The silence in the classroom is deafening. As the professor waits for a response to the question he has posed, the eyebrows of my peers become more furrowed. Contemplating it myself, I couldn’t choose an answer right away, the solution eluding me due to the inherent open-endedness of the question. After a while, the professor, clearly agitated by the lack of a response, reiterates the question: “If you had 10 years to play and do whatever you want, what one activity would you choose?”
Even in my early childhood, I was always told that I was special, a gifted child that was destined to make a difference in the world. Whether it was from my parents or my teachers, I was always given the benefit of the doubt no matter what I did or what I struggled with. In kindergarten, my teacher’s appeal to the administration resulted in me skipping a few grades because my mathematical ability was a few years ahead of the rest of the class. In middle school, my parents changed my name so that its meaning reflected the aforementioned prophecy, a prediction that grew to be more overbearing than I thought it would. And in high school, even if I fell asleep in class due to my poor time management skills and all the late nights procrastinating, my teachers would ignore the fact, expressing their confidence that I would be fine without listening anyway.
My parents only enforced one rule throughout my life before college: as long as it wasn’t illegal and it didn’t affect my grades, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. So I did exactly that; I’d keep up with my classes, extracurriculars, and homework, and spend the rest of the time playing games, watching movies, or hanging out with friends. Besides getting good grades, I didn’t really put much thought into how the classes I took then would affect my career choices in the future. All I knew was that I was academically good and that being good was fun. It was thrilling to learn new concepts and, on top of that, be good at learning them. I thought I had the best of both worlds; I was engaged in the things I was learning and I still had plenty of time to invest into other activities. When it was finally time to apply to college, all my applications were to different departments, all STEM fields that I excelled in during high school. I was confident that whichever major I chose, I would do well enough and be knowledgeable enough to start a career.
After coming to KAIST, I realized I couldn’t have been living a greater lie. Sure, I wasn’t incompetent, but I definitely wasn’t the smartest kid here. In fact, after five years here, I’d barely place myself above average. And with this realization that I wasn’t special followed another that what I thought back in high school was enthusiasm for learning was more a complacency from doing well with minimum effort. As coursework amassed, I could feel my old habits and bad work ethic dragging me down and the drive that once fueled me withering away.
I haven’t given it all up. My grades are still reasonable and I’ve put in a lot of effort into my various commitments, whether it’s researching in my lab, writing for the Herald, or teaching other students of various ages and levels. But there’s something enervating about doing the same things you don’t really have that strong of a passion for over and over again. I find the research I do interesting and insightful, but at the end of the day, it’s a job that entails a lot of work that I’d rather not do. I wish I didn’t have homework. Classes are hard and boring.
For someone like me, I know I need to love doing something to try my hardest at it. I spend a lot of time for the Herald because I care about the quality of my writing and the organization as a whole. I always give away my time to any friend who needs help. I love connecting with new people and making sure that they belong as much as possible. But in the future, reality won’t pay me to do these things. Now I am struggling, desperate even, to find some meaning in my life besides work, wealth, and well-being. I sometimes can’t help but ask myself, “Is there any job I can get where I can do the things I like doing?” It’s too often that I doubt whether I’ve made the right decision following the path towards STEM, just because it’s been the defining characteristic of my life for so long, something I thought I was good at and loved.
What would I do with 10 years? No, what would I do with my life if nothing held me back? I want to try the things that I’ve always wanted to try but never had a chance to. I’d listen to lectures on economics and financial engineering. I’d learn how to cook my favorite foods. I’d try to become a creator of art, music, media, and everything in between. Maybe I’d look into education or psychiatry. If only I was braver...
I’d be escaping my roots.