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The dark side of MIT?
MIT encourages some truly awful work habits. There’s a celebration of the “hardcore”. Style points, basically. You can play video games for 20 hours a day all semester, and then finish your compilers project in a triple all-nighter; that’s hardcore. Starting early and finishing on time is not.
That stuff was cute when you were in high school. You were doing work intended for people 3+ IQ SD beneath you, and you could do it in your sleep. Of course, you’re going to show off. Once you get to MIT…you should knock it off. But there’s no encouragement to do that, and it’s really hard at 19 years old to spot the problem before it flattens you. What’s the problem? You’re trying to drink from the firehose, soaking up all these opportunities, and you’re also trying to screw around as you did in high school. Sooner or later, this is going to end badly. A lot of people develop serious mental health symptoms.
Sit down and do your work
When you’re good and tired, you can go hang out with all these awesome people. And then go home, go to sleep, and wake up the next morning ready to do it again. But it’s the right way to do it. It’s not hardcore in the least, but it’s very, very effective. MIT will not teach you this. I am an MIT class of 1978. I loved my time at MIT, but this was not because of the instruction, but rather, somewhat in spite of it! The pace is ridiculous, and it is very easy to get left behind. The typical course is “like drinking water from a fire hose”. There are parts of MIT culture that glorify that.
One example of that is “the tomb of the unknown tool”. In MIT parlance, “tooling” means studying. In a remote part of an MIT steam tunnel, there is a tiny space in which students have installed a desk and a hanging bare bulb lamp. The desk had to be disassembled and reassembled to fit. This is a monument to the extreme time spent studying. I used to chuckle every time I walked to MIT because there was a business ‘Mass Tool and Die” on the way there. This describes MIT pretty well.
The reason I loved my time at MIT was not the time I spent in classes or studying. I had some of the best mentors and resources in the world, and the environment presented many unique opportunities. My all-nighters were spent working on projects that represented unique opportunities.
For example, I secured the 12 AM to 6 AM spot in using the single user console on the first music computer in the world in the MIT experimental music studio. As a result, my compositions made it onto the program of the first and second international conferences on Computer Music. I also spent many all-nighters at the film section editing a film I made of Violist Marcus Thompson playing Viola along with the computer in the music studio.
I like to tell my current students this story, so I will share it with you. It is a typical MIT. I was sitting in my advisor Paul Earls’ office in the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) one day, and there was a bright orange metal box on the table. I asked what it was, and he said it was a controller for a real-time laser scan engine, and that the hardware was complete, but the program didn’t work. So he said casually, “Do you think you could get this to work?” I said I probably could. He packed the whole rig into his car and delivered it to my dorm room. Two weeks of all-nighters later, the first real-time laser animation system became functional. It was shown at the Smithsonian Institution next summer as part of the CAVS “Centerbeam” exposition.
MIT is the kind of people
What most people don’t understand is that the kind of people who get into MIT are the kind of people who rise to most any challenge and put everything into meeting it. This is not just about insane course paces. There are unique opportunities to live on the bleeding edge of technology. My time there led to a whole career of rising to similar challenges. There were a lot of all-nighters spent exploiting the unique experiences that the environment represents. I loved it!
I didn’t really appreciate it when I was there, but the so-called dark side of MIT is to prepare you to become the best engineer you can be. The nature of engineering is to grind, problem-solve, and trade-off. The long hours gets you used to grind as well as the failures that go along with it. This is unique to engineering and why everyone can’t do it. Just about every class had recitations where you really learned to work problems (I have to admit, I would punt a lecture but not a recitation). Going to MIT is the best time management teacher; you can’t squeeze everything in.
I was an ordinary student
Here’s a hidden gem of MIT – it’s a fantastic place to study the humanities. No one was interested in it so you can get time with a professor. I was an ordinary student, so good luck seeing an engineering professor surrounded by a wall of grad students. But I could walk into my literature professor’s office and sit down and have a lovely 1h conversation. My humanities study is my competitive advantage – I can look at problems in more dimensions than just as an engineer.
The dark side? MIT is kind of a cold place. Everyone is so under the gun, it becomes sink or swim. Places like Harvard and Stanford have amazing alumni networks – those people really take care of each other. But when I meet MIT alumni, it’s more like war veterans – hey, we survived!