Studying in KAIST: Self-Challenge vs Mental Health

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“If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room” — a commendable yet potentially damaging statement. In navigating challenges in daily university life, we often times strain ourselves too much to the extent that we harm our mental health. In this article, Taufiq would like to remind our Indonesia Mengglobal readers on the importance of finding balance in university life, maintaining mental health in check, while still achieving many great things in life.

“Taufiq, are you going to join a boyband?”  This was a typical response I received when I told my high school classmates I was going to a university in Korea after graduation.  Many Indonesians do not know much about this country beyond K-Pop music, K-Drama, and perhaps Kimchi.  Korean entertainment wave seems to promote only a single dimension of Korean culture. In reality, Korean culture is multidimensional, just like the culture of any country. Unfortunately, many of its dimensions are drown amidst the revelry of Korean entertainment. One positive cultural dimension we all can learn from Korea is their love for science, technology, and progress. This mindset became one of the major factors that caused “Korean economic miracle”, where the country’s economy skyrocketed in a relatively short time. However, other than bringing prosperity to a countless number of people, this miracle also carried a high difficulty standard and in many cases high-pressure environment toward education in Korea.

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Taufiq in KAIST

I am currently a student at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). This university is considered as one of the best science and engineering university in Korea. My experience here is probably a mixed bag, filled with great times as well as hard times. I remember it was especially difficult during the first months, the period I sometimes called “expectation adjustment” phase.

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A snapshot of life in KAIST

In high school, I was always ahead of my peers. I always passed exams with flying colors. That was about to change in KAIST. For example, although I was already confident with calculus, I still miserably failed my calculus course here on some occasions. One time, I received a score of two for one of my homework. I was clueless in chemistry labs, stuck for hours and hours in programming without any progress, et cetera. Furthermore, in KAIST there are a lot of extraordinarily bright and genius people from all over the world. Although interacting with people from a diverse cultural background is something that I very much enjoy, sometimes I can’t help comparing myself to them. My confidence dwindles as I realize how amazing these people are. At one point, I felt like a fraud. I felt unworthy of all the praise I had received, undeserved of being at KAIST at all.

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A day out in Korea

I was experiencing what is known as “Impostor Syndrome”. It is a psychological condition where someone doubts his capability and have internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Impostor syndrome is surprisingly a common mental condition, especially in a highly competitive environment. Speaking from personal experience, suffering from impostor syndrome is an unpleasant situation. But believe it or not, it could be a good sign, as I realized later after I recovered from it.

Confucius once said, “If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” I had known this quote for a long time, even before I came to Korea. In fact, this was as one of my reasons to study abroad, to challenge myself. I was, and still, am, fully committed to the idea that growth is only possible outside of our comfort zone. What I did not realize was, how great its effect could be on my mental condition and self-worth. Over the past three years, I have learned some tips that I would like to share in this article, about how to balance self-challenge and mental health.

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Taufiq and his colleagues in KAIST

First of all, we need to recognize the feeling of inadequacy we experience is an undeniable proof that we are challenging ourselves. Challenging ourselves is a brave thing to do. So we may give ourselves credit for that. Secondly, we need to focus our attention only on things we can control. Many people are anxious about things beyond their control. But, I think this is a waste of mental faculty. Worrying about something we can’t control will not in any way improve the situation. Instead, redirecting our attention to something else we can actually control might prevent ourselves from experiencing another failure. For example, if I have tried all things I could possibly do to finish a project or if I have studied maximally for an exam, and in the end, they still did not go well, I don’t dwell myself over them because the results are already beyond my control. I move on and occupy my mind with other things that I still can improve. However, when I talk to my peers about it, sometimes it hurts to see they did not struggle as much as I did or even they did not find the task hard at all. This feeling brings me to the third realization. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others.

I used to aim to be the best. I work hard day and night to be the first rank, the highest score achiever or whatnot. As a result, failure would cause a great mental toll on me. But after so many failures, I realized that this is a false and never-ending goal. No matter what I do, there would be people somewhere who are better than me. If I keep the same ambition of being the best, I’d be trapped in a cycle that would continually deteriorate my mental health.  I also realized that each person’s clock might tick in different rates, just like what Einstein has taught us from his relativity. So instead of comparing myself to others, I now believe that finding inherent values in the things that I do is a much more meaningful goal. I judge myself, not based on what other people have achieved, but based on the progress that I have made. It is often difficult to not see this life as a race. After all, society keeps putting us in competition with each other. But, I believe a healthier approach is to consider this life as a masterpiece in progress. Looking from this perspective, we would be busier in asking ourselves on what kind of masterpiece we would leave behind instead of comparing ourselves to others.

I recognize some if not all of these tips are cliché. But the key is always to remind ourselves when we are facing relevant situations. If we do, over time we could develop a mental capacity that automatically applies these strategies. Then hopefully, it would transform us into a more balanced person. As the last words of this article, I would like to send warm regards to all fellow struggling Indonesians, particularly the ones who study or work abroad. Please don’t be too hard on yourself and always take care of your mental and physical health!