Problem Sets and Poetry: How MIT Made Me Who I Am Today

I returned to MIT last week after a “mental absence” spanning an entire Chinese zodiac cycle of 12 years. I say mental because I haven’t relived or engaged in an emotional way with my MIT days since graduation despite having passed through the ‘Tute a couple of times.

So what brought me back to MIT? I was there to attend my first meeting as a member of the humanities visiting committee. The committee, mostly made up of distinguished scholars and industry giants, serves the important function of inspecting and advising on the quality of education in certain subjects within MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Members include a former president of a top liberal arts college, Ivy League professors, successful entrepreneurs, executives of major corporations, and then me — an unemployed straggler (I was appointed while still employed). I am honored to have the chance to serve MIT, my beloved alma mater.

MIT's iconic Great Dome

Being back at MIT for a few days and meeting some of my old professors transported me back to my time as a student, some of the darkest days of my life. It also reminded me of my love for MIT. Yes, I love MIT, for two reasons.

One: MIT eviscerated my ego and replaced it with grounded confidence.

I expected MIT to be difficult, but had naively thought I could still swing it without much hard work. You see, I developed quite an ego in high school. Because my English was not great, I focused my attention on math and science — numbers and chemical symbols are universal codes without discrimination. As a result, I excelled in those subjects. Like with many Asian families I knew, I grew up in a family that valued smarts in math and science more than in liberal arts. So, I thought I was the smartest and the best, among other superlative adjectives.

Well, was I wrong.

A seemingly simple problem set from freshman classes like 18.01 (Single Variable Calculus) or 7.013 (Introductory Biology) could knock me down to my knees and engulf me with the despair of total inadequacy. I still remember the deflated feeling of struggling for hours on end on a problem only to realize I was on the wrong track. Given the way the problems sets were designed back then, every problem had a solution, so it would be back to square one.

To make matters worse, I was surrounded by true brainiacs. They sprouted out elegant solutions with little apparent effort. By the end of my freshman year, even the last vestiges of my ego from high school had been removed. I had to face the hard fact that I was only mediocre.

IHTFP, indeed!

Great Dome hacked -- IHTFP

Yet, I continued to drink from the fire hose inside a pressure cooker. And I survived. The euphoria of catching a glimpse of the solution, the beautiful truth, was what propelled me forward. Every step closer to the solution built confidence. Every skill mastered belonged to me and no one could take it away.

I pulled many all nighters that first year. Dragging my tired body back to the dorm after finishing an entire problem set, I savored every step with a satisfied yet melancholy heart. The tiny spot of sun light rising in the distance, struggling against the heaviness of the misty expanse above. Memorial Drive, one of the main campus streets, would still be quiet except for the distant sound of rowing crews preparing for practice on the Charles River. I was satisfied because I had conquered the problem set; I was melancholy because so much of the world’s beauty remained a mystery. But I was on the path — a path against the gravity and the resistance — equipped with the tools to obtain the knowledge and the beauty of this world.

This mixture of agony and euphoria of problem solving is still applicable today. As I explore options for the future, it has been hard to ignore the nagging “what ifs” in my mind. What if I go down the wrong track? What if I fail? Thinking back to the days of the problem sets, I am reminded that failure is okay, that the solution still waits to be found.

Two: MIT taught me to dance the awkward dance and sing the melancholy song.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. She died my junior year. My life crumbled.

I reasoned, wanting to make sense of this loss. As a biology major, I tried to find a scientific explanation of oncogenesis, carcinogen, gene mutation, and so on, but I couldn’t find solace. My mother never smoked a single cigarette in her life. Why must she die from lung cancer?

Looking back, I don’t think it would have mattered if I had found a scientific answer. I needed an existential answer. Why must life be so capricious? What was the point of it all?

I felt cosmically alone in my search and struggle. My peers tried to comfort me, but they didn’t really understand my anguish, which was like a consuming flame that cannot be quenched.

Hayden Library, where I spent much of my senior year.

In my loneliness, I turned to fiction, poetry and biography. One great thing about MIT’s humanities department was that most of the literature classes were taught in seminar style by the professors themselves, not by graduate students. The interactive nature of the classes gave me an outlet to ask about madness and catharsis in confessional poetry, nihilism in Russian literature, and the portrayal of indomitable human spirit in modern Chinese cinema.

Perhaps the universe is absurd. So what? We live in a world dominated by inhuman forces, yet human hearts can still kindle fire, every now and then, in an indifferent world sometimes surrounded by overwhelming darkness. And that is humanity.

When studying Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets, I came across this quote, which I treasure to this day: “We must travel across lonely and rugged terrain, through isolation and silence, to reach the magic zone where we can dance an awkward dance and sing a melancholy song.”

I haven’t thought much of MIT nor my experience there in the last several years while practicing law. It was easy to get carried along by the hustle and bustle of daily life. My life has changed a great deal for the better since my MIT days. With a husband who is my soul mate and best friend and two of the most loving feline babies, my life is mirthful, far exceeding my dreams.

At the visiting committee meeting, we discussed the importance of the humanities in an institution focused on science and engineering. I remembered: literature was the oasis that nurtured my soul. I am where I am because MIT taught me to move forward, to reach the magic zone.

Sunset and Boston skyline from Memorial Drive

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26 Responses to Problem Sets and Poetry: How MIT Made Me Who I Am Today

  1. Angeliki says:

    Beautiful post! it reminds me so much of myself and my years in University.

  2. Junior Associate says:

    Lovely post, thanks for sharing.

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  4. Aimee says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I marvel at your strength during those difficult years. I also appreciate your insight into what the humanities offers us.

    I also have a story about ego-annihilation and then a kind of rebirth. It happened during a seminar course at the Committee on Social Thought at U. of Chicago. A course on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. In this course, I lost “my” mind and found a “beginner’s mind.” A life-changing shift.

  5. Fred Wilson says:

    while my time at MIT differed from yours in many ways (I did not lose a parent and can’t imagine the anguish you went through over that), I experienced much of what you express here. I hated MIT then and love it now.

  6. Ronald Gruia says:

    This was a beautiful post – particularly to me (lost my mom the same way – lung cancer even though she never smoked a cigarette, except that was in my freshman year). MIT was a wonderful experience – but I went through the same struggles in my freshman year (back then it was a bit humbling, but the spirit of camaraderie made a huge difference).

  7. Vivia Chen says:

    Brava! Nice, lyrical post.

  8. Owen Johnson says:

    MIT is a special place with many paths, but only one per individual. My path differed dramatically from yours, so I appreciate you sharing your experience and giving me a deeper look into a path not taken.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I can’t even imagine what it was like to lose your mother your sophomore year. My MIT experience wasn’t easy either (I still remember those first humbling experiences freshmen year) but I learned a ton there and connected with some great friends.

    BTW this is one of my favorites pieces of writing in a long time: “Perhaps the universe is absurd. So what? We live in a world dominated by inhuman forces, yet human hearts can still kindle fire, every now and then, in an indifferent world sometimes surrounded by overwhelming darkness. And that is humanity.” Beautiful.

    Thanks again.

  10. Erika Jonietz says:

    “Thinking back to the days of the problem sets, I am reminded that failure is okay, that the solution still waits to be found.”

    Yes! A philosophy that I still struggle to remember every day, years after my career path has taken twists and turns I never imagined as an undergrad drinking from the firehose. Humanities classes (especially lit) were often my escape in those days, too. Thanks for reminding me of wonderful professors I had forgotten.

  11. Wei gu says:

    Loved it. You are a fabulous writer.

  12. everysixminutes says:

    Thanks every one for your kind comments and encouragement. They mean a lot to me.

  13. veeral says:

    Wonderful piece. For me, it really captured the duality of choosing, surviving, and sometimes even thriving at MIT.

  14. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing so fully. This post reminded me of why I love the blogosphere so much.

  15. Somak Chattopadhyay says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. This was a true joy to read and I hope you continue writing on this topic. Although I felt my ego was also “eviscerated” at times, I feel so lucky to have met such extraordinarily talented people who continue to inspire me to this day.

    Although I never experienced the loss you did in college, I empathize with your desire then and now to turn to the humanities to nourish your soul. My musical pursuits in college helped keep me sane and I feel so indebted to the teachers there who helped nurture that passion. Although MIT will always be a magnet for the best and brightest science/engineering students, I hope the humanities remain an active focus for the future.

  16. JP says:

    This kind of makes me wish I had gone to MIT.

    At least at Penn State where I was (chemical engineer), I learned that you didn’t need to attend class or do work and could still get by. The “stressful” honors Chem that everyone complained about was like sliding a warm knife through butter for me. I was quite good in the theoretical sciences.

    My mother died from cancer my junior year. I was completely unable to handle that, but I never went through any extential crisis that I can recall , just a continuous grinding depression. That was coupled with my entry into the harder engineering and mathematics classes where you actually had to work and think. It’s hard to get decent grades when you are spending all day in bed and playing computer games when you are awake.

    My ego was never really destroyed, but I left college and completey emotionally broken. I went to law school because my GPA was completely broken (at about a 3.2), but I could still do well enough on the LAST to get into a decent law school (Duke for me). I never really recovered from college. I never learned to work in either college or law school, which made the transition into a corporate law firm extremely stressful. It was novel for me to end up in an environment where you had to bill for your time and actually work, as opposed to college and law school where I may have done 5 hours of actual work a week (I also skipped a lot of class in law school).

    I still live with a sense that I am much more intellegent that other people. My roomate in law school would get frustrated with me because I was one of those people who knew they were more intellegent than everyone else. I will probably take that to me to the grave.

    My biggest regret is that I didn’t apply myself at all in college and go to med school or some sort of Ph.D. progam instead of law school.

  17. Julian Mathews says:

    Great!

  18. Ginny A says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Your experience resonates with me because the humanities nurtured my soul while I was at Caltech. I’m still being nurtured, and now enjoy classic works alongside my kids. Like you, I treasure the destruction of ego I experienced in college and the genuine appreciation I developed for the many, many truly smart people out there and their astonishing capabilities.

  19. Moria says:

    Outstanding! I think you must have a remarkable memory and a uniquely clear and honest mind. I suspect that no matter what you do, you do it very well, which must make choosing where to invest your time tremendously challenging. When the head and the heart are not at odds the result is the most powerful. You say elsewhere that you abhor writing, but yet you do it so elegantly. In reading your prose, one is easily swayed that you love writing. I think good writing is like good singing, by sharing it with others you really do bring a lot of pleasure to those with whom you share. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Lexi says:

    I think you got talent in writing articles. Waiting for more posts.

  21. Lupapa says:

    I can relate myself so much to your story.
    Thanks for posting this.

  22. CourseX says:

    I laughed out loud as I read your all-too-familiar summary of what it is to go from a stellar high school student to a mediocre MIT freshman! I, too, was fortunate enough to be afforded this humbling experience. By taking a drink from the MIT fire hose, I learned to think, question, and ponder. As such, my degree remains my proudest accomplishment. Good to know there are others like me out there – thanks for the great post!

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  24. Jonathan Ng says:

    I don’t normally comment on blogs… Nice post!

  25. Mirta Pfluger says:

    I just wanted to comment and say that I really enjoyed reading your blog post here. I digg the way you write! Keep it up and I’ll be back to read more in the future.

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