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

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, MIT! | Every Six Minutes

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