Choosing to Become Yourself

Source: MIT Admissions blog, Apr 2016

Not long ago, I met with an admitted MIT student, whom I will call Sam, because that is not his name. As we sat on a bench in Lobby 7, Sam told me that he had a problem. On Pi Day, he had been admitted to MIT, which he considered his dream school. A few weeks later, however, he was unexpectedly admitted to another program, which was also a dream, albeit a different one. Sam told me that he was having trouble choosing what to do. He wanted me to help him decide.

… often, the indeterminacy is more fundamental than that.

The problem, for Sam, was not finding the right answer: the problem, for Sam, and for many students like him, is that there is no right answer, only different ones. His two options were both very good, but very different. He would be working with different people, toward a different goal, in a different place, and at a different age. As a result, he would, at the end of either program, emerge a different person. The question — the hard question — was which of those possible persons he wanted to be.

Here’s what I told Sam: I told him that, whichever choice he makes, he’s going to end up a different person. That he can’t know, now, how he will be different, only that he will be; worse, once he is different, he won’t ever be able to really know what would or might have been, because it won’t have been that way.

Here’s another thing I told Sam: these kinds of decisions about your future are rarely correct or incorrect, just more or less well-made. In my opinion, what makes this kind of decision well-made is when it begins not from analysis but from philosophy: i.e., that you start by figuring out what your big-picture goals are, and then attempt to determine what your next steps should be. By “big picture goals” I don’t (necessarily) mean “long-term career objectives” like being a doctor or running for President, although that is sometimes the case for some people. Rather, I mean really big picture, high-level stuff, like what you want to be challenged by, and how much; like whether you are ready for a period of change or need some time to stabilize.

So, when thinking about colleges, I find it’s helpful to look to the seniors or recent alumni and ask yourself: are these the kinds of people I want future-me to be like? Do they think like I want to think? Do what I want to do? Because, while you can never know for sure how any college will shape you, you can often infer a general sense of the mold by seeing how it has shaped others who were once like you. It’s as good a heuristic as anything else in this uncertain process; in this uncertain world. 



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