Liking Something Different

It's not just about you. It's mostly about everything else.

Eric Zhang • October 25, 2022

What if… we spent a just little less time on SaaS, and used that time to make more software as functional art?

When I chose to go to Harvard over MIT, it was because I wanted to meet many people different from me. Most high school programming and math enthusiasts go to schools with a strong, like-minded technical community. I was in the 1% who believed in open-mindedness so much that I chose Harvard anyway. Because I honestly really love the humanities: art, theatre, writing, philosophy, … — and the social sciences. I admire people who pursue these fields and would talk to them for hours.

But the same can’t be said conversely. For instance, I would be more than happy to chat with anyone about algorithms and systems and computer interactions; almost no one at Harvard cares to discuss it with me. Definitely not people in humanities fields.

For several years I’ve internalized that because I specifically seek out people with different experiences and try to make friends with them, others would feel the same way. But that’s obviously not why people go to Harvard. So when friends ignore my messages, leave me out of groups, or don’t invite me to social events in the past, I’ve just been telling myself that I haven’t been kind enough, or warm, or empathetic. And that I just need to love people more.

I think I’ve gradually succeeded in loving people a lot more. I have more appreciation for almost every field of study at this school, for example, than I did when I came in. I read architecture papers and policy memos and neuroscience and economics and music. I respect and have found a connection with the spirit of people in each field. I immerse myself in student performances and thoroughly enjoy them, feeling the energy and heart that went into each one.

But something has always always hurt at the back of my mind. I would start a conversation with a new person, ask them about their interests, talk to them about it and genuinely get excited, connect to some knowledge I had in the past. As I learn about what inspires them and ask questions, I see them smile, and I hope to gradually deepen our tenuous connection. Yet as soon as they ask about me and determine that I’m not a {pre-med | philosopher | artist | struggling cs beginner | entrepreneur | athlete | aspiring banker | professional popular person | etc.} like them, they lose interest and politely end the conversation.

Loving others hasn’t changed the fact that people cluster into groups of similar values, interests, and places in life. For me: a very good software engineer, enthusiastic about computers, mathematics, systems, interaction design; taking a generalist approach to learning as much as I can, taking a dozen graduate-level CS classes and cross-registering for classes at MIT when I ran out of interesting options at Harvard, that means I’m alone.

It doesn’t help that Harvard is a pressure cooker, and the students have almost no time, so they naturally are very selective and transactional with their relationships. “What activity should I pursue to make the optimal use of my time?” Weaker interests and friendships are sidelined.

Openness to different experiences is difficult to come by. Not everyone is as curious as me, or excited about making diverse friends. In fact this is probably a defining individual quality of myself, given that there are very few sharing my background and interests here.

There’s strength in numbers, both for the “paved road” groups create and the communities of people who support each other. No one can thrive on his/her own, no matter how uncompromisingly individual.