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David Mazumder, ‘17
For me, music has always been a safe haven, a way to escape the stress and pressure of school life, protected time to make art and express myself with others. Some athletic Brahms or Rachmaninoff can be really cathartic; a Bach cantata or vocal jazz can cut through the fog. That’s why the darkest times for me has been when music-making itself became a chore, another stressful demand along with the rest. The days leading up to a concert we haven’t prepared for enough and flights to tour gigs that haven’t yet materialized have been really difficult to deal with, even to think about.
In moments like these, I’ve found I can always depend on my fellow musicians. These are people I admire for their talents, big-heartedness, and ability to manage everything. Their hugs, humor, and advice have helped me cope with the worst days, and I’ll always be there to help them get through theirs.
“Work hard and try your best” is a saying that parents, friends and peers always tell me, but sometimes I feel as if my peers do well in their academic pursuits without putting in as much time as I do. Am I not as intelligent? Are they just that much smarter than I am? Am I studying wrong? These are a lot of the questions that I ask myself on a regular basis. While we are at Princeton to learn new and amazing things, a lot of Princeton, and college in general, is learning how to learn. As individuals, we should strive for progress over perfection, to appreciate what we are learning and develop an intellectual curiosity. Princeton merely expects us to read some books and answer some questions on an exam to graduate. At the end of the day, there will be no other place where we are given such a great opportunity to learn. Perfection in any form will be there wherever we go, but we shouldn’t lose sight of where we are and the progress we could make by blindlessly pursuing perfection.
While at Princeton, I feel like everyone around me is perfect in every way. They are great at managing their time, great at staying healthy, and great at being involved on campus. For me, I have struggled in almost every possible way. I have overcome almost every struggle I have faced, but the worst part was seeing everyone else do it so easily. Of course, the longer I have been here the more I realize that it was just a mere illusion and that everyone has problems even if it may not seem like it. Even though it may not seem like a lot, this realization has really helped make me realize that we are all in this together.
During my first few months here, I worried consistently that I would never have a group of friends like I did in high school. Most concerning at the time was that I felt I was well behind the social curve. Although things have worked themselves out this year, I felt towards the end of last year that I would’ve been alright even if my social life didn’t fall into place as I initially expected. College and highschool are different, and it isn’t necessary to have an identical group of friends in both places. Princeton can be rewarding and give happiness without this matching. The opportunities and diversity of thought and people here enable this.
Sajal Tiwary '17
Being a senior calls for reflection, but I feel like I’m just hopelessly searching for something to reflect on. Like so many of us, I felt the initial waves of imposter syndrome and doubt, but I couldn’t push myself to overcome them. As a freshman, I never believed anyone when they told me that I belonged here, or that I deserved to be here, or that I was among equals here. That started before I even arrived—I skipped out on OA because I wanted to postpone having to face “acerbic judgment and disparagement from my superior peers”, as pre-frosh SAT-prepping Sajal would say. For two years, I struggled with an unfounded inferiority complex and social anxiety, to the point that I intentionally avoided many things—extracurricular and social—that interested me but would involve introducing myself to others. No one ever did anything to make me feel like this; I was poisoning my own thoughts, constantly imagining that others looked down on me, couldn’t stand me, saw my patchy wannabe beard and tired eyes and then rolled their eyes in contempt. I took no risks, kept my head buried in whatever my gung-ho school-centric mentality ordered me to bury it in, and I watched the Princeton experience play out in front of me, like a paralyzing daydream.
I’ve gotten over that now, and I’m finally always comfortable with who I am (including my gung-ho school-centric mentality). And there’s no doubt that I’ve grown considerably thanks to my colossal mistake. But the cost—many of those amazing opportunities that could’ve changed my life—was too high. The nostalgia that most of us have for Princeton is, for me, overwhelmed by regret. My biggest mistake, though, was not reaching out to anyone for help. Here at Princeton, there are resources from and for all corners of the community, and I know that I could have handled those problems that gripped me from the start if I had just asked for help. Luckily enough, I was soon forced to ask for support. I was finally compelled to talk to preceptors, residential college staff, and career advisers for my plans after graduation, and it suddenly brought me into a new side of Princeton. Hearing “It’s okay to feel scared”, to listen to someone perfectly describe the challenges I faced and my helplessness at facing them—that was invaluable. I embraced candidness á la B-Rabbit in 8 Mile: as an expression of strength, not an admission of failure. If you’re feeling anything that’s preventing you from fully exploring opportunities and challenging yourself during your time here, then please reach out to university resources, to advisers, to other students, to professors, to anyone. Our fleeting time at Princeton is too valuable to be misused; take it from someone who has misused it.
Jay Tyson '76
Reflections on Life at Princeton and a Life of Service
I'm not certain how much young people today might benefit from the perspectives of someone who entered Princeton so long ago that engineering students were still doing all of our calculations on slide rules. But perhaps some of the stresses and challenges of education and of life are still similar enough that some students might glean some benefit from an older perspective. With this in mind, allow me to share a few rambling thoughts.
The move from high school--even a good one--to Princeton is like the move of a big fish in the little pond into a much larger pond with other big fish. It can be a humbling experience. You almost certainly will no longer be the "best in your class"--maybe not even in the top half of your class. But remember that a fair dose of humility, when gracefully accepted, can be a good thing in the long run. It leaves you open to more possibilities.
When I got to Princeton, I was thankful to have come to a place where I could, if I wanted, spend a Friday night studying without being regarded as "weird". Of course, it is good to have extracurricular interests and activities too. Striking a balance between studying and taking time off to do other things is important. I think the mind works best when there are opportunities to step back and see a wider perspective on life. Then re-engage in the studies with renewed energy.
Parental expectations can be challenging. I'm sure this is more true in some cultures than others. I was blessed to have parents who cared, but did not insist, on a particular field of study or grade point average. I'm not certain what to say to those who are not so blessed. Except perhaps that part of reaching adulthood implies a certain distancing from one's parents. Parents should be respected and loved, but you must realize at some point that you have your own path to tread. Perhaps you should share with your parents the advice that Khalil Gibran gave to parents regarding the treatment of their children (from The Prophet):
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies, but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
Some people--classmates perhaps--may want to measure you, and perhaps even judge you, by numbers, such as grade-point-average, or later, by income levels. When I was a boy growing up in an wealthy suburb filled with large comfortable homes, I learned a lesson from three neighbors who lived less than a half mile's distance away. In each case, the man of the household committed suicide. I was too young to be told the full details, but it was enough to make me understand that wealth was no guarantee of happiness. It was a good lesson that I've carried with me for half of a century now.
The songwriter Paul Simon sounded a similar theme when he wrote the song Richard Cory whose lyrics are worth looking up.
Equally good, if a little less dramatic, was the advice of another songwriter, Bob Dylan, who wrote:
"Don't go mistaking paradise
for that home across the road."
Not that wealth, or fame, are always bad. But, like medicine (which is poison in large doses) they can be beneficial when taken carefully and in small doses.
I was never a member of the "in" group in middle school and high school years. It was often painful to be looked down on, but it taught me a valuable lesson in life: "Do not be too concerned with the opinions of others." That freed me to do what I thought was right, regardless of what others might think. It opened the door for me to investigate--and eventually join--a new religion that I had found in high school (the Baha'i Faith) which has provided me with a lot of guidance ever since. Following up on the above theme, I found in the Baha'i writings:
Busy not thyself with this world,
for with fire We test the gold,
and with gold We test Our servants.
A degree of detachment from the things of the world is healthy.
No doubt a lot of anxiety during the college years and beyond is connected to social relations, with the goal of finding a lifetime partner. This was even more difficult for men at Princeton 40 years ago (which, being just a few years after co-education had started, had a 2:1 ratio of men to women on campus). After about a year and a half, I had pretty much given up on the idea of being able to find someone during my college years. (This was, of course, long before the age of computerized match-making services.) "God," I said, "if You want me to find someone, You are going to have to help, 'cause nothing is happening here." Little did I realize at that time that there was a young woman in north Jersey who was having a nearly identical conversation with God. It's funny how, sometimes when you let go of something you were desperately trying for, the situation seems to turn itself around. We met late in my sophomore year, and were married right after graduation. We celebrated our 40th anniversary just last month.
Shortly before graduation, I received a nice job offer from the engineering giant, Bechtel, to assist them in designing nuclear power plants. But I turned it down and we went instead to West Africa, to apply my engineering skills toward road construction projects. Returning to the USA after four years, I spent a couple of years in NYC doing traditional structural engineering design before we decided to take a volunteer position managing projects for the restoration of historic sites at the World Center of the Baha'i Faith in Haifa, Israel. It was a wonderful experience. After seven years we returned to NJ, where I worked for several years doing construction safety inspections for an insurance company. Not much technical challenge there, but I'm convinced that the system of unannounced construction-site inspections, and the resulting recommendations for safety improvements, does save lives. My next phase was more technically challenging--starting a non-profit self-help housing program, which provided the training and supervision to enable low-income families to build their own homes. It went well for a few years before the political challenges of providing low-income homes in affluent suburban municipalities brought it to a halt. I continued to do engineering work in land development for residential and commercial development for another decade and then switched to solar development, which is what I do currently. None of it has been terribly lucrative, but, together with my wife's income, it has been enough to put our two daughters through good colleges and get them well-launched in their lives, and have enough saved for a decent retirement.
I'm always pleased to be able to look back on the places and people that I've helped in one way or another. Personally, I'd rather have those memories than a large house, fancy car or yacht or other such things. There is something more enduring about the satisfaction that comes from having helped people.
I had an interesting conversation at my recent 40th reunion. One of my classmates, hearing my stories of time spent in Africa and in Israel, as well as similar tales from another classmate, said "Wow, you guys have done so much! All I've done is go to med school and establish myself in a medical practice." I'm sure that most people would say he had done very well. Even I might tend to agree. No doubt he has helped a lot of people too. But perhaps, as is often said, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." There's a time and a place for ambition. But at some points, there should also be a place for contentment and gratitude for the opportunities--of all types--which life has given you.
I suppose, too, that one's outlook depends, to a large degree, on the larger context in which one views life. For those who tend to see life as operating only on a physical plane, I can understand how the ups and downs of the academic world might seem to have huge consequences, which prompt a corresponding emotional response. For those who see their life span in this world as being just a part of a larger whole, it is perhaps easier to take the vicissitudes of fortune in stride, and not become too elated when fortunate things happen, nor too despondent when unfortunate events occur--knowing that the latter can often presage a larger good.
And to anyone whose mind is not made up on whether there is a spiritual dimension to life, I would encourage them to look into the question, for I think there is plenty of evidence in favor of such a perspective--much of it having come to light since the beginning of the 20th century.
"In 2008 at 22 years old, I quit tennis and my world ended. Tennis had been my life for 17 years, but after I quit, a simple question like “What do you do?” sent me deep in to confinement: physical, emotional, spiritual...I felt like a wounded soldier discharged from battle, someone who was suddenly stripped of her duty, given a new identity and asked to be happy, immediately; someone who was expected to figure it all out and to blend in, after years of living on the fringe. "
Read Neha's full story published in Sports Illustrated: http://www.si.com/tennis/2015/08/13/neha-uberoi-life-after-pro-tennis-se...
I think something specifically like coming to Princeton as well as other top-tier Ivy League schools, you have this idea that the people going to those schools have everything “figured out.” People think college is a learning experience and you figure out who you are. There’s the feeling that since you got into this school, you have your lives figured out and we don’t expect to go through any transformation, which is patently untrue – for me, at least. I changed a lot as a person and I’m not even done with freshman year. So I think the advice I would give to any pre-frosh now is that when it comes to changing as a person and changing your priorities, your outlooks, your expectations, and your conceptions of yourself…don’t fight it. That was something I did for awhile – “I don’t want to be this person” or “I don’t want to be who I think I’m becoming” or “it’s bad to be this way” – and hiding yourself gives you a headache, you’re just beating your head against the wall. I think it’s best to accept that going into college, you don’t know all the answers, and college is a very very very different environment, truthfully, in great ways and…not-so great ways. You just have to learn that who you are is going to change and you’ll change for the better and everything will be ok.
One thing I’d do differently about freshman year, and something I’m looking into for sophomore year, is caring less about schoolwork. Because in high school it mattered, you had to get straight As…but in high school, you don’t, and it’s also way harder to get straight As. My goal for sophomore year is if I can pull a Bs, I will have won…I will have won the semester. Because especially for next year, I’m looking forward to getting involved with even more theater and do more with my life that isn’t schoolwork, because it’s the sort of thing where getting Bs in college means you still learned. If I’m thinking of college as prep for my future, which it honestly is, I can still learn what I need to know to go to grad school or become effective in the workforce, and it’s not reflected in all As, it’s reflected in getting Bs, it’s reflected in passing…and I feel like if I’ve learned, I should treat that as a victory. If I could do freshman year over again, I would not come in expecting, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna come in, kill college, get all As.” I didn’t and it was a stressful for awhile, but I’m coming to realize that grades are not as important…I think it’s a matter of adapting to your environment. And you know, hindsight is 20/20. If I could do it over again, I would definitely care a little less about grades.
About a month ago when I’d been having a hard time and everything came to a head at the worst possible time and I couldn’t really deal with my life the way it was going at the moment, I found myself leaning on my friends in ways that I hadn’t and opening up to them about what my struggles are. I felt like I hadn’t really done that before because I sort of felt like they didn’t understand because they’d never seem to be having the same issues I had, but when I talked to them, they said “Oh, I feel that way, too. It’s ok, we’re all on the same boat…” When you think of the culture of “effortless perfection,” you sort of, or at least I when I hear that phrase, think of it as “damaging from afar,” sort of looking up to people and saying “I wish I could be that person.” But it’s also damaging on relationships with your friends because I feel like people feel the need to be perfect in front of their friends and not display any weaknesses in their relationships, and I think that’s really really problematic…not only judging yourself off of some “ideal,” but also judging yourself off of your friends, which is just not conducive to anything good. So I definitely saw the culture of “effortless perfection” and felt it, and it sort of takes awhile to wipe that from your brain. I know it’s not true…I know everyone has issues, but it still takes time for that to sink in.
“Stressed with school?” a friend of mine asks me. “No,” I say, with what I hope is a disarming smile. I’m not lying, because he only asked about stress related to academics.
He asks about how my thesis is going, and I tell him about all the hours I spent over Winter Break and Intersession cleaning my dataset. “I don’t really care about my thesis,” I tell him. Why would you spend so much time working on it if you don’t care that much about it? I can see the question in his eyes, but I pretend I don’t.
What he doesn’t understand is that not caring about something doesn’t mean I don’t have any motivation to work on it. In fact, I have a lot. Schoolwork, extracurriculars—they are all an escape from the non-school-related stress in my life. Over Winter Break, when I reach the point where I cannot stand to listen one more time to another round of hostilities thrown from my father to my mother and then back again, I reach for my headphones and lose myself in contemplating codebooks, long Excel sheets, and impersonal numbers. Over Intersession, I plead thesis to avoid spending much time at home, and I work diligently on it to drown out any residual sorrow from Winter Break.
I don’t tell him that most of my heart lies back home, not here at Princeton. I don’t tell him that probably every third time I go back, my father threatens to harm himself. He is always melodramatic and always says the same thing—I could probably recite the script with him. When my father tells me this, I know what he is really saying is, You are a terrible daughter. If you were nicer, I wouldn’t have to be mean to you. My mother doesn’t take his threats seriously. She has known him longer than I have, so I suppose that means I shouldn’t take him seriously, either. A part of me indulges fear, anyway.
I don’t tell my friend any of this, or any of the other hundred reasons I have trouble sleeping at night.
Tags: loneliness, stress, anxiety, sadness, baggage, dealing with problems at home
I am average. Or rather, I have always received mediocre scores in academics in Princeton. And I am fine with it. However, due to my ultra-nerdy personality, people always assume that I am excelling in academics. Further, I like to challenge myself academically by taking tougher classes, which means that I spend a considerable time trying to keep up in school. But this just means that people further assume that I am doing well in school.
However, after changing my perspective towards life at Princeton multiple times, I have finally found happiness, satisfaction and inspiration at Princeton, and have maintained it all through the past semester. Even though I have fared even worse academically, and my extra-curricular life is pretty much absent. I find my academics intellectually engaging, and I am happy with my work and with unstructured free time.
I have written this piece to let you know that the ultra-nerd who you assume is super-smart isn't necessarily doing well academically. And also that it isn't necessary to be doing well in what you love to be happy. A shift of perspective means that you can be happy just doing what you love without excelling in it.
Tags: passion, self-assurance, happiness
Matt Blazejewski '17
Tags: loneliness, stress, connecting, and sadness
Stacey Huang '16
Fighting Imposter Syndrome and Finding My Confidence at Princeton
When I was a freshman, President Shirley Tilghman stood on the stage in McCarter Theater and told us, a crowd of alert and excited newly enrolled students: “If you’re wondering whether you belong here, you do. We don’t make mistakes.”
I wanted very hard to believe that. I was in awe of all of my classmates who seemed so talented and brilliant. I loved talking to them, but at the end of the day, I felt inadequate. I spent a lot of time wondering whether President Tilghman’s words really applied to me.
Classes brought with them a crushing sense of inadequacy. Forget Electrical Engineering—I couldn’t even score well on my midterm in basic Physics Mechanics. I thought I understood the examples and could work out the problems, but there was always some careless mistake here or there, an assumption I had missed, a connection I had failed to see.
Engineering is not a particularly forgiving major in that respect. People tend to think it requires a great deal of natural talent to succeed, as shown by Princeton Philosophy Professor Sarah-Jane Leslie. As a result (and in addition to fields such as philosophy and computer science), engineering tends to discourage those who don’t believe they match up to the labels “genius” or “brilliant” (who, interestingly enough, are often women).
And I definitely didn’t feel like a genius. I had always pushed forward by working as hard as I could, but I felt like I was at my limits. Diving into research my freshman summer was a relief. I didn’t have to compete with other people for a grade. With no harsh deadlines and competition, I learned faster and fuller than I had in any of my classes. For the first time, I felt like my efforts were worth it.
Still, research brought a new set of challenges. Careless mistakes in the lab had real consequences. There were real engineering considerations that couldn’t be solved only using equations. Despite my age, I couldn’t help but contrast my clumsiness to the fluidity and poise of the graduate students.
You’ve probably heard of the term “Imposter Syndrome”: the feeling that your own successes are not yours. You worry constantly that others will eventually “discover” your true unaccomplished and unintelligent self. I had suffered from those kinds of thoughts throughout high school and coming into Princeton, I always questioned myself and feared I would fail. Although my successes in research began to mitigate those doubts, they still hovered over me like dark clouds.
Maybe one thing that helped me start to overcome those thoughts was that “the worst” did happen. My adviser was on the panel to evaluate my research presentation in sophomore year, and he threw a curveball during the Q&A session. His question touched on basic concepts that hadn’t even occurred to me. I faltered when my answers came short of his expectations. As much as I thought I had prepared, I simply didn’t know.
After that event, I felt defeated—as if my adviser would realize how daft I was and give up on me. For a while, I felt terrible when I’d meet with him, fearing that he was disappointed because of the presentation. But he didn’t stop helping me and giving me new research opportunities. I was motivated even more to make up for my previous mistakes. There was a sort of freedom in having already messed up—it gave me permission to ask for help when I felt confused. The dark clouds of doubt began to thin.
I wish I could say I’ve completely overcome my self-doubts. I still wrestle with these invasive thoughts that “I’m not smart enough”— thoughts that I recognize are useless, but sometimes your mind gets stuck on things that don’t matter. Nevertheless, engaging in research has helped me develop a realistic sense of my abilities and limitations. And having found that niche, I’ve come to think that perhaps President Tilghman was right: maybe I do belong at Princeton, after all.