A few weeks ago, I interviewed for my dream company.
The interview was challenging—probably one of the hardest technical interviews I’ve ever done in my life—but I thought I got at least the majority of the questions. I got along with my interviewer pretty well, and we chatted a little bit about the company and his role there before we signed off. All in all, in my opinion, it was a pretty good interview.
Three days ago, I got an email thanking me for taking the time to interview with them, and informing me that unfortunately they wouldn’t be able to continue forward with my interview process.
This wasn’t the first company from which I’d been rejected, either. In fact, it was the fourth company that I interviewed with and then got rejected from in the last two weeks. Nor was this the only thing that hadn’t been going well for me this semester. I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I thought I was. My dream of going abroad to study was looking more and more distant every day, as my schedule became tighter and tighter. And after having read papers and textbooks in an area of math I thought I liked, I started to get really, really bored with it.
Honestly, though, that wasn’t really what bothered me. What I was starting to realize was that unlike everything I’d ever really believed about myself, all of this was getting to me, and it was stressing me out. I never really considered myself as the kind of person to get stressed easily, and to realize that the sheer amount of stress I was facing was actually making me sick was a terrifying realization. I had gone from never really feeling stress to being stressed by how stressed I was.
The problem was, though, that I was getting stressed out by all of the wrong things.
The other problem I was getting worried about wasn’t that I was doing badly in art history or real analysis, it was that I was doing worse than other people in the class. I was consistently scoring around the average in both classes, and it bothered me that I couldn’t be the best in the class. Moreover, my friends in the class, who were all incredibly good at those fields, were doing remarkably well. I always knew that once I came to college I wouldn’t really be able to be at the top all the time any more, but to realize that I wasn’t just not at the top but closer to the middle was a sobering realization.
And even in the classes where I thought I was doing well, I still did worse on quizzes than some of my friends. I understood the concepts and did well on the projects, but there were still people in the class who performed consistently above me. To realize, then, that even in classes where I thought I was doing well that I still wasn’t at the top, was terrifying.
Except what I failed to realize by only looking at my friends was that every quiz and every project in all of my classes were an improvement on the last.
Every time I wrote a paper for art history or read a chapter of my real textbook, I thought about everything in terms of how my friends were doing; how many of them didn’t even need to read the textbook to understand the class perfectly. What I failed to realize was that the last chapter I had to read, the last problem set I had to finish, took me slightly longer and that every new chapter consistently reduced the time to completion. Compared only to myself, every day was an improvement on the last. I was getting better and my inability to be introspective was not just stressing me out, it was preventing me from seeing this.
And the thing is, the only thing that ever matters is how well you’re doing compared to how well you did yesterday. It’s something my mother used to tell me when I was stressed out about how much better my friends were doing, and I never really paid attention to her because it almost seemed like a copout. Yeah, I might be doing better than I did yesterday, but it just felt like an artificial way of reassuring myself that I didn’t need to be competitive. (Sorry, mom.)
But that isn’t the point. The point of only comparing yourself to past performance isn’t to do so at the expense of being competitive. You still want a resume that looks impressive, even when compared against other people’s. But that’s external competition, and there’s so much of that in the real world that it’s not worth your time to internalize that competition. The only thing you should worry about is whether or not you’re consistently improving, not just because if you aren’t you’d be in the worst possible position, but because if you are the likelihood of you becoming the best, of you being the person other people look up to, is fairly high.
Which brings me to my last point. Academia in general, and computer science especially, is not a monolith. If you’re exceptionally good at algorithms, it doesn’t matter that you might not be the best at discrete math, because you’re not defined by your skill in everything—you’re defined by your skill in whatever you’re best at. The problem is that computer science can seem like a monolith at times. Especially given how smart everyone here is and how competitive we can be, it’s easy to think that because someone is better than you in field A, and someone is better than you in field B, that you’re just bad at both of those fields, and so by induction you must be bad at computer science in general.
Except those people who are better than you have as their “thing” those fields they’re good at. They’ve either dedicated a lot of time or a lot of thought to those fields to get to that point of being exceptional. All you’re seeing is the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication—the same hard work and dedication you put into whatever you decide to spend your time on.
So as the second round of midterms start up, remember that it’s up to you to choose what you want to do. If you don’t find AI that interesting, then don’t worry too much about not being the best in the class. Just worry about being better than you were yesterday. If you do, there’s no reason to stop being competitive. Just remember that the only thing that really matters isn’t how well you’re doing relative to other people, it’s how well you’re doing relative to yourself. And if you feel like you’re improving every day, if you feel like you know what you’re talking about a little bit more, then that’s really all that matters.