I’ve been feeling pretty stressed about all of the work I have during finals week. A couple of final projects, two exams in hard classes, and two problem sets. Last week I realized that I’ve been spending a lot of time worrying about my stressors (which are coming in two weeks, and which I can’t do anything about now) and not enough time practicing what I preach on this blog. It was time for some serious self care. So I picked up a book, because reading helps relax me, and I completely devoured it.
Side note: I’m incredibly lucky to have a Kindle (a gift from my grandmother), but if anyone on campus is interested in using one, there are 6 available for checkout from the Caltech library! I took great advantage of this last summer, when I had a ton of free time. You can read any of the books that anyone else has downloaded to the shared cloud account for the library Kindles, or you can download up to $25 of new content, each checkout, for free.
Anyway, I downloaded Amy Poehler’s new book Yes Please onto my Kindle last Tuesday and finished it on Saturday.Yes Please taught me many things, all of which are applicable to life at Caltech.
Photo courtesy of Amazon
Poehler introduces the book as a mix between a memoir, a series of essays, and a stream of consciousness. She presents essays about her life and her family (showing how her family has shaped her life), and further narrates them as she writes about how hard it is to write them down. Only a few of the essays seem particularly emotionally difficult, but Poehler is extremely expressive throughout the book about just how difficult it is to record important parts of her life in a way that she thinks other people would want to read. I fell in love with Amy for this very reason. I’ve recently read similarly structured books by Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham, and no one but Poehler comes across so genuine and, well, insecure. But the stories she tells are of a strong young woman who follows her passion, trains for decades, lands amazing roles through hard work and connections, builds two influential institutions (Upright Citizens Brigade and Smart Girls at the Party), creates a family, divorces, and loves her children near-rabidly. Through the anecdotes that she tells and the lists that she gives (of lessons learned from each of her parents, information about every part of the Hollywood industry that she wants all people to know), Poehler throughly convinces me that she’s wiser and stronger and more confident that I am right now. Perhaps even more so than I had hoped to ever be. I spent the entire book wanting to shake her by the shoulders and say, "I know that writing a book is hard, but read what you’re writing! You’re so much better at this than you think you are! You have to know that!"
I feel the same way when talking to most students at Caltech. Something like 80% of Techers think they are below average. I overheard two girls on the way to CS21 office hours last night, and one told the other, "yeah, you understood it…you’re smart." I wanted to tell the other girl "You are too! You are here! Jesus, look around and see how far you’ve come!" Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met spend their time at Tech worried that they aren’t doing enough, and that, for everything they have learned here, they are not prepared for the outside world. To that, I say, "Read your own damn book. Look at what you’ve done! Look at what you’ve learned. You are amazing and you are full of amazing knowledge."
The following is Poehler’s description of how she stopped agonizing over how to write her book:
"And then you just do it. You just dig in and write it. You use your body. You lean over the computer and stretch and pace. You write and then cook something and write some more. You put your hand over your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true."
Poehler’s experience writing this book, as told to me while reading this book, is a whirlwind of creativity amidst depression, divorce, self-doubt, and, above all, success. Poehler is honest about the personal struggles she has had while still coming off as incredibly adept and accomplished. If more people told the public about the personal fights they overcome on the way to success, and even while experiencing success, then I believe success would seem much more achievable for everyone else. If everyone at Caltech were honest about the misgivings and self-doubt we all share, then I think everyone would feel less of it.
My last thought on Yes Please is about the extent to which I think all Techers can relate to Poehler on a personal level. I was clearly enamored by her honesty and her transparency about her life and her journey, but I also found myself nodding along as I read passages like the following:
"I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things. I’m tired of talking about movies and gossiping about friends. Life is crunchy and complicated and all the more delicious."
Anyone involved search for knowledge or for scientific advancement will tell you that the majority of breakthroughs involve ideas discussed with other scientists: with peers over lunch, with professors from another department, with a researcher from across the country over drinks at a conference. Everyone you speak to at Caltech has something to teach you, whether it is about their research or the class they are taking or about their upbringing in a culture different from yours. When you get to Caltech, you will find yourself thrown into the deep end, surrounded by other students all swimming beside you. I urge all Techers to embrace the crunchy, complicated nature of conversations that are hard to have, and learn about things that you know nothing about. I have made a goal to, at least once a day, ask someone to tell me something about them that I don’t know. I hope that this enriches my life, and I hope that it will make everyone else’s more interesting.