The architecture of serendipity
Learning to drink from the MIT firehose
I have been in the Netherlands for the last 8 years. Starting at MIT did not require me to move immediately since all of my classes are still online. However, even without making the move to Boston, I did experience the cultural shock of MIT. MIT has a special quality and that special something finds a way to thrive even when every class is online.
This feeling of adjustment is not new to me. Born and raised in Mexico, I struggled for a couple of years adapting to how things worked in the Netherlands. I am not talking about cultural quirks, but basic things—particularly, how to organize my professional and personal life.
The Dutch way is the structured way. It is the norm to schedule everything from meetings at work, to outings with colleagues, to hanging out with friends, several weeks in advance. For me, having been born in Mexico, it was challenging to adapt to this rigid schedule. I was used to making friends at work and just picking up my phone on a weekend to call a friend and arrange to meet with an hour’s notice. That approach did not work in the Netherlands. I remember a time when I tried to make dinner plans for the same evening and failed miserably, as not a single one of my friends was free and the restaurants also required a reservation a few hours ahead. As years passed in the Netherlands, I managed to become so good at rigidly scheduling my day that now I out-plan some of my Dutch friends. Today, my Outlook schedule has two time zone bars and I use colors to block out particular activities each day. People are often struck with surprise when they see my agenda for the first time, impressed by how organized it is.
To the left, a Mondrian-inspired picture, an inspiration for my color-coded calendar (image credit: “Fake Mondrian” by Alun Salt). To the right, my agenda from a couple of weeks ago (minus the personal info).
In comparison to the structured way of the Netherlands, MIT has a way that is much more serendipitous. There is an atmosphere of curiosity and adventure in every (virtual) corridor. Days before my first semester started, I believed it would be easy to plan out my days surrounding the single class I would be taking—even with the time difference, I was not concerned about planning my day. I accounted for lectures and recitations, which would take up approximately 5 hours during my early afternoon, plus 5 more hours for homework, studying and teamwork every week. Of course, I had already read the three books I knew we would cover during the semester, talked to students from previous years to learn from their mistakes and freed up all my August afternoons and evenings, just in case I needed the extra time to study. I felt so proud of myself for using my Dutch planning skills, which had taken me so long to learn. But I was wrong to think that I had laid out the perfect plan to excel at MIT. Big time.
The MIT approach to scheduling (image credit: “Jackson Pollock, Number 31, 1950” by Detlef Schobert).
What was missing from my brilliant plan was a secret new students only learn upon arrival: studying at MIT is like trying to drink from a firehose. Well, I felt it was more like trying not to be drowned by the firehose. Also, the firehose is unpredictable and impossible to plan around. It felt like I only was given a day’s notice on where the water-drinking bonanza will take place. My beautiful rigid schedule for my semester went out of the window when my fellow American students started calling me on Zoom without warning, or scheduling teamwork sessions after class, which happened to be in the middle of my night. This unpredictability did not fare well with my obsession to plan things weeks in advance. On top of that, with everything moved online, I suddenly had workshops, seminars, conferences, networking events and more, each only one Register here link away.
Now, there is a great upside to all the whirlwind of activity that characterizes MIT: innovation. I have realized that in all the seeming chaos, there are some advantages. You get to meet a lot of people from different backgrounds, disciplines, countries, and with a myriad of interests. People are so engaged with their work that you just have to ask how their day was and off-they-go. You better have an interesting comment to make them pause mid-sentence, because otherwise they won’t stop. MIT is a catalyst for ideas and for gathering people who are ready to drop anything and devote their ideas to a cool project.
Starting at MIT was a shock to my usual rigid schedule. I’ve had to unlearn some of the things that have worked so well for me in the last few years. I’ve had to negotiate a truce between my Dutch organizing paranoia and leaving free time to chance, as chance is oh-so-important at MIT. You never know what serendipitous encounter or exciting project is waiting for you, if you just leave some time for it to materialize.
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