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Carving Out Your Own Niche The Need to be Special is Independent of Age

Roy Esaki

By now, most of us have hurdled the initial bout of lectures, early mornings, and the first of too many problem sets (which we MIT students dare not degradingly call their plebeian counterpart, “homework”). As the academic and social environment manifests itself, it is timely to examine the issue -- first encountered by freshmen and that continues to be relevant throughout our careers -- of finding, establishing, and maintaining a unique identity and role in the environment.

Long ago, we lived in blissful ignorance (or disregard) of brutal competition and academic Darwinism. We lived in a world where a kindly man in a Cardigan personally sung to each of us, telling us that “there’s no one in the world like us” and that we are thus inherently special. Everyone could win an award in class, from “Mr. Dinosaur Expert” to “Ms. Cheerful,” and everyone always won. Certainly, many of us had left this quixotic neighborhood of make-believe early in the days of childhood. Still, when we left the small pond of home for the ocean teeming with big fish, it seems we left any semblance of this neighborhood for good.

My theory is that the human impulse to be unique is not just an overarching desire, but a fundamental, incorrigible need. It is our uniqueness that justifies the value of our lives, and that answers the metaphysical questions of existence. If we are not unique, we dread the answer to the question “what good am I,” as we are but replaceable, interchangeable cogs in a machine. Granted, the machine needs each cog to function, but if we did not exist, any other cog would suffice. Thus, we must feel unique, because then we are needed, and regardless of the meaning of life, for better or for worse, the world would not exist as it does without us.

When we were very young, we were told that we were inherently special, because we are all different. As we entered successively larger classes and communities, we met people with similar skills, interests, and dispositions. We found ourselves thrust in a game of musical chairs, and to get the chair we had to reaffirm our uniqueness, because only in uniqueness could we be better. When we entered the competitive world, our desire for uniqueness transformed into the desire for preeminence; to be special meant not to excel, but to excel singularly. We played the game, we proved that we were unique, and we managed to sit down in the coveted chair. The chair, as it turned out, was in 10-250, along with hundreds of other occupied chairs.

It would be nice to know that we are still inherently special. It’s rather hard to feel very special, though, when you’re one of two hundred students in a lecture hall. Even with twenty classmates in a recitation, there still isn’t anything immediate that vividly distinguishes us to make us different, if not better, than the rest of the class. Those uncomfortable with anonymity have a range of options: striving to be the one student to get the impossible perfect test score, asking nitpicky or arcane questions about advanced topics in class to impress the professor and the class, or churning out columns with sesquipedalian words and circumlocutory prose. Of course, the astute student (which we all are) would soon realize that the perfect test score is impossible to obtain, that the professors have heard the same brilliant questions dozens of times before, and that columns with big words, while unique, frustrate, more than bedazzle, the readership.

Thus, as we play the aforementioned game of musical chairs here, we soon realize that not everyone can be the most academically special student in the class. So we learn to accept that we can’t all be the best of the best, and many of us realize the futility, and the absurdity, of the struggle. I believe, however, that while we may renounce the need for competition, we all continue to play a modified version of the game, as we still need to feel important.

Now, when the music stops, while some continue to vie for the institutionally given socio-academic chairs, others go out and find their own devices to sit on. Be it in clubs, sport teams, workplaces, or social circles, we find our own niche where one can find a personal chair, and feel comfortable in our uniqueness. The more self-assured may eschew the need for artificial support, and may choose to sit down on the ground, but these people, too, feel a proud comfort at being thus unique. The irony in all of this is inherent and appreciable, of course; after arriving as a yet undetermined parameter, we all strive to establish a function for ourselves in this new community, and strive to be unique, just like everyone else. And when the music stops, none of us really wants to be left standing all alone.