My Love-Hate Relationship with University Computer Science

What’s outside the tunnel?

It’s been almost a month since I last wrote anything substantial.

It used to be a regular thing, but it’s slowly slipped away from me, as has working out.

When I start to let things like fitness and hobbies slip away, my mental health usually follows. I’ve been holding up pretty well, but I know it’s not sustainable forever.

I think understanding why I seemingly inevitably lose focus on these kinds of things is important. Predictably, the reason is because I get busy and stressed. I think we can all relate to that. I know that believing that I don’t have time to work out is a huge trap, but it’s one I fall for over and over — so apparently, something needs to change.

For me, a huge part of it lies in my relationship with computer science in the university setting. At Michigan, our computer science program is tough. It’s a rigorous major filled with incredibly smart people. The course load alone consumes an aggressive amount of time, and recruiting is very stressful, to put it lightly. You spend a majority (and for many, a supermajority) of your waking time immersed in an environment where people are incredibly driven, to the point that it feels cutthroat. You can’t escape the talk about who got an offer from Google or Facebook and makes $150k a year at age 22, and how people are so stressed preparing for their interviews with other XYZ prestigious tech firm, and how many hours so and so studies for interviews every week, and how hard such and such exam was, and how the class project is a lot harder than it looked and you’re probably really behind, and the list goes on.

I’m super competitive, and so are a lot of my peers. We see each other succeeding in various ways, and want to one-up each other. We live in a culture that largely values brand name companies and big pay checks over making an impact and leading a balanced lifestyle. We obsess over courting companies that have market dominance and/or a freshly raised round of capital. We obsess over the growth of our technical skills and will rarely put down a project until the autograder spits out at least a 90%. We obsess, racing toward the top of an endless mountain, rarely ever taking the time to relax and enjoy the scenery along the way.

We have a really fucking bad case of tunnel vision. But oh man, when we get those offers, the sweet dopamine — we forget everything, it’s all worth it. Until, that is, we’re no longer impressed with where we stand and set our sights higher.

And you know, as bad as I make it sound, in many ways I really do love competing in this arena. I love being surrounded by crazy smart, passionate people. I love working in a field where the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. I love the seemingly infinite potential to build amazing products and services, and I love looking up to tech idols who have truly changed the way the world thinks and lives. I love the promise that if I work hard and jump on opportunities, I can make something of myself.

But when I take stock of all the things I sacrifice to compete like that, it just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want to be the guy who tells his friends no almost every time they want to do something because he’s too busy. I don’t want to be the guy who sacrifices his sleep and health and always has too much work to do and who’s always in a stressful rush and gets anxiety when he walks too quick. I don’t want to be the guy who goes to a party and talks about Javascript frameworks and jobs because that’s all there is on his mind.

I’m not saying that’s me right now, but maybe that’s me right now.

When I think about it, living the one-dimensional life that I’ve been living doesn’t benefit me in the long run. I’m making what are, in my opinion, unreasonable sacrifices. I don’t want to look back at what will be some of the most memorable years of my life and find mostly memories of grinding late night at the library. I don’t want to spend so much time grubbing for grades in classes and studying for interviews when after a certain point, I’m just playing a game and not really learning too much more . I don’t want to feel so stifled from creating original work, like personal software projects and writing; I’ve been wanting to get into music production for a long time and always tell myself “later”. I don’t have much time to tinker.

This lifestyle holds me back from developing as an individual in ways that really matter. It feels like I’m playing somebody else’s game.

I’m realizing now that I don’t have to play that game. I have a full career ahead of me to climb the mountain, so why rush? Do we really believe that the best way to change the world is by living a life so far removed from the reality of 99% of the world population? Is it admirable to not be multi-faceted?

So I’m trying to take a step back. It’s weird. It’s scary. It’s the first time in my life that the thought has really occurred to me that I have other priorities besides trying to get A’s and outdoing my classmates and fighting for the sexiest jobs. It’s the first time in my life that there are other forms of success that matter more and which I sincerely believe will carry me further: developing strong and genuine social and professional networks, broadening my lens through new hobbies and new people, and learning to relax. It’s the last one that’s been the toughest: we celebrate a work hard play hard lifestyle, but we often forget to take care of ourselves in the process. Burnout is real, and it hits much harder than we work and play.

Those things are pretty abstract. The reward of trying new things and seeing new places isn’t as outwardly visible as, say, getting an offer at a prestigious firm. But I believe those experiences are genuinely important, and while I don’t know exactly what it looks like to pursue this kind of success, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’ve been making good use of my time trying to find out, I do know the route I’ve been following doesn’t feel right anymore. Sometimes, when the whole world is telling you that time is limited and you need to be always busy to make the best of it, the biggest act of rebellion is seen as a failure — just taking a moment to breathe.

But investing the time to understand what a sane lifestyle means for me, to avoid getting swept up in life goals that were never really mine — if that’s failure, then it’s time to fail. I’m going to stumble around for a bit and I’m scared as all hell but I think that’s fine. When you first learned to ride a bike and you fell over and over, it didn’t mean that you weren’t cut out to ride the bike; I’ve been riding somebody else’s bike all my life and I don’t want it anymore. I want to learn to ride my own, and these are prime years to fall.