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Showing Our Feathers

Andrew C. Thomas

Anthony Freinberg, an opinion columnist for The Harvard Crimson, wrote an article last week that sounds awfully familiar to me. The advice contained within suggests that Harvard students should not force themselves to work so hard, so that they might enjoy the other pleasures, distractions and activities available to them within Harvard’s wonderfully diverse student life. This is advice I give to friends and in print, primarily so that everyone can avoid burnout.

Freinberg makes his point by boasting that anyone who is admitted to Harvard deserves to graduate: “The swollen envelope that came during senior year of high school was an invitation to relax for four plus years en route to Commencement.” Needless to say, as an MIT student with presumed stereotypical Harvard envy, I was irritated by the truth of the statement.

This, however, was not what caught my interest. The point that stands is that MIT students (myself most definitely included) suffer from the same problem of overwork. This is a time-honored fact immortalized in the embodiment of IHTFP.

But recently, another explanation crossed my mind. Maybe we’re not just masochists after all.

Maybe we’re posturing.

Male peacocks show off their bright plumage to dominate over other males. Male humans show off their muscles or perform feats of strength. The MIT version of this phenomenon is not limited to men. Students of both sexes attempt to balance a heavy course load rather than (or, as the new panoramic view of the Z Center workout room suggests, in addition to) bench pressing a heavy steel load.

Much like a sparring match, this posturing has the power and ceremony of ritual. Two men (for example) walk towards each other, bow their heads, and begin:

“Hey, man, how’s it going?”

“Not good, dude. I’ve got two problem sets and a term paper due tomorrow and practice tonight.”

“Ah, you’ve got it easy. 3 problem sets, a test, a dress rehearsal and an 8:30 class.”

Neither competitor, of course, has used all his ammunition yet. The rebuttal begins.

“8:30? Rookie. I’ve got crew at 5:00.”

Defeat seems near. One final chance remains.

“Oh, I forgot about that lab presentation that I haven’t started yet. Tomorrow afternoon. I sure hope my partner remembered.”

He has won, garnering the respect of his fellow student. No matter what work is ahead of him this evening, and likely next morning as well, he walks away knowing victory over his opponent, feeling like the bigger man.

The end result of this behavior is clear -- to discover who has a bigger tolerance for pain. Whether mental, physical or psychological, endurance of pain is the benchmark men have used for millennia to determine their position in the pecking order. As MIT students, our workload is the source of pain most readily available.

It may not be as quick or primal as flexing our muscles, but the effect can be just as impressive.

The effect is of course not limited to a night’s or a week’s worth of work. The grander scale applies to all those people who appear to be attempting a crazy double major, or breaking triple digits in their unit count.

As morale-building as posturing is, I dream of an MIT student body that isn’t in danger of blowing a collective gasket. I hope that students can find a way to enjoy their courses. I’m pulling for you -- we’re all in this together.