Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read most of his books: What the Dog Saw, Blink, and Outliers (which is my favorite). And now I’ve read his most recent book, David and Goliath, a book on the unseen strength and remarkable cleverness of the underdogs of the world. Gladwell’s main thesis for this book is that the Goliaths of the world aren’t as strong as they are perceived to be and that the Davids are not as weak. The Goliath may have an extremely weak spot that the David can cleverly hit. And in many scenarios, when the David is clever enough or stubborn enough or unconventional enough, Goliath is brought down.
As usual, each chapter of Gladwell’s books focus on two or three semi-related stories, but I just wanted to mention one that resonated with me. Chapter Three focussed on Caroline Sacks (a pseudonym) who struggled through completing a science major at Brown University. The tagline for the chapter? “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Gladwell begins the chapter with my favorite subject, art; he tells the story of the Impressionists. Renoir, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro, and Degas were not appreciated in the art community of their time. Their work was viewed as rubbish and not worthy to be displayed in the Salon, the prestigious art gallery of the time. Long story short, the Impressionists started their own gallery to showcase their pieces to anyone interested instead of relying on the acceptance of the Salon. Their little gallery brought in a few people, but it eventually caught the interest of many. They became big (and eventually successful) fish in a little pond.
Enter Caroline Sacks, a young woman who has been interested in science since she was a girl. She excels in high school with A’s in every course. She applies to Brown with University of Maryland as a back-up, and gets accepted into Brown. However, in the fall of her sophomore year at Brown, she receives her lowest grade of a B- in chemistry, after taking the course for the second time. Organic chemistry didn’t fare much better, and before she knew it, she wasn’t excelling anymore, and everyone else around her seemed to be doing much better. Sacks had a taste of being a little fish in a rather large pond, and as a result, lost her interest in science.
So did Sacks make the right choice of college? On paper, yes. But in reality, probably not. In the end, Sacks sacrificed her love of science for the prestige of an Ivy League university. Gladwell compares your typical Goliath colleges, your Harvards, Yales, MITs, Caltechs, with David colleges, usually state schools or public universities. These Goliath colleges are known for their prestige, for their remarkable students, and for their academic rigor (I should know, I go to one). But they do tend to make you feel like a tiny fish in a ginormous ocean. I remember when MIT did a survey on stress my freshman year, and I was actually a little amazed at the results. As a freshman, you may think that you’re the only one who hasn’t accomplished much, but there are about 90% of other freshman who think the same thing. Everyone thinks that everyone else is better, smarter, more relaxed, more accomplished than they are; Theodore Roosevelt was right when he said that “Comparison is the thief of joy”. I encourage you to look at the survey results here, and know that most likely, most other colleges are in a similar boat. With this constant belief that everyone else is better than you, it should come as no surprise when students lose their passion for their major or drop out of college or become depressed if not suicidal. Of course, you could say that they should grow a thicker skin and know that college is not high school and that life isn’t going to hand you success on a silver platter. It’s true, life is hard. Success doesn’t come easy. But maybe one way to at least start to decrease the negative competition (there is such a thing as positive competition) is to not dwell on the supposed success of others. Sure, acknowledge it, congratulate the respective parties, let it encourage your own endeavors, but don’t let it ruin your passion for what you love. This is easier said than done no doubt, but even something as simple as not sticking around after you get your exam back to hear others lamenting over their A- might help. I don’t know, do what works.
I know I’ve definitely questioned coming to MIT. I originally wanted to go to an art or artsy school like Pratt, or MassArt, or Art Center College of Design. The only major thing was that I didn’t want to give up my interest in technology, and MIT was my dream school. Did I make the right decision? Am I in the right major? Is the rigor of MIT going to ruin my passion for Mechanical Engineering and Product Design? I certainly hope not. I thank God for giving me the strength not to give up, for guiding me on the path I’m on now, and for blessing me with the many opportunities I’ve had. So far, I’m loving my major (most of the time anyway), learning what I want to do for my career, and increasing my skills in combining aesthetic design and functional engineering. It’s been a fun ride so far, and a journey that I can’t believe I’m already halfway through. I can only hope and pray and work hard to make sure that I’m not an overwhelmed minnow in a vast ocean.