Before I came to college, I thought I was a pretty smart guy. Sure, I knew that there were tons of people smarter than me, and tons of things I still didn't know, but at that time it seemed so far from me that it was for all intents and purposes not real. Looking back now, I suppose that seems little better than a chimp that is proud of being slightly better at slinging shit than another chimp, and boy, did I have a rude awakening when I came to Columbia. I realized what I had already kind of known, and all the people who were smarter than me and all the things I didn’t know were suddenly made very real. The rudest awakening of all, though, was by far Honors Math. The material was tough, sure. Mutao writes on a chalkboard faster than I can talk, true. But most of all, what I struggled with was that others seemed to grasp stuff much faster than me. When we were looking at the same problem, others seemed to make connections I didn’t see and have some kind of intuition for problems that I did not have. It was frustrating, to say the least, and I often wondered whether I was cut out to do math (whatever that means…) and whether others were simply better than me.
Now, though, I think one of the biggest takeaways for me from the past two years of relentless work at Columbia is a reaffirmation of what I had always thought- that result and progress is a direct function of time and effort… I just didn’t realize how much. I realized that intuition and problem solving were (typically) not innate, and the effortless solving of a problem is birthed only by a large amount of effort. Here is the trick- there is no trick, and the only way to build and develop intuition is to do a ton of problems. The way to learn how to learn and read and absorb and do problems is to just grind and practice, and I think a lot of people don’t see that. When I tell people that I’m majoring in math and cs, a lot of people give me a weird look, back away slightly, and say “oh wow, I could never do that, I’m bad at math.”
It seems a very common affliction to fail to see the connection between work and progress in mathematics, but I think this relationship also applies to many other things. Here are some quotes I like:
I think this happens for a couple of reasons. The first is that we tend to compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel, and we think that some are just geniuses, far beyond what we could achieve, because we don’t see the hard work- all we see is the glittering result. The second is just that in general, people are lazy, and we would prefer to see things that way. After all, we get to simultaneously flirt with the potential and hypothetical success we might have had if we were lucky enough, and absolve our own personal responsibility (“I mean, they’re just gifted, right?”). Our culture loves these stories of rapid success- they appeal to us and lets us glorify the story of achievement. We like to believe that one Rocky montage and some rousing renditions of Eye of the Tiger later, we see results and success. We like the Facebook movie because we like the idea that after some eccentric but smart guy spends one night of “hacking” overlaid by a narrator he can make Facebook. We like thinking these people are different, and they are- but the only thing that sets them apart is this: they work harder.
This is dangerous, of course, because this is a false view of things. I especially like this Zen Pencils comic:
We look at the mountains and we are inspired to do great things and believe we are meant for the mountains, and that is great- but we forget that we don’t actually live in the mountains. We live in the valley, and it is the often boring, daily work that defines us.
And a big chunk of that is because of the narrative in our heads- we construct a lovely story about unreachable geniuses and natural talent, and believe there is a fundamental difference between the average and the abnormal, when really the difference is just work.
Our tendency to inaccurately romanticize extends to other things. Before I came to college, I guess I didn’t really know what to expect, but in my mind I had this vague notion of a weird mix of American pie and math camp. What I did know, though, was it was supposed to be “the best four years of my life.” You hear that shit so much from current college students, from well meaning adults, from smiling college counselors, from movies and books and society that you end up kind of believing in. I think a lot of us go to college expecting “the best four years of your life” (not that that’s necessarily bad). Maybe I’m just foolish, but when I went to college, even if it was vague and unsubstantiated, I kind of expected the Garden of Eden at Morningside Heights, where I would be taught by wise inspiring Dr. Coxian professors, learning amazing new things alongside motivated and smart classmates, and just generally having a Good Time. Even though some of that is true, I suppose, this leaves out a really important chunk- college isn’t always like that. There are times when you are stressed, times when you are sad, times when you are homesick, times when you are angry, and times when you are lonely- and that’s normal.
The problem is that because of all the crap our romantic idea of college leaves out, when we’re lonely or sad or upset, people tend to think they’re the only one to feel this way. They think that since college is supposed to be “the best four years of their life,” if they aren’t as fugging happy as a pig in mud the entire time, obviously something is wrong and they’re fucking up somewhere, when in reality, it’s all perfectly normal. Worse, out of fear that other people might be having the good time you were promised, plenty of people think they are alone in feeling this way and aren’t willing to reach out. The same kind of thing happened to me freshman year, and I know tons of people who went through similar things. So I guess my message to recent graduates is this: don’t believe your college counselor or your well intentioned family friend who hasn’t been in college for 20 years- sure, college is great and college is fun, but just because it might be “the best four years of your life” doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t suck sometimes.
Another big problem (maybe one of the biggest) caused by our tendency to romanticize stuff is, unsurprisingly, in romance and relationships. This time I’m going to blame something I am personally guilty for, and I love- the whole genre of romantic stuff out there. Romantic poetry, single formula chick flicks, Disney movies with happy resolutions, quotes about love, love stories that make you feel warm & fuzzy inside, love songs- I dig that shit.
I love Rudy Francisco,
I love love stories, I love that bit in Plato's Symposium by Aristophanes, and I love 500 Days of Summer (so sue me).
I like this stuff because it’s just so beautiful, but caveat emptor- it leaves some really important stuff out. We love romance, we love the tragic star crossed lovers, and we love a good dramatic love story, but I think it just leaves so much of the real stuff out. By itself, it’s not bad to be a romantic (God knows I've always been one) but it becomes dangerous when we start to believe all love has to be the kind of love to burn your goddamn house down or it isn’t love. We like Romeo and Juliet, but it’s not enough for a couple to commit suicide out of a gigantic misunderstanding (is that even love…? They're both 13 years old). In my opinion, it’s not the glamorous, dramatic stuff that’s hard- it’s the crappy everyday stuff that adds up, the little compromises and the give & take that’s tough. The problem with taking all this romantic stuff at face value is that when things aren’t lovely and romantic, and you don’t feel butterflies in your stomach anymore, people think “Oh no! This must be a bad relationship; I don’t love him/her anymore. I have to get out!” when in reality, the secret to a long lasting relationship is this:
I think ultimately the problem isn’t necessarily being a romantic; after all, it’s not bad to be a dreamer. The problem is when we subscribe only to the romantic narrative, and neglect the big important parts of the story that it leaves out. In my limited experience so far, life seldom lines up nicely with the stories in our head. Sometimes life is dirty, life is messy, life is just plain ugly- and the only thing you can do is just see it through. It’s true, things would be easier if we always knew what to work towards, but we’ve all wasted hours of effort on something far from rewarding (grinding fucking lichblooms in WoW) and we all know friends who stay far too long in bad relationships. The hard part is figuring out what you love, and what is worth you putting your effort towards.
It would be easier if stone tablets from God fell from the sky telling you what to do with your life, but that doesn’t happen, and really all we can do is to work and keep trying and hope we find the things that are killing ourselves for. It isn’t always going to be nice and easy, so don’t quit just because things are getting tough- that is normal. I also like this comic from Zen Pencils:
You just gotta fight your way through. Life isn’t beautiful and romantic all the time, and often it is ugly and dirty and difficult and confusing, but strangely- that’s what makes it beautiful, lovely, and so interesting.