Surviving at MIT

From a Recom post written by my friend Mark Lee:

I’ll just say that I totally agree with all of them.

(Note: TFP = this f**king place, from the unofficial MIT motto: IHTFP = I hate this f**king place.)


These are excerpts from a Reddit Discussion

Excerpt 1:

I need to ask you, has anyone ever taken the time to teach you how to study? And separately,have you learned how to study on your own in the absence of a teacher or curriculum?These are the most valuable tools you can acquire because they are the tools you will use to develop more powerful and more insightful tools. It only snowballs from there until you become like R.

Excerpt 2:

They tell you at orientation that attending MIT is like drinking from a firehose. And I did not truly understand what they meant until I got back my first assignment and it was a 50%. I didn’t know what to do, my usual study habits were failing me. Apparently I can’t just memorize things for tests and then forget them immediately. Oh lord, it was hard and it took many failures before I understood how to succeed. And it was glorious.

The absolute best thing I learned at MIT was HOW to think and HOW to find information.The classes themselves were hard, yes, but that school taught me above all else how to thrive in high pressure situations.

MIT doesn’t teach knowledge, it teaches wisdom. And I wish everyone could learn what I learned, because it goes so far beyond books.

Excerpt 3:

MIT kicked my ass. I had to learn HOW to study for tests just as much as I had to learn the actual material. I had to learn how to ask people for help with psets. I had to learn how to LEARN.

And I was humbled so vastly, as I was suddenly finding myself in situations where I was the dumbest person in the room. Not just occasionally, but pretty much all the time.

It was horrible, and I was depressed, and I hated TFP. But looking back at my high-school self, I really needed that. And it was also the best experience of my life, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

Excerpt 4:

Another MIT grad here. These posts really resonated with me. I’ll take a crack at answering your question. Sorry if it comes off as glib. The best way to learn how to learn is to push yourself into situations where you aren’t the smartest person in the room, and to observe and get help from the people who are the smartest, to find out how they do it. This is what inri137 did by going to MIT and then getting help from R.R. After that comes practice, practice, practice. I absolutely love Norvig’s essay, Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. He writes specifically about learning how to program, but a lot of his advice is trivial to generalize. Learning to do something well takes deliberate practice over a long period of time.

Excerpt 5:

It’s not as much “what” as “how”.

I literally didn’t know how to study for an exam. I had to learn, by trying and failing repeatedly and eventually improving. I didn’t know how to ask for help, because in high school I never had to ask for help; I was doing the tutoring. I had to learn how to work with groups of people, by trying and failing and being told I was being obnoxious, and adjusting my behavior, until other people wanted to work with me.

The best advice I can offer that I did learn at MIT: surround yourself with people who are better than you or smarter than you. Then, ask them questions, and listen to their replies. Imitate them in your life. Realize your failings and your weaknesses, and spend time improving them and filling in the gaps. And above all, be interested in everything. Don’t dismiss things as “boring” or “hard” – ever. Stay curious and keep trying.

Excerpt 6:

It sounds like you were a nice-sized fish in a very small pond. You were top dog, but you only ever knew your pond. Trust me – I know what I’m talking about. I spent my four years of high school doing what you did your senior year – making good grades but always slacking a bit. (I have a picture of a report card of straight As next to a bag of weed.)

I got to undergraduate computer science, and let me tell you that I broke curves. Honestly, I broke the curves by at least 30 points in at least two of my classes – one professor told me to stop doing the extra credit because it was hurting the other students too much.

This last semester was my first semester in a Ph.D. program – I’m here trying to learn and get better. And around me aren’t the people from my small, private undergraduate school. There are people around me from CMU and MIT – there are sharks in the pool. It took me the better part of a month to realize that I was not a shark, but simply a nice meal for one. And as Inri137 said, it has little to do with how smart I am. I know I am smarter than some of those sharks and I know that there are also a good number smarter than I am.

If that’s the case, what makes them a shark? Experience and work ethic. They’ve seen more than I have. They do more than I do. And, at the end of the day, they spend their Friday night writing code and I spent the last semester’s Fridays playing video games or drinking.

If you want to go far in this world, do not rely on your intelligence. If you are an honest, genuine genius you can. But let me tell you that the smartest person I have ever met – so smart that he would prove math theorems in his head while carrying on a meaningful conversation with you on the side – spent more time working per week than I did in two. And if you called him smart, he would simply deny it. He did not consider himself a genius – just a hard worker.

I particularly like this graphic for the following questions:

  • Are you intimidated by your fellow students?
  • Why the hell not?
  • Where will you find people that intimidate you?


2 Responses to Surviving at MIT

  1. nhani says:

    en bal, mesti seronok dapat belajar di mit, bertaraf dunia :/ stata center nampak cantik pula tu.

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