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Don’t Violate the No Praise Zone Make MIT Proud to Know You

Ken Nesmith

In the last few weeks before graduation, the pats on the back begin. The “no praise” zone of MIT is violated. Seniors are consoled for their hard work, and promised more respect and an easier time of things in the real world, after MIT. After years of toilsome problem sets and tests with averages on the order of 50 percent, this is a new tack. The kind words feel foreign.

I’m not sure the praise is called for. In the same way that grade inflation and honorary degrees don’t happen at MIT, I don’t think loads of nascent praise should emerge either. MIT students understand the need for excellence and rigor. We understand that there’s no excuse for considering a problem on a test, and not solving it -- after all, why shouldn’t we solve it? What silly probability question should truly stump us? Why shouldn’t we be able to draw out an organic chemistry mechanism, or solve a set of differential equations? We’re better than that, and know that there is very rarely a good excuse for being wrong.

We should take no comfort in the easier go other college students have of their four years, no more than a professional runner should be proud of outrunning all those wussy amateur runners. There’s an infamous T-shirt slogan reading, “MIT: We’re not that smart, you’re just that dumb.” While it’s probably impolite to wear in public, it makes the point nicely that we should take no comfort because others make a lot of mistakes. Our mistakes are the ones that matter, as do our ability to solve problems, analyze information, and so forth. We should make fewer mistakes, and should not fail at solving the problems given us.

In the real world, that’s what will matter -- how well we are able to overcome those challenges. They will be difficult, tricky problems. There will not be the comfort of a low class average to let us know we’re doing okay, nor will subpar performance from peers and competitors get us anywhere. Reality, in fact, will be the ultimate metric of our performance. Our ability to engineer a faster algorithm, a more efficient engine, a better drug; to discover a new astronomical mass, identify an unknown protein, or freeze an atom near absolute zero will not depend on the approval of our peers, but on how well we’ve understood challenging conditions and worked through them. The maladroit average gives no license to rest on laurels -- we know we’re more able than most; that’s not an excuse not to do better. What sets MIT graduates apart is that we understand that there are no such excuses.

The spirit of individual ability, drive, and excellence shines through MIT’s history. It’s visible in recent times in the tremendous entrepreneurial forces that emerge from MIT students and graduates. They forego corporate and political realms of elitist privilege and entitlement, and instead take on the challenge of success themselves, working to offer innovative products and services that solve problems cleverly and quickly.

The drive toward achievement is powerful here, and a roommate who graduated in 2002 told a story that reflects it well. In dark and wintry February, he sat on the couch and lamented his exhaustion in a pleasant Russian accent, wishing to be in the mountains instead. “I just want to live in the mountains, near a nice clear stream, out in beautiful nature” -- so far, so normal -- “maybe have some vodka” -- he’s Russian after all -- “and write code,” he added, without the slightest hint of irony or sarcasm. MIT students don’t want to spend their lives on the beach relaxing. We want to do well, and we know that reality, not kind words, will reflect our success.

MIT excellence is historical. As we seniors become alumni/ae over this year (or next, or later -- props to super-seniors), we join hallowed company. Throughout the century, MIT has led advances in geology, mining, x-ray and radar, artificial intelligence, computer science, biotechnology, and for that matter, any other area of science and engineering. The Institute has carried on the world’s best scientific traditions. Scads of Nobel laureates did their work here. The work of graduates has enabled numerous technological revolutions, in the truest sense of the word. The MIT name inspires respect around the world. Thomas Edison was straightforward when in 1911 he said, “There is no question but that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the best technical school in the country. I have found [MIT grads] to have a better, more practical, more usable knowledge, as a class, than the graduates of any other school in the country. The salvation of America lies in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

“The salvation of America” -- strong words. The great challenge for us, though, will be one of setting aside praise and respect. The challenge is not to be proud that we came from MIT, but to make MIT proud to say we went here -- so that MIT takes as much pride in counting us as alumni as we do in carrying our degrees. We need to enter the ranks of our prestigious alumni not as spectators in awe of our company, but as peers ready to join them in excellence. Having witnessed just a small fraction of the hard work of peers in labs and classes throughout the Institute (and having taken a crack at some of that hard work myself), I’m confident that we will. Best of luck to all.