here and nowhere else.
As the Alice in me was yet again amazed at the magic of this wonderland, I thought, “Curiouser and curiouser…”
(All images source: Lewis Carroll’s: Through the looking glass”)
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