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Great Expectations

February 19, 2012

MIT is the flash-bang grenade of social conversation. Although non-lethal, uttering those three letters causes disorientation, confusion, and loss of coordination and balance in exposed subjects within a five foot radius. MIT? Hmm…. yes, oohhh. Hmm.

I’m still learning to wield the mighty MIT without harming myself or others. It’s a somewhat blunt instrument, difficult to introduce subtly, and it leaves marks. Be careful. Don’t hurt anyone. Remember to always use your new superpowers for good, not evil. And, oh yeah! Don’t be an asshole! MIT doesn’t like assholes.

I have to admit that I didn’t realize the emotional response that the MIT brand elicits. One of our companies is in the middle of raising a financing round, which means that I am spending a lot of time speaking to prospective investors. A few days ago, at the beginning of an introductory call, I asked the prospect what he already knew about our company, its history, mission, and so forth. He was pretty enthusiastic, saying, “Well, I read all about you. CMU PhD, MIT MBA. You’re a rock star!”

I have never been a rock star. VC don’t generally throw their panties on my stage. But evidently, I’m now cool-by-association. Nice.

Returning now to unsubtle explosive devices, the MIT-made-me-a-rock-star moment carries all of the surprise of walking briskly out of the bank after a perfect robbery, sunny skies, cool breeze, WHAM… damn… dye pack exploded… Stained with bright indelible MIT brand all over me. No where to hide.

The MIT Rock Star moment is an explosion of Great Expectations.

There is no other brand that screams “Smartest People in the World” like MIT. And that, in turns, creates enormous expectations in the minds of your audience. Quick! Say something smart! Do some really hard math! And try to be a little more socially awkward in the process, after all, there’s a tradition to be upheld here.

As usual, I’m not the only member of my class facing this experience. Some of my classmates are hiding the fact that they’re going to MIT from their friends, out of fear that they will be perceived differently. It’s evidently possible to be in-the-closet about MIT, to be embarrassed or fear embarrassment from one’s association with the Institute. It’s an odd kind of embarrassment, in the sense that there really shouldn’t be anything to be embarrassed about. Admission to and attendance at MIT is a worthy and sought-after goal. But it does have the potential to separate one from one’s peers, not because you yourself are truly any different than you were before you were admitted, but because you’ll be perceived differently.

The embarrassment of MIT is an Embarrassment of Riches, a struggle to create congruence between this new association and the person that you’ve always been. It’s a struggle to stretch the dimensions of your well-worn and comfortable identity to now include the expectations of a graduate of a fabled institution. It’s a pretty cool problem to have.


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