A Letter to the WPI Class of 2018 (and Everyone Else)

For all but three days out of every year, I’m an introvert. But not during New Student Orientation.

This stems from a ritual that I’ve done every year for the past three years. I’d move in on Monday, the second day of NSO—the day the residence halls open for upperclassmen—and then, for each meal of the next three days, I’d go to DAKA, sit down at tables with random groups of incoming freshmen, and try to get to know them.

Approaching groups of people and striking up conversations with them is something that would be totally out of character for me at any other time. But at NSO, it just feels right. One of the things I’m missing most about not coming back this A-term is not getting to do that—mostly.

Since they haven’t deactivated my card yet, I was able to come visit campus and swipe into DAKA earlier this week, just for one meal, and talk to an incoming freshman class for the last time. I won’t have the opportunity to meet nearly as many of you or to get to know you nearly as well as I wish I could. But I did get something of a picture of what you guys[1] are like. Plus, having gotten to know three previous incoming freshman classes, I’ve started to notice some patterns.

And as has been the case every year, one message has come in loud and clear:

You are at WPI because you want to do awesome things with awesome people.

Last year, when the Computer Science department was looking to fill some new faculty positions, I was part of a delegation of undergraduates who were invited to talk to prospective faculty members. Week after week, there was a question that I kept being asked: What’s the best thing about WPI?

My answer was always the same: The community.

I have always believed that it’s the community, rather than the institution, that makes WPI the wonderful place that it is. And that provides the greatest benefit to you as students here.

You may have heard about how this place is a great institution with a 150-year history (as of this coming year), and about how we’re highly ranked by various publications and have a high return on investment and what have you. No doubt, that’s why some of you are here. But I say, the thing most worth paying attention to isn’t that. It’s what you have the opportunity to do while you’re here.

Academics, especially the project system, are an important part of this. Through the work you do as a student, you’ll have opportunities to not just learn, but to do things that are important, that advance the frontier of humanity a little, that in some respect leave the state of the world better than it was before. And the collaborative spirit of an engineering school will help you learn and accomplish even more in your studies, with each other’s help.

But it’s not just that. Not even close. You’ve come here to join a community of makers and hackers and musicians and athletes and builders and visual artists and thespians and writers and gamers and activists and entrepreneurs and dancers and LARPers and inventors and designers and teachers and automotive engineers and comedians and filmmakers and martial artists and philosophers and broadcasters and I don’t even know what other stuff we get up to here, and don’t think all of this happens through regular student organizations, either, because some of the most interesting things come from one person, or a small group of people, deciding that they want to do something awesome just to do something awesome.

And, sometimes the awesome things you’re working on won’t work out. Sometimes they’ll fall apart, and it’ll suck.

That’s where the part about community comes in. Your best defense against demoralization is each other. Being with awesome people who are working on awesome things is probably the most powerful motivator there is. When you lose your way, it’s your peers who can help you find it again, by reminding you why you’re here.

I know you can do this for each other, because you did it for me. It was meeting the last incoming freshman class, a year ago, that got me out of a state of demoralization that I’d been in the previous summer.

Community is a wonderful and powerful force. Take full advantage of it.

Now, having said that, there’s a favor I’d like to ask of you—all of you. Not just the incoming freshmen, but everyone at WPI.

What I ask of you is this: When you’re doing something awesome, let your peers know about it.

Another question I was asked last year was, what was the most frustrating thing about being at WPI. I didn’t say this at the time, but the answer I’ve arrived at hinges around the idea of a Culture of Conspicuous Awesomeness. Which is a term that I made up and have never talked about until just now.

A Culture of Conspicuous Awesomeness is a culture that values doing awesome things for the sake of doing awesome things. People in such a culture see each other doing awesome things, think “Wow, that’s really cool,” and are motivated to do the same themselves. And they know, when doing this, that others will be there to support them, and possibly to join them in whatever venture they’ve decided to take on. And that if they fail, it’ll be okay, because everyone in the culture knows that this is something that comes with the territory, and will still encourage them to try again next time.

The thing that frustrated me most at WPI was that we didn’t have this as much as I’d have liked. There were plenty of people doing awesome things on their own, but not conspicuously. People were too conservative, too risk-averse. The motivating factor, that sense of “Let’s try doing this, it might not work, but wouldn’t it be so cool if it did?!” wasn’t always there.

But the thing is, there’s no reason why WPI couldn’t have a Culture of Conspicuous Awesomeness. You need some impressive people, but you guys are pretty impressive. They have to want to do awesome things for the sake of doing awesome things, but plenty of people at WPI do that. Getting other things done around WPI’s rigorous academic schedule is a challenge, but students here consistently prove that they’re up to the task.

The thing that’s missing isn’t the right people or the right motivation. It’s the right meme, the right example. The state of affairs where your peers aren’t just going out on their own and doing awesome things themselves, they’re letting you know about it, encouraging you to become emotionally invested in what they’re doing. And, in turn, doing the same for you.

I could tell you all not to be afraid of failure, but you know what they say: Show, don’t tell. And I can’t show you myself, what with me not being here anymore. So instead I’m going to ask you to show each other.

I believe that WPI can have a Culture of Conspicuous Awesomeness. And the thing is, when that happens, we’ll start to see a lot more awesome things happening, as people who are considering taking a risk on something, but afraid of failure or having a hard time overcoming the motivation barrier, are encouraged by the example of their peers. That’s the value of a Culture of Conspicuous Awesomeness: It creates a positive feedback loop. And then, once that happens, other people, still in high school, who want to do awesome things with awesome people, will see the students here showing the full extent of their awesomeness, and that’ll make them want to come here and contribute their own awesomeness, and the feedback loop gets even stronger, and before you know it we have so much concentrated awesomeness in one place that it ignites like a star beginning nuclear fusion, and the awesomeness of WPI shines all over everywhere.

All that has to happen for this to come true is what I asked for above: When you’re doing something awesome, let your peers know about it. I hope you’ll bear this in mind and consider doing it, whether you’re just embarking on your journey at WPI, or already partway through it.

Freshmen, welcome aboard. Now get out there and kick ass.

Class of 2014

[1] Speaking gender-neutrally, of course.

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