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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

selecting for obsession by Rona W. '23

This morning, I was Googling Chris to find a photo of him, and was inadvertently reminded, thanks to news reports, that he was once a child prodigy who represented the United States at the International Chemistry Olympiad the summer after ninth grade. It’s easy to forget how smart he is—we’ve known each other forever, and he is my best friend, and when we talk, I don’t feel out of my depth.

Chris is starting his PhD in the fall, making him the latest among my exes to pursue a STEM doctorate degree. My two high school boyfriends are both currently in PhD programs (pure math and chemical engineering); when we were teenagers, I obviously hadn’t given any thought to their plans regarding higher education, and had chosen to date them because we had a decent rapport and shared interests.

“Why are you always dating these PhD types? You’re overindexing on intelligence. Why don’t you go for someone like ‘James’,” my brother Kyler once told me. “James is ambitious, accomplished. He’s self-made.”

But I’ve never been romantically drawn to that kind of person—the Forbes 30 Under 30 type, the industry leader, the high achiever. Someone preoccupied with status, who wears success like luxury cologne.

I didn’t say this to Kyler at the time, but it isn’t intelligence I’m looking for. It’s curiosity.

When I ask Chris how he got into chemistry, he tells me about how, at age six, he really liked this chemistry book—an introductory college textbook—and read it cover-to-cover. In seventh grade, he begged and begged his parents for a lab so he could do his own experiments. He adored the colors and textures. “It felt like magic,” he told me on one of our first dates.

It’s a story that diverges wildly from the backstories of other Olympiad kids I’ve known. My other friends almost always have a story that involves helicopter parents, prep classes starting in second grade, a childhood curated for success. And Chris had all of that, too—he had to play violin, he had to do worksheets in preschool while all the other kids played—but he also had an unrelenting love for chemistry.

Back when Chris and I were dating, his friend called us a “power couple.” It was a well-meaning compliment, but it made us both cringe, because it felt so far removed from reality. It felt like Chris and I were kids who had been obsessive about our interests, and then we’d gotten good enough at those interests to be rewarded with some extrinsic markers of success, but we certainly weren’t trying to appear on magazine covers or increase the number of commas in our bank accounts.

Over-optimized lives—cold showers, early-morning jogs, 500+ connections on LinkedIn—disinterest me. A life built to be seen by others—that’s not what I want.

My friends often say I can’t help but be myself. “You wear your heart on your sleeve,” they say. It’s true, I find it suffocating to cosplay anybody or anything else. I want to spend my time chasing whatever whims I have. I refuse to stifle my obsessions in pursuit of somebody else’s idea of excellence.

And that’s what I find so compelling in other people, too. Reckless curiosity, childlike wonder, a neglected resumé. Intelligence matters, success matters, but perhaps those things arrive later, and perhaps those qualities are not so rare among people I know. But the inner confidence to commit to a passion—that is special.

Cross-posted on Substack here.