It’s OK, even here
I never fully signed onto a full-time job at the Massachusetts Tool or Die Company (a nickname we used in the early ’70s). Sometimes, I went entire Sundays without doing any tooling, not even a problem set. Instead, I was fully invested in my student activities: The Tech and the MIT radio station (then WTBS, now WMBR).
As a result, at 1 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1971, I met with my freshman advisor, Professor Anthony Sinskey. He gave me my evaluation sheets, and informed me that my grade report was as expected: four passes and one incomplete, in 18.01.
He was calm and firm. As a freshman, my work-life balance was my academics-activities balance. I understood him to be asking me to reconsider my 80/20 activities/academic split when he said, “You are in the twilight of a mediocre academic career, taking the path of least resistance, just slipping by everything.”
“That can be done, you know. This is really a pretty easy school to slip by, if that’s all you want."
“But what will you be qualified to do if you just slip by? Certainly nothing in mathematics or the natural sciences … It’s very easy here to try to do too much. And unless you’re a genius, your academic performance will suffer. And I don’t think you’re a genius.”
Upon reconsideration, I decided that I was getting more from my activities than my academics, and the most I could do was move to a 70/30 split, which I did.
I didn’t even know if I was qualified to be here. So, I asked Peter Richardson, the Director of Admissions at the time, point blank, “Am I capable of doing the work here?”
“Yes,” he said. “You are an anomaly, but that isn’t relevant to your question. You are the only member of the Class of 1974 whose verbal SAT was higher than their math.” Turns out that was a common anomaly among The Tech editors; it was true of at least two of my predecessors as well.
I asked my mentor, political science senior lecturer Edwin Diamond, if I should quit and go to Columbia or Missouri for journalism.
“Journalists with journalism degrees are a dime a dozen. Journalists with MIT degrees are as rare as hen’s teeth,” he replied. I stayed, collected my degree, and every single journalism job I got in a 30-year career was, in part, because of MIT on my résumé.
You can take a drink from a firehose, but it works better if you step back now and then. If you aren’t in a student activity, join one. I recommend The Tech and WMBR. If you haven’t taken a day off since you arrived, take a day off. Or maybe two. Visit Cape Cod, New York City, the Museum of Science. Ask your friends to join you and help take each other's mind off the grind.
You are not going to turn to your relatives on your deathbed and say, “I wish I’d spent more time doing problem sets.” Feel free to take the path of least resistance. You will still learn, as I did, methods of learning and analysis which will stand you in good stead no matter what you end up doing for a living.
In my case, the Massachusetts Tool or Die Company came close to turning me into a disc jockey. But as it happens, an optimal work-life balance at MIT produced an optimal work-life balance in my life as a journalist — one of the most unlikely careers an MIT student can end up in. It could happen to you, if you let it.
I should note that a 50/50 academics/activities split would have been a literal balance and would probably have been better for me.
Paul E. Schindler, Jr. earned a B.S. in Management in 1974, after serving a term as editor in chief of The Tech. He can be found at psacot.typepad.com.