On the Nature of Patience and Overachieving

I’m writing this 4 days after I passed my master's thesis defense. I will soon graduate from Vanderbilt University in 4 years with a triple major in math, physics, and computer science as well as a master's in computer science. I will have GPAs of 3.75 and 3.95 respectively. I will have published 8 first-author papers with 5 from computer science and 3 from physics. I have been accepted with a full fellowship (and additional scholarship on top) to a top 10 graduate school in my field. Additionally, I have endured an excellent social life with a girlfriend since the second month of freshman year and I currently live with 7 other of my best friends. This is not to mention that I am within 2 blocks walking distance of 11 other close friends.

Despite this, I am struggling significantly with finding the next chapter in my life. Like any other overachiever, I placed value in taking hard and challenging classes, finding exciting research, and attaining top-tier internships. Throughout college, my goals have been predicated on a trade-off between current and future happiness. (For nerds: Almost like maximizing the reward from an environment's value function). I wanted to enjoy college for the best four years of my life while setting myself up for what I deemed success throughout the rest of my life. Ideally, I would spend freshman year identifying and building lifelong friendships while downplaying academics. Then, once I developed a strong group, I would go all out taking an absurd amount of difficult courses in hopes to achieve a triple major and masters in four years. Ultimately, looking back, I achieved everything I had set out to as an incoming freshman. Naturally, it would seem reasonable for me to be proud of my accomplishments and matriculate onto the next chapter of my life in graduate school. Rationally, I’m accepted to a fine program and certainly will explore problems I enjoy. So why the mental clash? I still honestly don't know

However, I do know some things. As a senior, I have realized that my work did not deliver the future happiness I had subscribed to expect. I cannot say this is due to a lack of interesting courses or that my social life is not perfect because honestly, it is. However, I can identify with reasonable confidence that there is one thing I would change. I did not explore my passions. I came into Vanderbilt wanting to start a business. I had flurries with this throughout my time here, but ultimately, never embraced the uncertainty. Furthermore, I loved the stock market. I had a strong understanding of options before I came to school and yet I am taking my first financial course as a last semester senior. (Big shoutout to John Rafter for making that class something to look forward to every day).

Despite this, I cannot overreact. It is easy to pick out the algebra mistake in a long equation without appreciating the beauty of how many correct things the author did to create the formula in the first place. And this is where I have developed. I realize a sense of patience must come with respect to one’s achievements. There will always be someone better in some way, and joining the race to achieve more is usually not the best route taken. I could have always explored more passions or tried more ideas. My past self would respond to this piece by viewing it as a sign of weakness. As in, I was just unable to handle the requirements to achieve greatness. But having been on that race and arguably coming out on the other side with a win, it lacked the prize money I expected.

I write this piece at a series of crossroads that require balancing a mix of uncertainty, passion, and happiness. To my readers, I hope my perspective can be a valuable one in understanding that attaining that triple major or that MD Ph.D. might not solve every problem you hope it to. Furthermore, I hope it comes across that patience in attaining happiness cannot be underestimated. To myself, I hope you go and explore your passions whether that's at graduate school or on your own. Embrace the uncertainty and ultimately take risks. Otherwise, regretfulness is not a weight that comes lightly.

Luke March 2022.