Tuesday, April 15, 2014

New Recruits

I'd rather not be that one boring senior who keeps on being nostalgic all the time, but everything going on seems to point through the future toward the past, or through the past toward the future. In robotics I spent about half an hour this afternoon explaining what the programming team does to a new recruit, an awesome trombone sophomore who knows zilch about coding but is eager to learn.

As I talked through the robot control system (which programming team wired), I could see his eyes glazing over. When I talked through the field control system, same phenomenon. This is a very bright kid, but getting thrown an existing system all at once is really, really overwhelming.

And I get that feeling. At the beginning of the year, I looked at the programming leads and thought that with people with that much experience around, I'd be able to contribute absolutely nothing to the team. But luckily, these enlightened fellows implemented the policy that they wouldn't touch the code, that they'd just advise, and let us learn through doing.

I remember thinking that this was my lucky break. I also remember thinking that I was about to screw up really badly and lose my reputation and be marked as a failure and a quitter. Because that's what school trains "smart kids" to do: to play it safe. Not to take challenges. To guard their reputations for faultlessness, because universe forbid you take risks and fail on your way to learning a new skill.

But what kind of way to live is that? When given a huge, looming challenge, the solution that had never led to internal peace is to run away. Whereas getting in there and fighting and making mistakes and getting embarrassed at least are transient shames.

These days, everything I do loops back to the decision I have to make about which university to attend. Caltech v. Stanford. My preference oscillates by the hour, and I need to talk it out with myself, so of course I'm putting it on the internet.

The notorious difficulty of Caltech is the hugest point in its favor: I remember reading in some forum that hiring managers at engineering companies note that Caltech grads are "complete geniuses" and that the core curriculum at Caltech is the equivalent of a mathematician's major requirements at other schools. That the difficulty of being a Caltech undergrad outweighs the difficulty of running a startup.

Whereas my sister, who as a Cal engineering student works regularly with grad students who went to Stanford for undergrad, reports that the consensus is that Stanford engineers are entitled wimps. That Stanford engineering is far, far less rigorous than Caltech's.

But Stanford has a lot going for it as well (I am known for understatement). Broad v. deep. The alumni network is far vaster, they have my first choice major (civil engineering) with several research labs that align very well with my interests, and the focus is upon practical application to real-world problems.

Even the school mottoes reflect this difference. Caltech: the truth will make you free. Stanford: the wind of freedom blows. Power (I equate freedom with power, perhaps simplistically) through discovery/knowledge v. power/choice as a force for change in the world.

Do I want to be an intense wizard living upon a rock in the stormy sea, or do I want to be a knight-errant magician traveling in more congenial climes doing good deeds directly?

When I phrase it like that, I realize that I want to be the sorcerer that travels around casually saving lives. In other words, I want both.

I do not seek to exaggerate, so I won't say that this is the worst feeling I've ever felt, but I will say that it hurts to realize, after they've rejected you (not even waitlisted), how perfect your dream school would have been. Just read these stereotypes:

Stanford has the laid-back, social folks.
Not me.

Caltech has the hardcore science nerds.
An incomplete picture, though somewhat closer. But wait for it:

MIT has the hacker engineers.
Dagger through the heart. Ever since I started reading Paul Graham essays I've identified "hacker" as one of my aspirational self-images. And I want to be an engineer. I realize that I have no right whatsoever to complain about my admissions results, so I'll spend no more time crying about MIT (to my relief, I actually didn't ever cry about the rejection), but...MIT. //aight, done now.

I seem to have strayed from the original point of this post. New recruits. Huge challenges that are best gone at tooth and nail. Ah, yes.

This is a liminal moment (or month, or year) for me. I look toward my past and see people who stand where I once stood, and I feel qualified in advising them, in offering my experiences as a guide. Then I look toward the future and see infinity, see challenges that I do not know if I can overcome, see difficult problems that I want to solve but for which I don't have the right practical or mental tools...yet. Either way I look I get vertigo, which is why much of the time I just buzz out and think about proximate challenges, like prom or AP testing.

I am recruiting others, and I am being recruited. I say "it's doable and you will be fine" and I do not hear myself, and I know I cannot necessarily choose "wrong" but I still want to choose right.


I realize that I haven't written about writing or creativity in a few weeks. Real life is somewhat too real right now, and I'm finding it harder to escape into the wilds of my mind. But I shall do my best.

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