Stupid Scholars, the Power of Hands, and Free Lunches: Riding Through 4 Years of University

“It’ll be fine,” I reassured myself for what seemed like the millionth time. The mere prospect of a roller coaster ride had reduced me to a broken record. I’ve never been a follower of the camp that derives thrill, much less joy, from artificial fear. Horror movies are a hard no, especially at night, alone in my room, and maybe it’s obvious, but I had never ridden a roller coaster. And yet, there I was, my cart slowly ascending towards the apex, beyond which lies almost certain death and dismemberment.

Woosh. The car suddenly lurched forward, and the forces of gravity and angular momentum took control; it shot down, up, and around the seemingly endless minefield of turns, twists, and loops. My stomach followed suit, turning and twisting itself in every way imaginable in an endless loop. When the carnage finally ended, I was convinced that I was done for the day (my stomach tended to agree with me).

This sort of experience — thinking “what am I doing here” and “things are going to go terribly wrong” — was common throughout college. But, self-doubt and perpetual struggles, along with the incredible people and the endless opportunities Rice’s chaotic environment afforded, have taught me a few things.

Learning to (Un)Learn

When my parents dropped me off for my first day of preschool, I planted myself where they left me just inside the door and bawled my eyes out. As a child, I preferred the company of literary characters to that of my physical classmates. I was even afraid of asking for service at restaurants, not to mention interrupting class to ask to go to the bathroom. Instead of viewing these requests for their benefits, I focused on the negatives of attracting undue attention to myself, of exposing myself.

So it’s a bit of an understatement when I say that learning to be comfortable with the idea of discomfort and venturing out of my comfort zone was no easy task. I tinkered with this idea freshmen year, trying something called the Rejection Challenge (I even wrote about it!), which involves deliberately making ridiculous requests to get accustomed to feeling rejection. Asking for free coffee at Coffeehouse was the first step of forcing myself into a stream of uncomfortable situations. I progressed from gingerly speaking my mind in group projects and grudgingly volunteering to present, to performing in cultural shows and enthusiastically running for (although it was almost always uncontested 😅) and leading teams in officer positions. Even now, to exposing myself as publicly as possible through voicing my thoughts on this blog.

Part of why I was so afraid of the unknown was because I led a sheltered life prior to college. I grew up in Houston, but I stuck to the same places near home and school and didn’t explore new areas. So, I managed to avoid experiencing all the diversity that Houston had to offer, let alone appreciate it. In fact, I hadn’t even had the opportunity to bond with someone my age over shared Chinese culture and heritage and all the common childhood experiences that entails, and as such, never fully explored my own cultural background and differences. Thus, discovering all the loud, proud expressions of personal and cultural identity at Rice was like being doused in a bucket of ice water (unfortunately, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a year too early). I hadn’t encountered radically different ideas and perspectives, so I couldn’t fully comprehend the fact that new approaches that I hadn’t tried could be better. Even my tried and true study habits suddenly were inadequate and required a radically different approach.

even Rice’s President Leebron did the ice bucket challenge

I had to learn to open my mind to new experiences, unexpected solutions, and seemingly ridiculous perspectives. I also had to learn to admit my faults, concede long-standing positions, and question basic assumptions. Learning, it turns out, is about questioning and pruning existing knowledge as much as it is acquiring new knowledge and viewpoints.

Secondly, I didn’t venture beyond the familiar and known because I feared the judgment of both peers and complete strangers over my mistakes and failures. I always held myself back from exploring the unfamiliar and covered my true feelings in a facade of indifference to avoid negative perception. Thus, I simply never tried at all. I stuck to the familiar, the routine, the easy.

In the past four years, I’ve had to learn to appreciate looking stupid. I discovered that I learn best through doing, and often, the first time doing anything is quite horrendous. In order to master something (or at least avoid embarrassing yourself), you first have to show that you’re bad at it many embarrassing times. I never learned how to swim or bike as a child (yea, I was that kid), and the fear of revealing that fact locked me in a vicious cycle of never successfully learning. But no matter how embarrassing it was, I forced myself to learn in college, because the only way to stop the cycle is to jump in the deep end, scrape a few limbs on gravel, and shatter it.

Lesson 1: Open your mind, explore new perspectives, dare to look stupid, and push the boundary of your realm of comfort and possibility.

Something to Give a Hoot (or a Hand) About

In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf who is ridiculed and hated all his life for a birth defect. As a result, he spends most of his life drinking any and every kind of wine and attaining Yelp Elite status for brothels. That is, until he is finally given the chance to prove himself as Hand of the King (similar to the prime minister role in a modern government). He finally discovers something worth living, or rather, working, for in his new job and its responsibilities. When he later gets the chance to escape to paradise with his lover, he gives up his life’s dream of love and acceptance for the shady exchanges, calculated backstabs, and bloodthirsty maniacs of this Machiavellian world.

Why would he sacrifice everything for a world and a life that has never treated him with any respect or love?

The secret of joy in work is contained in one word — excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it. — Pearl S. Buck

In high school I worked with a teacher on a chemistry project, mostly at the behest of my mom, but also because of social pressure to do well both in and out of school. Plus, extracurricular research is a classic ticket into a good college. But despite how hard I tried, I could never bring myself to fully dive into the work. I would put in the hours, but my heart wasn’t in it, and the results (or lack thereof) showed this. Regardless of how much time I sunk in, I wouldn’t have excelled at research. Just like Tyrion before his change of heart, I hadn’t found something that I could excel at and be appreciated for, until I discovered the magic of building something from nothing with computer science. My first time experiencing that wonderful euphoria of creation sparked a burning addiction for it that continues to drive me to this day.

But simply mastering something will only provide fulfillment up to a certain point. Mind-boggling puzzles and intractable technical problems are incredibly interesting and exciting; however, at some point, the novelty will start to wear off, and (at least for me) there needs to be something else that keeps stoking the fire. That something else is a purpose, a vision to rally behind. In Tyrion’s case, the underlying reason for why he chooses the hard path is that he can make a difference in the lives of the people of the realm. Similarly, I discovered that another reason none of my previous studies managed to capture my heart because I never could connect them to a vision I ascribed to. I chose my studies based on external and shallow reasons instead of an intrinsic motivation. With coding, I immediately found an avenue to leave a lasting, positive impact behind by building towards a better world for humanity.

Find something to master and believe in. Don’t try to make lemonade if you’re not given lemons — make a delicious concoction that lets your unique collection of ingredients shine. And whenever feelings of doubt or insufficiency surface, let the authentic dreams sealed inside pour out and push you to keep trudging on. Once you have a hold of that feeling, pursue it without reservation; when given the choice, pass over the easy, content life for one of unsolved problems and genuine ambitions because enjoying the fruits of your labor is better than anything paradise can offer.

Lesson 2: Find a purpose, give it your passion, and attain excellence. Derive joy from good work and take the path away from paradise.

Acknowledging Free (or at least discounted) Lunches

The concept of “no free lunch” that appears across disciplines means that something can’t be taken out of nothing, and whether discussing the Conservation of Mass-Energy or opportunity costs in economics, everything has tradeoffs. Simply put, you get what you pay for, and you pay one way or another.

However, real life and the artificial societal notions that come with it don’t follow this theoretical model precisely. The past 3 years, I worked as a TA for various Computer Science classes with 90+ students each, which involved holding office hours to answer student questions about the material and, of course, grading assignments and exams. The issue was that there wasn’t always a specific guideline for awarding points, leaving us to come up with our own standardized model, and even when one was provided, how could these rigid rules and checkboxes capture all the nuances of a thoughtful answer? Does someone who gave a completely different but detailed answer deserve no points compared to someone who checked the boxes with minimal explanation? How do you judge the level of “wrongness?” Which behaviors do you award? This doesn’t even touch on the differences between different graders based on their values and leniency, let alone the external effects of an empty stomach, a sleepy mind, and countless others.

Experiencing grading from the other side taught me that a completely accurate and “fair” grading model isn’t feasible. Not only is an equal evaluation not possible, but people also have inherent advantages and disadvantages based on factors outside of their control: the family and environment they’re born into and their genetics (gender, race, height, proclivity to disease, etc.). In addition to the randomness associated with life-impacting processes like grading, every one of these traits alters our future trajectory: grades affect our future job-seeking ability and our country of birth determines whether we grow up with access to clean drinking water. In terms of “no free lunch,” this means that for certain types of lunch, different people will have to pay different prices. And even if you put in the hard work to save up to buy the dish you want, you might just find that it’s no longer available. In everything, there’s some amount of luck involved. Sometimes you get more or less than what you paid for, and all you can do is make the most of what you can control. The takeaway is not that you should just give up on working towards a lunch that you want; it just means that sometimes, it’s out of your hands, and that’s something you have to swallow.

My mom’s graduation advice to me came, as her advice usually does, in the form of a Chinese proverb: “福祸相倚” (fú huò xiāng yǐ), which basically means “Fortune and misfortune are interconnected.” It follows the philosophy of yin and yang in describing the duality of these two opposing forces. In essence, it espouses the virtue of humility and optimism. On one side, in times of good fortune, it speaks to not becoming content and continuing to work hard because misfortune could be right around the corner (humility). On the other, in times of bad luck, it highlights the silver lining in seemingly all-bad events and pushes you to keep trudging on even if it seems like all is lost because you’re sure to come upon some good fortune in the near future (optimism).

prime example of the good in the bad (source: www.raphcomic.com)

It definitely feels weird when you first accept that there are things outside of your control, especially with the narrative of realizing the American Dream through hard work being fed to all of us (particularly immigrant children). However, all each of us can do is to make sure we’re as prepared as possible for all the opportunities and challenges that life throws.

Lesson 3: The game of life may not generate fair scores or charge equal prices for the same opportunities, but that doesn’t mean you can just quit the game. Make the most out of what you’re given to face whatever life throws at you, always dream of a better future, and never take the discounts you have for granted.

The End of the Ride

College was the exact same — at first, I felt completely overwhelmed by all the new names (people, buildings, even 11 colleges…), opportunities, and lifestyles. It was like a never-ending rollercoaster free-fall, exciting but also nauseating at times. Eventually, though, the ride stabilized, and before I knew it, my four years had come to an end. Unlike a carnival ride where I can get back in line and experience it over and over, I’ll never have an experience quite like my four years at Rice again.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who’s been a part of my college experience, no matter how small, from a smiling stranger brightening my day in passing to the unfortunate souls who had to live with me, to my parents for braving everything involved in immigrating to a land with a strange language and even stranger food to build a better life for their future children. Thank you to all of the mentors and friends that I’ve been inspired and motivated by in my summer internships, travels, and all my experiences at Rice. I’m so grateful for all the early mornings for Beer Bike and Physics Lab and the late nights of Yoyos and cramming COMP; for all the firsts of pretending I know what I’m doing in the Rec and missing my very first college lecture and all the lasts of studying in Brochstein with a Nutty 🐝 (indisputably the best Coffeehouse beverage) and walking through the Sallyport in the pouring rain; for all the lows of navigating through college’s social game and struggling with personal identity and purpose, and all the highs of finally getting Luay’s approval 🤞 and laughing with genuine and amazing people.

From learning to appreciate exploration and being bad at things to finding a craft to perfect to and a mission to drive towards to coming to terms with the limits of my ability to tame life, I’ve come a long way from the person I was when I started this journey. Despite all the changes, one thing has stayed constant. Wherever I go, I hope I’m able to leave behind at least a few smiles, so fingers crossed that I didn’t fail y’all there!

-✌Spencer

I’m coming for you next, SF!

thanks to Avery Jordan and Nikhil Thota for their editing help and candid thoughts!

gonna miss this view 😢

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Engineering @ Coda. I like optimistic dreaming and deep thinking. Exploring, learning, and laughing through life. spencerchang.me