When I came to MIT as a freshman more than four years ago, I was excited for the challenge. One of the first things I heard at MIT was the oft-repeated parable about the bell curve, or, as we engineers might call it, a normal distribution. I forget who told me it first. Perhaps it was my freshman advisor, but it goes something like this: “If you were to put every student on a bell curve, MIT accepts only the highest one percent. You’re used to being in that top one percent, but now that you’re here, that curve starts all over. You won’t always be the best. You won’t always even be average.”
Quite honestly, I thought nothing of it. Like many MIT students, I was the star of my high school class. Ask anyone in my class who their smartest peer was, and there was a good chance they’d reply, “Nick.”
“I’m incredibly smart,” I said to myself, “and I don’t need to prove that to anyone.”
I still vividly remember coming home from MIT after finals ended my freshman year. That term I had sophomore standing and took five courses, including 5.12 (Orgo I). Despite the horror stories, I really loved 5.12. The problems were fascinating and the lectures were great (I’m sure some of you are lucky enough to have had Kimberly Berkowski). I worked hard in the course, attending every lecture and recitation, toiling over every pset, going through practice problems in McMurry, and devoting time to many office hours with a dedicated TA.
When it came to orgo exams, I did well on the first two exams, slipped on the third, and brought it back for the fourth. When finals came around I was nervous, but optimistic. “I know the material and I’ve worked hard,” I said to myself. “I’m sure if I do okay on the final, I’ll get an A.” I studied hard and took the exam. I flew home shortly thereafter and remember sitting in a huge lounge chair in my living room, eagerly refreshing student.mit.edu until my grades appeared. And there it was: B+
As the terms rolled on, I opened up the firehose and tried to drink, encouraged by a blend of competitive peers, unencumbering academic policies, and disinterested advisors. That is, until the end of my sophomore year, when I met the woman who may have been the love of my life. We had two classes together — 5.60 (Thermodynamics) and 7.02 (Biology Lab) — and first spoke in the W20 cluster, though our memories differ on what we spoke about (meaning her version is most certainly correct). I’ll spare you the sappy details that I’ve become alarmingly adept at replaying in my mind.
A few months into our relationship, she offhandedly told me something that haunts me to this day: “You’re smarter than me. I’ve never dated a guy smarter than me, and that makes me nervous.” I don’t exactly remember how I replied, but I know what I thought. “She’s wrong, but I need to keep this up, or else I’ll lose her.”
In the months that followed, we became closer. We took the same classes. She saw my grades. She did better than me.
And so I pushed myself. Not to work harder in fewer classes. Not to be a caring boyfriend. Not to be the person that I was. But to, above all, appear smart, terrified I would lose her if I did otherwise.
I battled courses from three majors: 5, 6, and 7. Eventually, I became the Editor-in-Chief of this very paper, which easily consumed more than 40 hours a week.
I felt egged on by my many of my classmates — more than a few of whom marveled at my course load. “Wow,” they would say. “You’re taking so many courses! What’s your GPA?!” Under a guise of modesty I frequently dismissed them. (“I don’t really like to share my grades,” was the usual reply.) I once overhead one of her friends talking: “He’s super smart.” When getting back a hellish take-home exam, a classmate said: “I heard you completed the exam in, like, four hours.” If only.
Yet even that wasn’t enough for me.
When times got harder in my courses, I became argumentative, frequently debating with classmates over trivial assignments, exam questions, and lecture topics. As I slipped more, that disputatious style reached my personal life. I argued with her — just for the sake of seeming smart — about topics I didn’t even care remotely about. At one point, I nearly drove her to tears debating my heart out over whether bioengineered beef would ever taste the same as natural beef. Seriously.
As things crumbled, I struggled to prove that I could push myself even harder.
My second term as Editor-in-Chief, I took seven courses. She pleaded with me to take fewer. This last term, my final term at MIT, I took eight.
I remember sitting with her on a bench in Building 16 this spring as I filled out my last Add/Drop form. All the while, foolishly thinking to myself, “This is really what she wants me to do.”
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About a month ago, I walked across a stage and shook Susan Hockfield’s hand. As she handed me two degrees, held neatly together by oversized rubber bands, I didn’t think about the work they took or about what I’d achieved, but about what it has all cost me.
To her, I say: I’m sorry.
And to the culture that is MIT, I can now truly say: I hate this fucking place.
Yet, at the same time, I strangely feel as though MIT was the best school for me. In the next few years, I might forget about Grignard reagents, contamination delays, and phase portraits (sorry Course 8, angular momentum left my mind a long time ago), but I’ll never forget the MIT experience.
It took a place like MIT to show me what was important in life and to finally prove to myself what never needed proving. I graduated with two degrees from MIT. I have hundreds of credit hours. I finished course six in a year-and-a-half. I was hardcore. And none of it matters one bit.
It took me four years to learn that lesson. For your sake, I hope you learn it sooner. For my sake, I hope I didn’t learn it too late.