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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

defining the future by Rona W. '23

stop being vague

It seems to me that we swath an imaginary future world in pretty words. We want it comfortable, we want it just, we want it innovative, and most of all, we want it beautiful. VC-talk is speckled with grandiose promises: we are building the [insert-product] that will reshape society. We are disrupting the [insert-field] landscape. Everybody agrees that our current world is not good enough, and we need to strive for change, and we aren’t quite sure how that change will ripple outwards into our global systems, but, well—here’s another pretty word! Hopefully it’ll distract you from asking any more difficult questions.

I suppose we are all shackled to the linearity of time, hence this preoccupation with the future: the only chunk of our existence that has not yet been determined for us. I used to cling to regret—I wish I could go back in time and do MIT all over again, knowing everything I know now—until I truly thought about it and realized that repeating years of my life with full knowledge of future outcomes would be incredibly tedious.

This reverence we give to the future, I don’t think it’s quite deserved. The future is not so different than any other instance of time, except that it has not happened yet, and thus any adjectives may be attached to it. It can be apocalyptic. It can be dazzling. It can be destructive, or it can be beautiful. This attitude reminds me of the conservative attitude towards fetuses. Because it has not demanded anything from us, we can imagine it to be anything we want—how convenient!

I’ve found myself seduced by this easy illusion. I’m not sure what I’ll do after graduation, but I hope it’ll be full of friendship and intellectual exploration. There’s nothing wrong with these platitudes about the future, except that they allow for laziness through vagueness. There is some importance in reflecting upon and understanding which values to prioritize—certainly that is better than wandering in the dark without any well-defined values at all—but values need to be achieved through action. It is good to know where the moon is, but you’ll never get there without building the rocket ship.

I’m probably too young to be giving any definitive advice on how to define the future, so I’ll end this post by discussing the future I imagine for myself and how I want to get there.

Sometimes, younger students—especially those who want to finish college in less than four years—ask me why I’ve been around MIT for so long. My answer is always because I love learning, and I love taking classes, and I love being in this inspiring, intellectual environment. I’m sticking around next year for a master’s degree. This choice has undeniable opportunity costs—I could earn much more working in industry—but actions reflect values. Seizing the future I actually want—instead of the one that will be inflicted upon me—means being okay with having less money or status than my peers.

Yesterday, my friend told me that he thought I was unusual for an MIT student. You’ve taken gap years, you’ve traveled the world, you write so much. Revealed preferences—perhaps I’ve always liked doing what is interesting in the moment, instead of working towards some aspirational future. Except that isn’t quite correct. In choosing to take a year off to work in New Zealand instead of grinding away on problem sets in college, I chose a future where I would be someone with New-Zealand-gap-year experiences instead of sophomore-year-at-MIT experiences. There is no such thing as delaying life; this is already my life. Is my future meaningfully distinguishable from the choices I have already made, the person I already am? Maybe I don’t need to worry about the future so much—the train will always come.

Cross-posted on Substack here.