Getting into the MIT Media Lab: Risks, Skydiving and Validation.

“Go not where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

On February 27th, I got an email with words I’d long dreamt of reading but had little hope would come to be. I’d been accepted into the MIT Media Lab as a student in the Masters for Media Arts and Sciences.

After two years of relentless work, numerous failures and creative learning, I was getting what I’d always dreamed of. I was joining a community of learners, researchers and innovators; I would get to be in a place that is a ‘hotbed of creativity’; and I could finally experiment without limitation.

I was in Sydney, Australia when I got the acceptance email. The morning after, I traveled to Wollongong and took myself skydiving — something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. If you’ve never done it, you absolutely must. The adrenaline and exhilaration are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I came out of it vowing to take the AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) Skydiving Course so that I can skydive on my own all over the world. I’ll do it — and I’ll write about it as soon as I have. Maybe I’ll even make a VR experience while I’m up there, but I digress.

I mention skydiving because the feeling of jumping off an airplane, at the mercy of an instructor you met only a few minutes before and a parachute you have no idea how to operate, is well, pretty darn risky. It’s frightening. But as soon as you’re soaring down, you realize that you’re seeing the world from an entirely new perspective and you can indeed, fly.

That’s what my journey to the MIT Media Lab has felt like; and what I hope it will continue to be.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I felt like I was constantly jumping off an airplane. I never did anything quite as daring but every choice I made was masked with the same fears and questions. Will I fall? Will I fail? Is this too big a mission for me? Why is everyone doing something else?

I spent the past two years foregoing opportunities to work at high level corporate companies and to live in United States, instead moving back to my home country, Kenya and creating, learning and working in small but highly impactful media technology startups. I’ve taken online courses in Data Visualization and Virtual Reality Programming (FYI, I had no coding experience before this) and forged an entirely new direction in my career through this. I’ve spent time getting intimately close with the communities I hope to impact through my non-profit. I’ve started new ventures that have succeeded and failed. I’ve also spent time traveling, reading, writing and taking up new activities like tennis, aerial fitness and painting.

Things haven’t always been smooth sailing. The past two years have also been marred by personal losses, self-doubt, confusion and a myriad of failures. I always asked myself if I’d made a mistake choosing the path I chose. The answer, despite being difficult, was always a resounding no for the importance to which I held the work I was doing. Whilst I had fear that I was making a mistake not pursuing a high paying corporate job, I had an even greater fear: if I didn’t make this ‘mistake’ now, I would always regret not doing so later in life. I stuck with my choices.

I fell in love with the Media Lab when I read Whiplash by Joi Ito (Director of the Media Lab) and Jeff Howe. The book, which I highly recommend, discusses nine principles that the Media Lab believes in (see image below). After reading Whiplash I felt like the Media Lab was the perfect fit for me but had little confidence that I would be the perfect fit for them. Did I have enough experience? Was I smart enough? Were my ideas good enough? I almost didn’t apply but again the fear of regret (the only type fear I condone) made me click submit.

I applied to the Civic Media Research Group, led by Ethan Zuckerman. Speaking to him and the other media lab students during my interview was extremely eye opening. All the nerves and anxieties I had were calmed. I learned that this was a place with great people who genuinely cared about the same things I cared about: creating, researching and exploring new tools in media for social impact. They were people with open minds and people from all sorts of backgrounds. They highlighted the ways in which my work was important and could be useful to them. After the interview I felt that, whether I got in or not, I wouldn’t regret the work I had been doing for the past two years.

My mum asked me what my plan B would be if I didn’t get into MIT. I told her I’d continue what I’d been doing and re-apply the next year.

I’m grateful to God that I’m in the position that I’m in right now. But I also mean what I told my mother. It’s never a be all or end all situation — especially if you can vouch for what you’re doing as true to your passion and beneficial to the world around you.

It’s hard to maintain confidence in your work if you’re not receiving much outward validation. It’s great to get validation from institutions like MIT but something I learned during the waiting process was that if your work is impactful, there is already tons of validation out there — you just have to acknowledge it and accept it. Understanding how you or your work affects others, is validation. Registering any progress you’ve made between today and yesterday, is validation. Any slight improvement in a new skill or endeavor is validation. Helping someone is validation. An idea or new beginning is validation.

Believing in yourself is validation.

Getting into the Media Lab has been amazing validation for me — but even this accomplishment isn’t sufficient. It’s a fantastic opportunity but can’t be defined purely as success or as evidence of it. There’s still more work to do, more risks to take and more to learn to ensure that my time there will contribute to my mission of making the world a better place for women.

One of the 9 principles of the Media Lab is ‘Risk over Safety.’

Take the risk.

Virtual Reality Programmer; Storyteller; Feminist; Adrenaline Junkie; MIT Media Lab Graduate Researcher.; Sometimes I think I’m a pixie;