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TIMtalks spotlight students who have turned failure into success

Event gives students an opportunity to discuss failure, achievement, MIT culture.
MIT senior and biology major Anjali Thakkar at the TIMtalks event on Wednesday night.
MIT senior and biology major Anjali Thakkar at the TIMtalks event on Wednesday night.
Photo: Jessica Fujimori

Some 4,400 stories of failure and success walk the MIT campus each day, silent inside undergraduates hurrying from class to class. MIT senior and biology major Anjali Thakkar founded TIMtalks — which she envisions as an annual event at the Institute — to give voice to those stories.

At the inaugural TIMtalks, in the Stata Center on Wednesday evening, Thakkar and four other students spoke for approximately 15 minutes each. The students’ stories, rich with insight and emotion, unveiled the determination, relentless hard work — and also the failure and doubt — that lie beneath every facade of smooth success.

The impostor phenomenon

MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson kicked the event off with a story of his own. After arriving at MIT as a graduate student in 1975, he said, “I spent the first six months at MIT looking over my shoulder expecting someone to tap me and say, ‘We’re sorry, we just discovered we put your application in the wrong pile.’”

What Grimson described was a psychological phenomenon known as the “impostor syndrome,” in which successful people attribute their success to chance or luck instead of personal achievement.
“I want you all to close your eyes,” Thakkar said as she took the floor next. “Now raise your hand if you ever thought that you didn’t deserve to be at MIT, that you’d fail once you got here, or that you got here by some stroke of luck.”

Most of the students in the audience raised their hands.

To combat impostor syndrome, Thakkar emphasized the importance of a “malleable mindset,” or the ability to move past failure. After she founded a program to teach entrepreneurial skills to young women, she learned this lesson firsthand from traveling to India to implement her carefully planned curriculum.

“I arrived, and all of a sudden I realized that what I was envisioning was not what [the Indian women] were envisioning,” Thakkar explained. She changed her plans to include more community-building, and worked with the women to develop business models for various products. “Over those six weeks, I saw 60 girls who feared failure transform into 60 women who wanted to take a risk,” Thakkar said.

The experience gave her important perspective, she added. “We forget that our failures are a necessary first step. Failure is natural, so we need to talk about it.”

Impossible achievement

Crew didn’t come naturally to Noam Angrist. But as a novice rower in high school, Angrist, now a junior majoring in economics at MIT, worked hard and became captain of his team. Then, one day at the gym, he heard a pop in his arm.

The doctor told him he had a blood clot in his right subclavian vein, and that if it spread he could die. He would need invasive surgery, including the removal of one of his ribs. “There goes my rowing career,” Angrist thought.

“The truth is that blood clot was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he continued. He turned to coaching, and under his direction, the athletes on his high school team improved dramatically. Angrist wanted to continue coaching at MIT — and as a freshman, he did.

“Parents didn’t think I could deliver,” he said. “Other coaches smirked when my rowers were still [doing basic drills].” They stopped smirking when both of Angrist’s boats won gold medals in the state championships, an achievement the team hadn’t seen in almost a decade.

Two years ago, Angrist co-founded the program Amphibious Achievement with Ron Rosenberg, an MIT junior majoring in materials science and engineering. They and other MIT students now teach swimming and rowing to Boston youth, and also provide them with college-preparatory tutoring and mentoring.

“We’ve come a long way,” Angrist said. Not only did he see the aquatic skills of every student improve, he said, their test scores improved significantly in critical reading. Angrist, who sets the bar high for his students with readings from publications such as The Economist, added, “The education literature says it’s almost impossible to improve on critical reading.”

Sewing circuits and sowing change

“When I came to MIT, I thought I was not good enough,” said Kanjun Qiu, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS). “I thought no one would respect me because I am a girl in computer science.”

Qiu, who began work this semester toward her master’s degree, now does research in an emerging field called computational textiles, which integrates electronics into fabric and paper using conductive thread. “We actually sew circuits together,” she said.

Qiu’s projects include a touch-sensitive fabric keyboard that plays music when you press on the soft keys and a glove that can recognize hand gestures and turn them into electronic commands. One of the great things about this field, Qiu says, is that unlike some other areas of EECS, it draws in significant numbers of women; 65 percent of participants are female.

Qiu runs workshops with middle and high school girls to teach them computer science. When she asks beginning students if they like to play with electronics, they often respond, “It’s not a girl thing to do.” One 12-year-old girl told Qiu, “It’s a boy’s toy, kind of like trucks.”

Qiu advocates for women in EECS because of the “tragic loss of potential” currently occurring, she said, and added, “Just as we have the power to provide entryways into new fields, we also have the power to change the stereotypes and cultural expectations that dominate today.”

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