“I basically decided to be Robin Hood between the Circles and the Squares.”
“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
“For the last time, I’m NOT the Mafia– okay, fine, I didn’t want to do this, but…I’m the Prostitute.”
These were among the many memorable lines I heard over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in the Wonderland Conference Center in Sharon, Massachusetts. (Just to put doubts at rest, the last one was the result of an accusation in the classic role-playing game, Mafia, with a twist– other fake characters were added, like the “Prostitute,” who serves as an inspector of the Mafia. 🙂 ) The Center, a wonderfully home-y lodge with double rooms, a blazing fireplace in the lounge, and the most delicious, freshly-cooked food, is nestled in this vast wooded area that overlooks a gorgeous lake– the very picture of serenity. It was in this setting that I experienced the indescribable space, time, and event that is MIT’s annual LeaderShape Institute.
As a back story, the LeaderShape Institute was developed at the University of Illinois in 1986 and came to MIT in 1995. The curriculum of LeaderShape may have changed since then, but the overall vision of LeaderShape– to create a just, caring community in which people can identify a leader within their true selves– has definitely not.
The first thing you should probably know is that everything about what I’m about to describe is completely cliche and completely original at the same time. Cliche– because every leadership conference, when you get down to the details, essentially has the same content (though I will still argue that this was a bit different). Original– because the structure of LeaderShape content, the personalities of the students participating, and my own personal experience of reflection and introspection are never reproducible.
What LeaderShape gave me (and why, if you are a college student, you should not miss an opportunity to participate):
1. Space to reflect- Before LeaderShape, if you were to have asked me which is more important, time for yourself or time with other people, I would have very clearly said other people. With the stress of academics and a new collegiate environment, I had become extremely dependent on the people around me for my mental and emotional sanity. I didn’t recognize those times when I would just feel so overwhelmed that I’d shut myself up in my room until I figured everything out as my need for “alone time.” But two things about LeaderShape– the lack of significant internet/phone connection and the verbal, spatial, and temporal encouragement of reflection– suddenly grabbed a hold of me and forced me to just think, alone. There’s something very powerful about lacking technology and a substantial way to communicate with people who are not physically present. It’s almost a relief, an excuse to not have to be always present, always responsive, always accountable. Most significantly, in those 6 days, I did something I had not done since coming to MIT but which had always been a significant part of my life: journaling.
2. Structure: Family Clusters- There were 54 MIT students participating in LeaderShape, and in addition to that 15 more student co-facilitators (students who had participated in LeaderShape before), cluster facilitators (faculty and administration of MIT), and directors of the program. Fifty-four is not an enormously large group, and most of the activities we did probably could have remained in that size. But they didn’t. In fact most of the activities involved a different subset so that by the end, I found a way to interact with every single person there. Still, this can be intimidating, and the winning characteristic of LeaderShape is the idea of a Family Cluster. Each Family Cluster consisted of about 9 students, 1 student co-facilitator, and 1 cluster facilitator. We met at least once in this group each day, sometimes more than once. Because of the smaller setting, the explicit space in which I could feel comfortable, and the inherent understanding that everyone here wanted to share themselves and hear your own story, the clusters became a family. I know, it’s incredibly cliche to believe that I somehow suddenly understand these people, having only been with them for 6 days, but I know the level of my own experiences, opinions, and insight I shared with this group over these days was probably the same as what would take me several months to share with someone I am just beginning to get to know. The fact that on the very first day we each shared “our stories,” everything we wanted each other to know about us, on a flip chart suddenly brought everyone up to speed– it gave us all a context to know and appreciate each other. We joked around for the rest of the week that if only we could carry around the “flip charts of our life” everywhere when we meet people, it would be so much easier to break that initial barrier.
These Family Clusters are powerful things. I saw people I know do things they never would have done: a shy, quiet student firmly expressing her opinion, or my deathly-afraid-to-sing-in-public-even-though-she-has-a-gorgeous-voice friend provide most of the musical background for their inspirational skit. Even in my own case, as we wrote down and shared our GAG for the week (“Going Against the Grain”- essentially a statement of how we were going to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone this week and how our family clusters could help us achieve that), I didn’t think that I would actually achieve mine. I wrote down that I wanted to not only learn the names of everyone there by the end of the week, but that I wanted to introduce myself and make my own self memorable. This stems from the fact that my easy way is to simply learn based on observation, by sitting in the background. Yet this does nothing to further a relationship. It might seem weird to many of you that introducing myself is one of the hardest things for me to do, but it’s true. In a way, it’s putting myself out there– it’s inherently making a statement that it’s worth getting to know me. If I enter a group, it’s taking the time away from someone else’s discussion to emphasize my own presence. And that to me is scary. But knowing that there was a group of 10 other people who were keeping tabs on me throughout the week, who knew that this was my goal and wanted to help me achieve it made it easier, possible, and so completely worth it.
3. MIT-ness- The most significant drawback of most leadership development programs is the lack of a real application to one’s own life. Sure this experience is amazing when I’m extracted from my daily routine, but what does all of this “feel-good nonsense” actually do for me? How do I actually use it? LeaderShape achieved this for me in several ways. First, the administrators, faculty, and directors lived and breathed MIT into everything we did. Given that this was the one factor that tied all of us together, and most of us would be going back for at least another year, visualizing the support, resources, and people at MIT who reflected leadership in the community was not difficult. And that was another thing– unlike most summer programs where you become extremely close to a group of people and then say good-bye only to ever communicate with them again via Facebook, I would be seeing all of these people on campus. They actually lived within a two-mile radius of me, and since coming back from LeaderShape, I have already seen my new friends several times. 🙂
Even more significant, however, was that LeaderShape led us through the a process that is critical for any leader: articulating a vision and creating an action plan to achieve that vision. This process exemplifies the necessity for any leader to be able to both think big (have a “healthy disregard for the impossible”) but also think practical and specific. One of the most inspiring experiences I had all week was seeing all of the students’ visions articulated and posted around the room. All sorts of issues ranging from educational initiatives to sustainability programs to improved mental health endeavors were in the minds and hearts of my peers, and I felt enlightened, realizing that so many in my community have such broad dreams. But like I said, ultimately it comes down to the application to one’s own life, and LeaderShape worked for me because it showed me that these visions don’t simply have to remain visions. We heard stories of students in past years who had articulated their visions at LeaderShape in the same room that I was sitting in, created an action plan, and actually carried it out. As MIT students, we had already seen the fruits of their vision: Relay for Life on campus, an initiative that exposed high school students in Africa to science and technology, a service trip over Spring Break, to name a few. Simply knowing that through LeaderShape, students before us, students like Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, had discovered how to use their skills made it a little easier to dream, a little easier to envision our better futures.
LeaderShape works, not because it attempts to make you into someone you’re not, but because it encourages your true, real personality to come out in a way that allows you to lead yourself. It works not because of some extremely unique, one-of-a-kind well-kept secret, but because every participant there wants it to work– and every participant inherently wants it to work because it’s not propagating some foreign entity. LeaderShape is a mirror held up to each individual so that in this experience they see their own reflection, their own personality, and their own visions. After all, leadership is only sustainable when it’s 100%, true, natural and authentic.
This authenticity factor is often the single barrier between success and failure, and LeaderShape forced me to recognize areas in my own life where I had not been completely authentic and could see the disappointing results. In all of the meeting new people, sharing, and opening up, I was forced to learn a very important lesson: the importance of the willingness to be vulnerable. Showing your true self is inherently making you vulnerable to the world’s remarks, and so many times I realized that this had made other misinterpret my behaviors and not feel open enough to me, which I also misunderstood as a closed-mindedness on their part. Now this would have been profound enough if LeaderShape had simply helped me realize this, but the way I know an experience truly touched me is when it not only pervades my thoughts during the experience, but continues to affect both thought and action afterwards. The day after I came back from LeaderShape, I was working in my lab, sitting across from a freshman who had also just started in the lab. We had exchanged some pleasantries before, but I had never really engaged her in any conversation. But then again, this was my general attitude toward such things– don’t establish yourself too heavily, just do my work quietly and don’t waste my time trying to be liked. Besides, what if she didn’t like me? On this day, however, as I was packing up my things to head out for lunch, I started to walk out of the room, when I suddenly stopped. How had I assumed she wouldn’t like me? And how did I assume I wouldn’t like her? That we wouldn’t have anything in common to talk about? That a sit-across-from-each-other relationship doesn’t really mean anything? And the most LeaderShape-inspired thought: how had I assumed that I would not love to hear about her life experiences and she would not love to hear about mine, if I gave her a chance? I immediately spun around, and after hesitating for a second, asked her whether she wanted to join me for lunch. What resulted was an amazing conversation about all sorts of things I had NEVER expected to share with her– it’s important to also note that my lunch also just seemed to taste that much more delicious that day 🙂
LeaderShape may have only been 6 days, but it’s up to me to make it last for the rest of my life. Nor is this even close to describing the experience in its entirety. I wrote this post over the course of 5-6 days, not because of the length, but because it was just that difficult. After an amazing, perspective-shifting experience, I have tried my hardest to give you the most holistic, realistic description of what I went through. Still, I can in no way do justice to the numerous conversations, stories, and moments of laughter that were shared between us over those six days. If only everything had a word. Let’s see where it takes me.
Silence. Profound, real and enveloping. Legs crossed on the floor, hands tightly folded in my lap. I glance to my left to my friend–ready? I look ahead to the idol of the Goddess Saraswathi, holding her veena. Taking a deep breath together, we sing.
This semester, I finally understood what it means to truly love and hate something at the exact same time. I finally experienced the feeling of wanting to stay in a place forever and simultaneously wishing that I could escape and never ever return. MIT–the quintessential paradox.
Now that it’s over, it’s hard to relive or even re-describe the sense of drowning in tasks, expectations, and circumstances beyond my control. It’s not even a need for control; it’s the experience of feeling as though literally anything could happen. In the past, I have always been pretty good at overestimating difficulty. I have found old journal entries before I entered high school in which I have elaborately described all of my worries in a sort of girlish anxiety. And although there was indeed a steep curve between middle school and high school, my high expectations eliminated any sort of shock factor. Same goes for senior year of high school to freshman year of college. But going into my sophomore year, suddenly the same course load with the same extra-curricular activities became ten times more unmanageable. I cut back on some of the things I enjoyed, like dancing and singing. I slowly began to lose control. My life directed me, instead of the other way around.
Every year, in October, a Hindu religious festival, called Navarathri, occurs over the span of nine days. The festival is dedicated to the divine power of women, which takes the form of several different goddesses. Traditionally speaking, the festival manifests itself in South India through daily get-togethers in neighbors’ households where the women will offer prayers to the goddesses, sing devotional songs, and eat delicious food. When I was at home, this meant going to nearly 20-30 houses in the span of a weekend, finding a song to sing at each person’s house, and plenty of homework in the car. At MIT, though, suddenly, I was in a position to wonder what exactly I wanted to do. Considering that at home the hassle of going to everyone’s houses usually put me in a pretty stressful mood, my first instinct was to continue what I had been doing– in other words, study, hang out with friends, etc. Nor have I ever been an extremely religious person. Spiritual, yes. I believe deeply in the value of looking into myself, and that there is a transcendent quality to the soul, which perhaps links itself to some cosmic, divine power. As to the specific ceremonies, the actions that make up an organized religion, I should do what makes me feel good and what my upbringing suggests is good for me.
Normalcy pervaded the first day of the festival. Usual classes, usual dining hall, usual homework. By the evening, though, I itched with restlessness. Maybe I should do something special, one part of me thought. But I have work to do, another part of me thought. I looked on the top shelf of my desk. There stood a beautifully carved idol of the Goddess Saraswathi, the goddess of music and knowledge. I distinctly remembered the tears glistening in my grandmother’s eyes as she gave it to me after I sang for her– in a choked voice, she told me the gift was the most appropriate for a girl in whose voice sits Saraswathi herself. Granted, she’s severely biased, but the affection with which the idol was given to me compelled me to take it with me to college. As I looked up at the idol, I realized that I didn’t want to sit at my desk. I didn’t want to stare at my computer screen. I grabbed my phone and called my friend to ask if she wanted to join me.
Half an hour later, both of us sat in front of the idol. As I sat with my hands folded and opened my mouth to sing, with my eyes closed, there was a moment which I think occurs very rarely–a moment of understanding, or realization, of the significance of an experience– a moment which usually comes only in later reflections.
It was the first time in a while that I had done something from my past completely and utterly for myself, because I wanted to. For nearly a year, I had stopped studying Carnatic (South Indian Classical) music, which I had learned since the age of five. I had let everything else, everyone else, tell me what was important. Even now, I wasn’t even singing a particularly challenging song– it was a simple devotional prayer.
At that very moment I didn’t understand. It took another few months, winter break away from campus, to realize that what I had done in those nine days was take charge of my life in a very small way. This carving away of time forms a passion to be created, nurtured, and achieved.
It is possible. If I truly want to pursue something, I can and will. Time will be on my side. Wait and watch.
After a long semester, seamless days at home with family, huddled in the warmth and protected from the biting cold, are more than anyone can ask for–each day holding the culmination of movies, couch-sitting, and overflowing plates of food. The holidays tend to bring out those warm feelings in each of us, inspiring reflection. In these past few days, my mind has wandered from one end to another, reflecting upon my academics, my loving family and relatives, my new friends who have become yet another family, and where I want this new year to take me– the good and the bad of the past year, what to bring forward, what to leave behind. This year, my mom indirectly helped me out a bit with these reflections.
Like many others in the modern day and age, my family still “celebrates Christmas” despite the fact that we are not Christian. We still put up a beautifully green, ornamented (fake) tree with train tracks around it, put presents underneath the tree (I mean, Santa puts presents underneath it), and of course, exchange them in grand excitement on Christmas morning. Even though I am almost twenty-years-old, I still feel like a little child when I see gifts under the tree. And although my brother, my cousin sisters, and I may not have imbibed the religious significance of it all since we were young, there is still a sense of inherent gratefulness and the importance of the family around us. This year, however, my mom decided to step in and bring us a little bit closer to the meaning of Christmas.
Beyond the usual gifts (among other things, clothes and various trinkets for me, a tennis racket for my brother), both of us found at the bottom of our bags a small slip of paper with the big words, “COUPON,” written at the top. “This coupon can be redeemed for a gift of your choice after 25 hours of service in the year 2013. Choose your form of service with discretion and a good heart!”
Not that it was an original gift or something– there are plenty of stories of service-related gifts, you know, with the intention of rekindling the Christmas spirit. But it was the first time my mom had ever attempted something like this, and when I looked up at her, she said, “I thought it would be a good idea, to take a break from all of the materialistic gifts.” Now with another reason to find a meaningful service opportunity, a normal Christmas was transformed into a path of personal fulfillment.
Meanwhile, back to the board games, movies, and card games that are filling these amazing holidays. 🙂 Merry Christmas!
It’s 9:02 pm. Friday night. I’m in college. No I’m not at a party. No I’m not eating out. No I’m not walking into Boston for fun (ha, “fun”). I’m sitting at my desk, with a ridiculously long list of things to do and a weekend too busy to do them. Yes, yes, I understand how pathetic this is, and it is for this reason that I am now blogging instead of continuing to tackle this list–not that this would be considered any less pathetic, but I’ll work with what I got.
After a summer full of exciting, worldly travel, in some ways coming back to MIT is a way to slip back into a routine lifestyle. The p-sets, exams, activity groups, and friends to hang out with, all on my mind while I scurry through the Infinite has ingrained itself so deeply within me that sometimes I hardly remember there is a world outside MIT. But that’s exactly the other side of it as well: MIT is like its own world. It’s this large, complicated system with each of its parts, and the parts within the parts, working self-sufficiently in harmony. I heard a story from a friend (a senior) the other day who had been talking to a freshman who was describing his dream research opportunity with an MIT scientist and professor. It turns out this professor was my friend’s freshman advisor. He would be meeting with him the next day. “MIT,” he said, jokingly. “Where legends walk.” He speaks the truth.
I thought starting my second year would just be a repeat of last year–something that might grow stale with overuse. Yet, the exact opposite is now happening. My life here is extremely familiar to me, but new classes, new resolutions must be carried forward. It’s easy over the summer in a new place with new people to start new things, like blogging or reviving my dance practices, but what really matters now is whether I can take that with me into my normal reality. As can probably be seen with my posting history, that hasn’t worked out too well for blogging in the past week or so, as I moved in and got settled. The goal is to make that change. The goal is to learn from last year, throw out the bad, keep the good, and bring in the better.
So in honor of this beautiful world I now inhabit for the second year, I’m going to start a new blog post series dedicated to MIT. I haven’t ironed out all the details yet, but know that each week you will get yet another glimpse of this magnificent institution and the people who make it that way. Yes, even when I’m being eaten alive by work, with all of my exams in a span of 3 days, and every club demanding my time and effort, even when I actually hate my life, I still call this place a magnificent institution. In fact, as twisted as this may be, it might even be because of all of it. Also the latest QS university rankings don’t seem to disagree with me, so I think I’m alright. I hope I can impart at least a little bit of these emotions to you.
I also hope I can experience the thrill of crossing everything off my list by the end of this weekend. Off to writing a speech on classical rhetoric for me!
A few days ago, I began the intimidating process of packing for college. To be fair, it is infinitely easier and less stressful the second time around. As I perused my bookshelf to decide which books (that I will not have time to read) I should take, I came across a particular one that brought forth a whole storm of self-realization. The book is called StrengthsQuest: Discover and Develop Your Strengths in Academics, Career, and Beyond, by Donald O. Clifton, Edward Anderson and Laurie Schreiner. A gifted education counselor had given me this book in my sophomore year of high school, claiming that it was a nationally renowned book that was even used in the corporate world to bring out the best in people. (Sure enough, my mom had used it, giving it the immediate stamp of approval.)
The basic premise of the book was that for too long in education the paradigm has involved identifying childrens’ weaknesses and then working to improve them. Instead, claim the authors, studies have shown that identifying a child’s strengths and figuring out how to best leverage them produced much better results. Additionally, the book included a code to enter an online test, a “StrengthsFinder” to discover your “Top 5.” Of course, I had taken numerous tests like these before and did not really expect this to reveal anything life-changing, but I continued anyway. After the test, the site spit out my top 5, and I had to read the description in order to “affirm and celebrate” my talents. Here’s what I discovered as my top 5 talents:
Learner-“You love to learn…You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you… It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you…are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one…The outcome of the learning is less significant than the ‘getting there’…. The genius of the Learner talents is that you not only love to learn; you also intuitively know how you learn best.
Input– “You are inquisitive. You collect things…Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing, it is often hard to say…but who knows when they might become useful?.. you really don’t feel comfortable throwing anything away… It’s interesting. It keeps your mind fresh.”
Focus– “’Where am I headed?’ you ask yourself. You ask this question every day… you need a clear destination. Lacking one, your life and your work can quickly become frustrating. And so each year, each month, and even each week you set goals… Your Focus is powerful because it forces you to filter; you instinctively evaluate whether or not a particular action will help you move toward your goal… This makes you an extremely valuable team member…The genius of Focus talents is in your intense concentration on one task. Your single-mindedness enhances the speed and quality of your performance.”
Competition– “Competition is rooted in comparison. When you look at the world, you are instinctively aware of other people’s performance… No matter how hard you tried, no matter how worthy your intentions, if you reached your goal but did not outperform your peers, the achievement feels hollow… You like contests because they must produce a winner. You particularly like contests where you know you have the inside track to be the winner. Although you are gracious to your fellow competitors and even stoic in defeat, you don’t compete for the fun of competing. You compete to win…The genius of Competition talents lies in your ability to stimulate yourself and others to higher levels of performance.
Significance– “You want to be very significant in the eyes of other people. In the truest sense of the word, you want to be recognized…you want to be known and appreciated for the unique strengths you bring…An independent spirit, you want your work to be a way of life rather than a job… Your yearnings feel intense to you , and you honor these yearnings. And so your life is filled with goals, achievements, or qualification that you crave. Whatever your focus… your Significance theme will keep pulling you upward, away from the mediocre toward the exceptional… The genius of Significance talents begins and ends with the difference you are determined to make. You want the world to be a better place because you are in it.”
I remember reading these results with a peculiar feeling of both awe and disappointment– the former for the feeling of actually being known, and the latter at the same time because I realized actually could be known (I guess an individual should be a dynamic, mysterious type of being, not something that five words could define.) Yet, for the first time, I did find words to match my basic foundation, the principle tenets of Anisha-ism, what truly made me, me. These were the words given to my often inexplicable tendencies, the reasons behind my instinctive comforts and dislikes, and the mysterious processes in my deepest mental recesses that lead to my decisions every day.
At the time, I thought that I just had to use these “strengths” of mine, and find hobbies, activities, and experiences which best utilized them. Yet over time, small, seemingly insignificant moments would plant seeds of doubt. I loved to learn, but why was it that after quickly learning new skills needed in research projects, I soon became bored with the long-term nature of the research itself, knowing that I had already picked up the new skills? Why did I continue to try different things, like coding or knitting or environmental data analysis, and then having gained a level of proficiency, want to move on? For that matter, why was I so scared to enter a music competition that my mother really wanted me to try? I loved competition, right? And if my ability to focus on a goal was so great, why did team members sometimes get frustrated with me for “taking control?” Why did I find so many things interesting that I could not even clearly define my future career field to those who asked? (Right now, in case you were wondering, the interest is patent law. Why? Because it is an inherently interdisciplinary field requiring the application of both engineering and law every day in the context of a business innovation, and a typical day at a law firm could involve preparing and prosecuting as many as 10-15 different patent applications in a day.) Sometimes most importantly, why do I care so much about whether others approve and praise my accomplishments? Why does this desire for “significance” often singlehandedly determine my emotional well-being?
Today I opened the book again for the first time in four years. Interestingly, lines that I never remembered existing suddenly came to the forefront. Apparently, “this Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert” and a Learner “can get frustrated about wanting to learn so many different things because you fear you’ll never be the expert.” As a Competitor, “over time you will avoid contests where winning seems unlikely.” What’s more, “significance talents are sometimes perceived as egotism or a need for attention.” The “flip-side of [the Focus talent] is that it causes you to become impatient with delays, obstacles, and even tangents, no matter how intriguing they appear to be.”
It’s funny how often what you want to see or hear infiltrates reality. I had been so busy with figuring out my strengths in 10th grade that I didn’t even realize that these aspects were not actually called “strengths;” they were called “Signature Themes.” These five themes are my pillars. They are what define me as a human being. Just as no one characteristic is always good or always bad, every one of the themes listed in this book has the potential to be a strength or a weakness. It’s up to me to figure out how to make my themes bring out my highest potential, to be the most significant, competitive, inputting, focused learner I can be.
P.S. I have a confession to make. I never actually read past the discovery and “affirmation” of my five signature themes. Turns out there’s a whole chapter about using your Signature Theme “Talents as the Foundation of Strengths,” with a section devoted to how to make each theme a strength. I guess I found my bedtime reading for tonight.