on success, meaning, and time
This post is a culmination of many things that I’ve been thinking about throughout college and high school, but things which that have become much more urgent01 to think about as I end my time at MIT and “move on” to the next phase in life. The “things” I think about are vague and amorphous, but all relate back to the big question of what I want out of life.
There are three sections — success, meaning, and time — and each can be read as an independent blog post if that floats your boat. (I know this post is on the long side and that each section has much food for thought, so feel free to take your time.) Each section has its own song, which I recommend listening to if you have the time.
This post is not meant to have answers — if only it were that easy. What this post is meant to do is talk about the questions I still have for myself and the things I think about as I search for answers. Maybe this post can be reassuring if you feel like you need it all figured out before college (or in college) — let me be evidence that you really, really don’t need the answers yet. Maybe this post provides a way to procrastinate on your Regular Decision applications or a distraction from waiting for Early Action decisions. Maybe these thoughts can help if you’re stressing about where you’ll get accepted, choosing between colleges, or what life will be like after high school and college. Maybe this post can guide your own thoughts, the beginnings of a framework for you to think about these things. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find some meaning in the words here.
table of contents (with clickable section names for easy navigation)
- success: This section talks about Mike Posner and his journey of defining success, the book “Excellent Sheep” which focuses on the drawbacks of elite colleges, and different ways that I’ve thought about measuring success in my life.
- meaning: This section is structured as a Q+A, haphazardly jumping around different ways that one can interpret meaning, especially as it relates to my thoughts on graduate school, blogging, and my values.
- time: This section talks about different ways to evaluate the time that one spends — passage, money, and productivity — and ends with thinking about what standards we should hold our lives to.
- end: A short finale that leaves loose ends untied.
sunrise over boston. nov 17, 2018
The song for this section02 is “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (lyrics) by Mike Posner.
This section talks about Mike Posner and his journey of defining success, the book “Excellent Sheep” which focuses on the drawbacks of elite colleges, and different ways that I’ve thought about measuring success in my life.
In 2010, Posner released his first album, which included the hit song “Cooler than Me”. His song shot to the top 10 charts, but he couldn’t replicate its success with any of his subsequent albums, and he faded into obscurity as a one-hit-wonder. Posner writes about his fall from popularity as follows:
I rode that wave [of “Cooler than Me”] and then the wave crashed. The popularity ran out. The critical acclaim ran out. There was no follow-up song. I tried, but there was nothing. So, it was about the disillusionment that goes with achieving all your goals and then realizing that they don’t feel as good as you thought they would. If you’re not supposed to get money and fame and notoriety, like, we’re all running around trying to get, what are you supposed to do with your 80 to 100 years on earth? That’s the question. And that’s what my life is about now. Trying to answer that.
“I Took a Pill in Ibiza” encapsulates all of these feelings about how stardom (and his ensuing lack of it) left him empty. The chorus goes:
You don’t wanna be high like me Never really knowing why like me You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster And be all alone
You don’t wanna ride the bus like this Never knowing who to trust like this You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing Stuck up on that stage singing
All I know are sad songs, sad songs Darling, all I know are sad songs, sad songs
But the story doesn’t end there — in an ironic twist of fate, this song was remixed into a party dance track and became an even bigger hit than “Cooler than Me” (at the time of this post, 1.3 billion views on YouTube). Catapulted back into fame, Posner now seems to be doing things for his own sake, rather than just trying to have hits. He released a poetry album in 2018. Hiked across the United States in 2019 as a journey of self-exploration, a trip where he nearly died after being bit by a rattlesnake. I encourage you to read more about his journey and who he is as a person (see NPR, TIME, and his own website, for starters).
From an outside perspective, Mike Posner seems to be a person who, having found some definition of “success”, realized that it wasn’t what he actually wanted, and pivoted his life to be trying to find the things that actually feel Good and Fulfilling.
What does success mean to me, though? Mike Posner’s story is just one story, and it’s definitely not a story that applies to my life (or to anyone else’s, really, since everyone’s answer for success is different).
The book “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz is probably relevant to you if you’re thinking about applying to MIT (or other similarly selective schools). (If you don’t want to read a 200-some page book, you should just read “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”, an article he wrote that inspired the full-length book.) While this book has some not-great things about it, I think that it is a fantastic book for making you think.03 It prompts questions that you might not have thought about regarding a system of college admissions that has only gotten more competitive in the decade since he wrote it.
In this book, Deresiewicz tries to describe a system of “sheep”, people who did well in high school but have trouble deciding what to do next in life, and so they follow the well-trodden paths of certain careers, like consulting, investment banking, or even Teach for America. (I don’t remember if he mentions computer science by name, especially given when this book came out, but I’d lump CS and software engineering positions in the same bucket.) I read this book as I was applying to colleges, and there’s a particular quote in the opening pages that struck me so much that I added it to my computer wallpaper:
The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
This quote really spoke to high school senior Paolo, who had many different paths to choose from — economics, physics, math, computer science, business, mechanical engineering, and more — but had no sense or way of figuring out what to do. I’d been (and continue to be) privileged and lucky to have access to amazing mentors and lots of resources to explore many of these areas. In high school, success in these areas meant reaching very specific and tangible goalposts: good grades in classes, doing well in academic competitions, and then trying my best to get into good colleges. But trying to think about the larger picture of what success meant for me was difficult because there wasn’t a natural “clear goal” anymore. I was a poster child for the “sheep” that Deresiewicz described.
I tried my best to not define success based on what schools I got into, advice which I also heard from blogs of yore (and a post which everyone should read, especially with EA decisions coming out soon,04 and also read this one, and also this one). But figuring out and defining success for myself (especially in ways that weren’t “I don’t want to be X”, “I don’t care about Y”) eluded me as I headed off to college. I’ve had to think about this question repeatedly throughout MIT as I think about what research experiences or internships I choose to do, career paths to go down, and just generally think about the life beyond the ‘tute and what I want out of it.
Let’s say that I measure success on my ability to achieve work-life balance and be happy in both my job and the-rest-of-life-that-isn’t-job. Well, both grad school and the careers that I could reasonably choose from right now (finance, economic consulting, RAships) aren’t known for being kind in terms of hours. One job I’m considering averages about 50-60 hours of work per week. Economics graduate school can also be bad in terms of hours, considering the difficulty of courses and how much time creating high-quality research can take. The only real alternative is the public sector, which has its own sets of issues, like getting held up in bureaucracy, public sector pay (especially coming out of undergrad), and more. And so it basically seems like no option I have is great on this metric.
Or let’s try defining success on happiness. But am I going to really be happy anywhere? Private sector options (and finance in particular) are known for their ability to burn out people. Economics graduate programs often have alarming rates of mental health issues because of the pressure. At an hour-long economics infosession I went to, I asked a question about mental health. The panelists got sidetracked for 15 minutes before stopping to remind us of the many good things05 about grad school.
In part, mental health issues in graduate school stem from the fact that “success” is this vague and amorphous (and thus unachievable) goal. There are no checkpoints to reach, grades have no importance beyond passing classes, and all that you’re trying to do is create “good enough research”. Trying to anchor your definition of success to something that is so ill-defined and out-of-reach means that it is near-impossible to feel like you have succeeded.
So how should I be defining success in my life? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want to tie feelings of self-worth to wherever I get into grad school. Even so, I can’t help but feel that I’m just “sheeping” to the natural next steps for me, even as I am making these decisions about what I do leaving college.
The song for this section is “Vienna” (lyrics) by Billy Joel.
This section is structured as a Q+A, haphazardly jumping around different ways that one can interpret meaning, especially as it relates to my thoughts on graduate school, blogging, and my values.
**what does “meaning” mean? **Many, many things.
**does my research matter (or will it, once i start doing “real” research)? **The other day, I was talking to my girlfriend about her experiences in 14.03 (Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy) an introduction to ways that (micro)economists view the world. Her primary critique of economics was that many models very abstracted and separated from the world, and that many of the frameworks, such as the market for lemons, really had little significance beyond economists noting “oh hm, that’s an interesting model”.
I view economics as having two separate “paths”. Path one is a path with research like the lemons paper, made by economists who stay much more in the so-called “ivory tower” of academia. These economists try to deeply understand how the world works, but the things they study are only useful within the field of economics (allowing others to build on your work, perhaps) or helping professors get tenure.
On the other hand, there’s a path of economics research where people focus much more on impacting people. Sometimes, this overlaps with things in the first path (like work by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee that won the Nobel Prize). But sometimes it’s not. Some professors that I’ve talked to have described a “tension” between trying to do work that is respected within academia and work which informs policy and matters to the world. What matters for the world of legislation and governance and policy is not being able to prove that you have truly isolated the causal effect with a clever quasi-experimental design; what does matter is your conclusions being convincing, even to non-economists, and having feasible recommendations to boot.
Straddling the line between these two paths is difficult — but at least it’s possible. And so here’s to making sure my research has meaning.
**why do i blog? **I started blogging this summer after reading Alexey Guzey’s post “Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now”. I’m usually a person that thinks about things by talking about them with other people.06 That was much harder once the pandemic began, and I talked to exceedingly few people on a daily basis. And so to help articulate my thoughts better to myself, I started a blog (after many failed attempts across the years).
Another way of phrasing this is that I want my blogs to have meaning to me. Looking back at my admissions blogs from this year, I’ve tried to make my posts purposeful, not just to the outside world, but to me, whether that is reflecting on the busyness of MIT that I may soon forget, a place to remember cool projects I worked on or my thoughts on applying to graduate school. As Guzey mentions in the blog post that inspired me, actually making yourself write is useful for figuring out your thoughts and for telling people “hey, I wrote this, let me know what you think”. Maybe I’ll look back at these posts and just see an angsty college student trying to figure out their place in the world. Or maybe I’ll look back and see tiny, little things that have grown into things that future-me cares about. Who knows.
**what gives me meaning? **I care about people. The people in my life have inspired me, pushed me to grow, and helped me define how I go through the world. I care about bettering others’ lives, whether through the work I do or the conversations I have with others. I would not be who I am or have succeeded half as much without the people in my life.
I really, really value the connections I have with others, especially when those connections are more than superficial. The first time that I was able to define “things that I value” in a way that didn’t feel superficial and fake was at LeaderShape, whose name sounds like it is a superficial and fake leadership retreat. But when I went to LeaderShape my freshman year,07 was this wonderful 4-day period of introspecting and figuring out difficult questions with others while trying to figure out how to impact the world. (Fun fact: Sal Khan went to LeaderShape, and it was there that he first conceived of Khan Academy. Regardless of what college you are at, I highly suggest looking into if they have a LeaderShape program and attending c: )
Values may be useful as a “framework for living”, but knowing them is hard. The process to figure them out is difficult and involves much soul-searching, not to mention that they change over time, too.
Beyond that, even if I know what my values are, it’s hard to take this abstract idea of something that I value and turn it into actions. It’s not like in every decision, I internally pull up a list of values and go through them in priority order; that would be absurd. Having values is not some laundry list of priorities that I can just check off to see that they’re all satisfied.
So what gives me meaning? I have some ideas. But figuring out how to use that knowledge in my own life is hard.
**will i find research meaningful? **One of my readings for 8.225 (Physics in the 20th Century) was an essay in “Working It Out” by Evelyn Fox Keller, who wrote about her experiences in a physics doctorate at Harvard in the early 1960s, an incredibly sexist and isolating time. I cannot begin to describe her experiences in a paragraph or two, so I’ll quote the end results: “After two years of virtually continuous denial of my perceptions, my values, and my ambitions — an experience that might have then been described as brainwashing, and ought now be called schizophrenogenic — my demoralization was complete … my commitment to physics was over.”
Despite this all, Keller has done amazing things since, researching the links between gender and science and language and more. In the same reading, she writes:
After many years, I have carved out a professional identity very different from the one I had originally envisioned, but one that I cherish dearly. It is, in many important ways, extraprofessional. It has led me to teach in a small liberal arts college that grants me the leeway to pursue my interests on my own terms and to combine the teaching I have come to love with those interests, and that respects me for doing so. It has meant acquiring the courage to seek both the motives and rewards for my intellectual efforts more within myself. Which is not to say that I no longer need affirmation from others; but I find that I am now willing to seek and accept support from different sources — from my friends rather than from institutions, from a community defined by common interests rather than by status.
This particular passage hit me hard. (It’s highlighted in orange, rather than my usual yellow.) I read this in the middle of my graduate school apps, a time where I was deciding where I wanted to apply, how much work I wanted to put into writing essays, and whether I even wanted to go to graduate school in the first place. Perhaps I’m applying to graduate school because I romanticize the idea of being able to make a difference in the world and to make truly novel contributions to economics. But even if I were to achieve that, is that narrow definition of success truly fulfilling? Or is this just the next natural goalpost to try and shoot for, and I’m falling into the trap of being an excellent sheep seeking validation from things I’ve done well at so far in my life? Is it a career that I feel aligns with my values in any way, shape, or form?
In applying to graduate programs in economics, I’ve had to articulate goals about what I want to achieve in a graduate program. And I’ve been able to articulate something reasonable about doing applied microeconomics research to study the impacts of interpersonal connections in labor markets, social networks, education, and more. But while others may ask for these goals, what really matters is if they’re goals I want to pursue. Is this a life that I would find fulfilling and meaningful? It remains to be seen.
**what does “vienna” mean to me? **As I mentioned in Nisha’s end-of-year-Spotify-wrapped-blog, I’ve been making playlists of what I’m listening to every semester (and summer) since coming to college. I strongly associate the music I listen to with memories and people and places and times, so I can sometimes recall the exact moment or feelings I had when first listening to the song. A few examples:
- “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on my freshman fall playlist: Blasting it with my roommates (who I live with again this year!) out our window to unsuspecting Nexties
- “Forbidden Friendship” on my freshman summer playlist: watching fireworks over the Charles during my first (and only) 4th of July in Boston
- “Wildfire” on my sophomore spring playlist: a song + music video a friend showed me in a conversation about the 36 questions that lead to love
- “Streets of London” on my junior spring playlist: the day that we learned we had to leave campus because of COVID-19, I listened to someone play this song on guitar in a lounge in East Campus
Every playlist that I make, I choose to put Vienna, because it always seems to be relevant.
You’ve got your passion, you’ve got your pride But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied? Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
Slow down, you crazy child And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
As this section has (hopefully) demonstrated, I have trouble trying to figure out what is meaningful to me, whatever that means. And trying to do things in pursuit of “meaning” is probably bound to get me lost. Vienna is my personal reminder that whatever meaning I choose to have in life, blindly pursuing it would make me forget to live life in the middle. That life is the moments in between, not just pursuing some definition of success (especially when success is tied to work or a career). Vienna is a reminder that despite everything that I have said in this section about trying to have fulfilling and meaningful careers, I need to remember that life is a lot more than that.
The song for this section is “Seasons of Love” (lyrics) from the musical RENT.
This section talks about different ways to evaluate the time that one spends — passage, money, and productivity — and ends with thinking about what standards we should hold our lives to.
Time is valuable to us because we all are limited by it. Sixteen hours of awakeness (if you sleep reasonable amounts). Introductory economics classes almost universally mention time as the single resource that everyone finds scarce. As RENT puts it, “how do you measure, measure a year”?
Evaluating time on the passage of time itself is not really helpful. I mean, beyond it being meaningless (and tautological), I don’t think I’ve ever been able to evaluate time passing very well. The first week that I was at MIT felt jam-packed with new things. But then the first month of freshman year seemed to happen in less time than that first week. And that first month seemed to pass much slower than my first semester at MIT, or any semester following. This was even more apparent to me this year in quarantine: every day felt like the exact same thing, and 6 months passed in the blink of an eye.
One theory I’ve heard for this phenomenon is that when we have new experiences, those experiences create more memories in our heads, and so the time seems to pass “slower”. The same idea also applies to birthdays: each year we get older, birthdays seem to come quicker and have less significance each time around. I’m pretty inclined to believe this theory, in all honesty. The older that I get, the less everything feels like actively going forward into the future, and more just floating on to the next day.
Some people evaluate time as it compares to money. “Time is money” goes the saying, and economists do actually measure the “time value of money”. A very recent study (Goldzmidt et al., “The Value of Time in the United States: Estimates from Nationwide Natural Field Experiments”, 2020) uses people’s willingness to pay for Lyfts at different prices to find that people make choices consistent with valuing their time at $19 per hour, a number which changes depending on when the Lyft is called (time of day, weekend/weekday), the weather, and more. (See here for a less technical summary of the study). Economists try to in a value on time for many reasons, such as to make a valuation on how costly traffic is (just in terms of waiting times, not even in terms of pollution).
But I am a person first and an economist08 second. I do not go through life computing the value of every single action I take relative to some dollar amount to see if it’s worth it. I go through life making choices based on what I want to do in the moment, what obligations I have, what might be good for future me, and many, many factors.
Examining that idea more closely, there’s some notion that time should be productive and spent well. (Why else would we use the phrase that time is wasted?) But what does productivity mean?
Often, it is “work”: learning new skills, exercising, being a healthy person, doing the things that school or your job obligate you to do. I think that narrowly defining productivity like this is bad. (Wow, what a hot take.)09 If this is your primary metric, then you end up always feeling like you should be doing more, being better at being productive. Since if you don’t work all day, every day, at full 100% efficiency, there’s always more that could be done.
Sadly enough, I’ve felt this bad feeling at MIT a decent amount: feeling bad for doing things just for my own sake, because those things aren’t productive. I’m not saying that MIT is competitive10 in the traditional sense (cutthroat, trying to one-up each other, etc.). But, MIT does sometimes have this feeling of seeing so many amazing and incredible and competent people around you, and you just want to be like them. And so you work very, very hard, sometimes taking many units or otherwise pushing yourself very hard.
Perhaps the worst part about this idea of “productivity” is that objectively, I and many of my peers spend so much time working. A normal week (during non-pandemic semesters) has me shuffling between classes, extracurriculars, psets, projects, and essays, from the time I wake up until the time that I go to bed around midnight. Granted, this all includes hanging out with friends as we work on club tasks, getting distracted by friends as we pset together, and generally procrastinating. I’ve heard from friends at other universities that they dread having to work a full 8 hours every day, but I would look forward to working only 8 hours a day.
And so perhaps we should expand the definition of productive to include “life productive”: things that are valuable but have intangible (or barely tangible) impacts in the moment. Being social, having deep conversations with people, going on walks. Things that make life better.
This more inclusive definition does little to resolve the fact that I am not productive. Every semester, there comes a point where I realize that I’m not living enough to the point that I’m unhappy about it. Why is it so easy to forget to do these things that I find so important to me?
I feel this very strongly in this COVID semester, where it’s impossible to do things like run into someone in a hallway and say hi, or walk back to your dorm with someone and then just end up chatting for a few hours, or you just find someone in the dining hall and sit next to them, or just going outside between classes. I’ve heard this described as “being a student at MIT but without all of the things that make MIT MIT”. I’m largely inclined to believe this, because it is the people around me at MIT that make all of this work worth it.
The phrase “worth it” implies that there’s some underlying value behind the time we spent, something about life itself, that is valuable and is worth pursuing, But what is that? What makes all of the effort we put into life (whether work productive or life productive) mean anything? “Seasons of Love” from RENT has one answer to that question.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets In midnights, in cups of coffee In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure, a year in the life?
How about love? (×3) Measure in love
Seasons of love (×2)
RENT’s answer of “love”, interpreted broadly, is holding your life to the standard of following what gives you joy in the moment. I’ve heard similar advice of “follow what you want to do in the moment” many times throughout my life, and when I’ve followed it, things seem to turn out alright — it got me here, after all.
But as I’ve circled around for much of this blog post, knowing what you want is fundamentally difficult. It’s difficult to figure out notions of what makes something valuable or meaningful. Difficult to know when you’ve hit success. So how can I possibly know that I’m making decisions for the right reasons? How do I know I’m not “sheeping” along in life, choosing an option solely because it’s the natural next step? How can I be confident in what I want out of life?
I don’t know. But all I can do is keep going along and trying to make decisions that seem alright, trying to be aware of all of these potential pitfalls, and trying to answer the big questions that I keep thinking about.
sunset over boston. sep 20, 2020
Thanks for sticking with this blog. I know it’s been a long one.11 If you listened to the songs before each section, yay! If you enjoyed them, yay again c: Here’s a (nearly exactly) hour-long playlist of songs from many genres that fit the same introspective mood of this post, including the songs for each section. If you do listen to it, I encourage you to listen to it in order, not because I really care what order you listen to the songs in, but because one of the songs is broken up into two by Spotify (“The Load-Out” / “Stay”) and they should be listened to consecutively.
There is no conclusion to this post, because I haven’t figured out the answers for myself yet. I suspect I won’t ever know the answers, because the questions aren’t well-defined, solutions aren’t well-defined, and who says there are “answers” in the first place. But hopefully, you’ve got something out of this post: new questions to ask yourself, a different way of looking at the world, or just a few new songs to listen to.