Monday, November 1, 2010

This Semester

Well, I guess I haven't posted anything on my blog in almost two months. What a crazy semester it's been! It's about time I posted an update.

So, this semester I decided to take 19 credits. Since I took 20 pretty easily next semester, I figured I should be able to handle this along with my job and being vice president of Middlebrook Hall. What I failed to realize was that, whereas I only took one class in my major last semester, I decided to get caught up this semester by taking four. Three of which turned out to be incredibly difficult. Big mistake.

So the upshot was that about a week ago, I was involved in two major group projects and a complicated programming assignment, and falling behind on them all. This semester has been humbling. School has been challenging in the past, but it wasn't until this semester that I actually discovered the limits of how much I could do. I've been used to always having enough time to get A's in all my classes and have plenty of time for fun stuff and a social life. This semester I literally haven't had time to do everything and have had to make sacrifices. At once point I think I barely had a free moment for an entire week. This is extremely mentally taxing.

The biggest single factor of this, I realized, was my algorithms class, which is taught by a professor who seems to think that failing (at the current rate) over half his class is a good teaching method. Apparently he could get investigated for that, especially since it's a required course. One can only hope. Every programming assignment for this class took over 30 hours of solid work and consumed multiple entire weekends. With so much other scheduled stuff with 19 credits and two group projects, my schedule filled up alarmingly quickly.

Long story short, I dropped that class and have been much happier and less stressed ever since. Without that massive time drain, even my two group projects seem less intimidating and with some effort I'm getting back on track. (With my classes, at least; my social life is still struggling...but hey, I always get plenty of sleep, so two out of three, right?) All this leads me to an important lesson this semester taught me: Know and respect your limits. Even if you don't think you have limits, you do, and I don't envy the time that shows them to you.

The other thing that has made this semester so crazy is the realization that, despite my major being in computer science, my passion lies elsewhere. Namely in technical theater, a subject I discovered almost by accident more than halfway through high school. Let me explain what I mean by passion: increasingly through my career as a CSci major at the U of Minnesota, I've felt somehow different than other CSci majors, like I'm behind them in terms of my knowledge and skills. I readily learned what they taught us in class, but I could never figure out how to apply anything to practical programs. I was kind of embarrassed that my roommate this year, who is a mechanical engineering major, knows a good deal more about Unix and general programming than I do!

Then my algorithms professor (the very same one) made a comment after our first programming assignment that made everything clear. He basically said that we were expected to have taught ourselves the programming skills necessary to do the assignment--presumably for no reason other than curiosity and our interest in the subject. I realized that this was also probably how my peers had gained so much more practical knowledge than I had--while I was spending my free time reading or playing games, they were hacking.

I had mistaken being good at computer science (or just being a diligent learner and logical thinker) for having a passion for it. I easily comprehended what I was learning in my classes, but I had no motivation to go beyond what I was being taught. I didn't notice this in my introductory-type classes, but by junior year it's become undeniable.

By a weird coincidence, the morning I was starting to write this, I saw an article on the Magic: The Gathering website (which I still frequent, despite no longer playing) about "the power of passion." In it, lead designer Mark Rosewater said this:
If You Want to Be Happy, then Make What You Do Something that Makes You Happy.
While this might sound simplistic, I believe one of the greatest causes of unhappiness is a lack of understanding of this life lesson. Many people are unhappy simply because they do not prioritize doing things that make them happy. They chase things they think can bring them happiness (money, fame, etc.) rather than focus on the actual things that make them happy.
The truth of Mark's words speaks for itself. Given a lucrative job as a software developer or a position as an electrician in a local theater that pays half as much, I know which one I'd pick. Money can't buy happiness. So my second lesson is sort of a rehashing of Mark's lesson: Do what you love, not what you're good at. (If you love what you're good at, lucky you.) This applies especially to high school students preparing to enter college, a period in which I made many decisions that I'm not seeing the effects of. Unfortunately, it's too late for me to change majors, so I have to force myself to stick to it until I graduate.

So that's my big update post about how this semester is going. Starting next time, back to the random musings on God and which brand of detergent is best and such.

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