The Other Side Of Success
Yesterday, I was admitted to Harvard Business School's (HBS) 2+2 MBA program.
Tomorrow, I will be graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (again) with a Master's in Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Life is good.
I've spent six years at MIT - four as an undergraduate student, and two as a graduate student. It's been a long six years with up and downs, twists and turns, and everything else you can think of in between.
And here I am standing tall at the end.
If you had asked me two years ago whether I would be standing in the position I am today, I wouldn't have believed you.
But having faith in yourself (and God) goes a really long way, apparently.
It's bittersweet to think this will be my last blog post as a student at MIT. But I'm happy to say I finally got the ending I wanted. The last one and a half months, have been the toughest of my life, both personally and professionally. I lost a lot of weight (from not eating properly) and was sleep-deprived while grinding endlessly to try and finish my thesis on time. There was a lot of frustration, anger, happiness, joy, and all the other emotions in between as I made One Final Effort to complete my Master’s thesis.
To be honest with you, there were times that I didn't think I would graduate on time (aka tomorrow). Everything that could go wrong during my research and thesis writing did go wrong.
When my experiments were failing a week and a half before my thesis was due, I was afraid.
When my advisor continued to send edits after edits of my thesis chapters after pulling all-nighters to draft and send them to him, I was scared.
When I found out that I was misled about a crucial piece of information related to my research that cost me six months (that's 25% of my time in my Master's program!) of time, I was frustrated.
A lot of things went wrong. But the few things that went right made the difference. I had the support of my colleagues in the lab (thank you especially Jeonyoon!!!) who helped me brainstorm quick solutions to hard problems I was facing at the last minute and helped me proofread my thesis chapters (Ashley and Amy, you all are the best editors!). I couldn’t have done this alone, so thank you three and the rest of my lab for your support and encouragement. This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished in my life.
I’m excited to walk tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of accomplishments under my belt:
I’ve accepted a job offer with Boeing, joining their Engineering Career Foundation Program. It’s a 2-year rotational program for new-hires and early career engineers.
I got into HBS.
And I won the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship, which has supported my research that will result in two conference papers and two peer-reviewed journal publications.
I leveraged my (at the time) 75K following on LinkedIn (now 352K) to begin writing for Forbes, where I’ve published over 40 articles on people my age starting companies in school or right after they graduate.
I’ve gotten to take my first stab at venture capital by being a part of Rough Draft Ventures, a student-run VC firm powered by General Catalyst.
I’ve had all these amazing experiences and accomplishments that I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to make it this far.
But it would be remiss of me not to mention how I got to where I am today.
It wasn’t easy.
Most people don’t know this, but I was actually rejected from Boeing’s ECFP, NDSEG, and HBS the first time around when I applied to each of these opportunities.
It sucked. It was tough to take the phone call from the head manager of the ECFP and have him tell me that I didn’t demonstrate my technical skill set well in my interview back in the summer of 2016.
It was depressing to be notified via from NDSEG back in April 2017 to find out I didn’t win the award and thus worry about how I was going to support myself during graduate school financially.
It was demoralizing to open up the admissions portal only to find a message offering not congratulations, but condolences for not being able to be admitted into HBS’s 2+2 program back in May 2017 of my senior year.
Out of those three rejections, the HBS one hurt the most, given that it was only a couple days before I was to walk the stage and receive my diploma, but also it capped off the end of an emotional and mental struggle after four years at MIT.
It was a painful pill to swallow after all I had been through during undergrad. Even when I received my degree from MIT the following month, it felt hollow.
In that moment of victory, I tasted only defeat. I now ask why? (If you can guess which video game character spoke this line, I will give you $100. Dead serious. Hint: Halo.)
Why couldn’t I win the highest honors? Why couldn’t I successfully compete for the most prestigious opportunities?
Why did I keep coming up short in the moments that required my best?
Each failure I suffered asked painful, penetrating questions about my character and my mentality. It was clear that two years ago, I didn’t have what it take to win.
In each opportunity I vied for, I had been weighed; I had been measured; and I was found wanting.
Failure isn’t discussed honestly in our society, so let me be clear when I say this: it was emotionally crippling and mentally devastating to have been dealt with these rejections throughout my senior year. For someone who, even at the time of my graduation, had a resume filled to the brim with honors and accomplishments, I felt empty inside. (To give you perspective, I still was admitted into MIT for a graduate degree in Aerospace Engineering, which is something to be proud of on its own, so it’s clear I wasn’t in the right place emotionally or mentally. I was utterly unable to appreciate the things I had in my hands while pining for the things I never had.)
I ended up writing my most gut-wrenching, emotionally painful blog post ever right after getting rejected from HBS. On its own, the rejection from HBS wasn’t that bad – it was the fact it was on top of all of the professional failures and personal slights that led me to write that pivotal post. I remember shedding tears as I typed each letter on my keyboard. (For The Record, I consider that blog post to be my best piece of writing ever. This post shouldn’t be considered a direct sequel or follow up to it either. That will come much, much later. Feel free to consider it a spiritual successor. And no, I won’t link to it here; you’re just going to have to take my word for it.)
I was in a dark place right before graduation. Graduating helped lift my spirits, but there still remained a gray mental sky in my mind.
It was hard during the summer to figure out what went wrong during undergrad when you couldn’t get past the frustration and anger that’s so closely tied to failure in front of you. Fortunately, my fourth summer internship with Boeing took my mind off the past and put me back in the present on my work and family. The summer after graduation was good for me – I was able to readjust and take the time to figure out what went wrong.
Coming back the following fall for my first semester, I felt like I had a second chance at doing MIT right. Where I came up short professionally and personally during undergrad, I was determined to go long and succeed.
And succeed I did. You already know my professional triumphs. I’m proud of those, but I am even prouder of the person that I have become.
I’ve done a much better job of taking care of myself mentally and emotionally during my two years as a graduate student. I’ve bolder in pursuing opportunities that I’m interested in.
And most of all, I’ve deepened my relationships with the people I care about here most at MIT. Back in undergrad, I always used to ask myself, why don’t I have any close friends?
Little did undergrad-me know, they were right there in front of me this whole time - I was just looking in the wrong places. (This is a whole story in itself that will be followed up in a sequel in the next five to ten years.)
I’m proud of me for surrounding myself with friends who not only are better than me in different ways but also who always had my best interests at heart. Just like my professional failures, they asked me the hard questions that I needed to answer to grow.
There’s too many of you to name, but there’s four of you that I have to give a shout out to: F., A. T., and Z., you guys made me a better scholar, a better professional, and a better man. Thank you.
I was able to succeed because of the people I surrounded myself with and my willingness to ask myself the hard, challenging questions.
I didn’t win the top job, the top honors, and the top admissions offer by being the absolute best. No, I’m humble enough to admit that there are others that I encounter on a daily basis at MIT and elsewhere who are harder, better, faster, stronger, and smarter than me.
I won because I didn’t give up (and essential doses of luck in some crucial moments) and thus was able to summon my best when the situations were the worst.
In a strange way, I’m actually happy I failed in all those opportunities a few years ago. If I had gotten what I had wanted, then, I wouldn’t have grown to be the person I am now. I wouldn’t value my successes in the right way if I didn’t fail first.
Failure wasn’t just a denial of success - it was an opportunity to mature.
They say that success needs no explanation; failures must be doctored with alibis.
I disagree. Failure asks questions of you that success never will.
And it’s by answering those questions honestly and willingly that allows one to succeed.
This is the end of my Great Journey at MIT. For those who are just starting, I wish you not only success, but also the opportunity to fail so that you may grow into the person that you have always hoped to be. Failure and success are like two sides of the coin of fate.
I hope you join me on the other side.