In the #college-apps channel on Hack Club, there used to be a pinned post (I forget who it was made by, but that isn't super important) that was just about two lines:
If you're a freshman or a sophomore, read this (https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/applying_sideways/) and get out of this channel as fast as you can.
Now, although that message was written with good intentions—I completely agree with the fact that you shouldn't think about college applications until the time is right—it didn't do a whole lot to reduce the number of underclassmen in the channel.
What it did do, however, was introduce me to one of the most interesting lines of thinking I've found in a while: thinking sideways.
The post that the message linked to was one of the most popular posts from MIT's infamous admissions blog, aptly named "Applying Sideways," by Chris Peterson.
For many, high school is less about the experience and more a gateway to college or university. There isn't anything fundamentally wrong with that—university can be a great source of education, and it should be what most people aim to do after high school. However, that sentiment often devolves into an all-encompassing rat race. Like Chris says in that article, the single-most common question he gets asked is, "How do I get into MIT?"
Obviously, there isn't a simple answer to that question in any form of it, and honestly, for any large-scale endeavour you take on, there never will be. Admissions are subjective by default, and objectivity ironically just leaves room for more bias. That's the fundamental idea behind what he calls "applying sideways." No matter how much you want MIT, the choice isn't up to you. If you optimize for getting into MIT, there's still a massive (this year, 96%) chance that you won't make it.
So why base your fundamental personality around getting in?
Optimizing yourself as a person should be the priority—MIT's admissions aim is to get individuals that are good and great, and while I'm not going to sit here and claim to be a guru of admissions (far from it; I've never even opened a university pamphlet prior to 3 weeks ago), I highly doubt that a slider with the question "how much you like MIT" is on the form.
If you stand at odds either way—whether or not the things you do are based on love for MIT, then wouldn't it make sense to just... not care?
Instead of doing things for MIT, Chris asks you to do them for yourself.
It makes sense; if you become a human being that you can be proud of, whether or not you get into MIT isn't really in the question. The worst possible scenario is that you're someone that you like—getting rejected (or accepted) from MIT isn't a reflection of your personality, because the two were always distinct. Also, chances are that if you like who you are, then MIT will too—purely as a side effect of being the best person you can be for yourself, you're at better odds for MIT admissions.
It's a pretty obvious thing not to focus on college admissions or base your life around them, but what hit me hardest about that one article was the mindset that it showcased: not just applying sideways, but learning to think sideways.
The life of a high schooler isn't very glamorous. We wake up, roll out of bed and into a screen for a few hours, eat something if we get time, do some homework, then roll back into the virtual world until the day's over. If, after all that, a couple minutes are left to do some other stuff, we might watch Netflix.
But within all of the drudgery, there's one feeling that comes out on top: stress. Every day, students are plagued with the worry of their next test grade—if it isn't 100%, then who knows what their GPA might sink to; their next sponsorship deal—if they can't get that one decisive win for their organization, the whole thing might go under; tiny wins and losses every single day lead to a scale of paranoia that's honestly pretty terrifying.
Every day has to build up to something bigger than yourself—a goal that you can feel proud of (and maybe flex a couple times in the group chat).
Thinking sideways is about embracing the power of the side effect.
Instead of thinking about a test score (which frankly, is largely irrelevant), think about the nature of the math that you're doing in the first place—a calculus test might be drudgery, but the effects of learning it could be monumental (greater than the possible positive effects of acing the test, for sure); having an understanding of complex math ideas is more valuable to the rest of your life (maybe you're a machine learning enthusiast!) than getting a higher grade on the test. Focusing on the direct effects of rereading your textbook at 11:00pm, 3 hours before your math final isn't going to make you more motivated to read the content (and if you fail the test, you're going to be twice as unhappy).
Being human is about being able to adapt to the rhythm and changes of the world around you. If you had your way all the time, then what's the point of having choice in the first place? Dealing with absolutes goes against the fundamental melody of life—you aren't the only orchestrator.
We're one big symphony with no sheet music to go off of, malfunctioning instruments, and a couple of people that happen to be really, really good at playing. When that symphony messes up, the world doesn't stop. We keep going. The fundamental goal of this band isn't to play a perfect song, it's just to keep going together—as a side effect of the practice that we get from playing shitty songs, perfection might be achieved (but no matter what, we all benefit).
That's why thinking sideways is so powerful—side effects mean that you're mitigating risk every step of the way, but also that, no matter what, you become someone that you can feel proud of.
We live in a world that was constructed horizontally, and yet most of us walk vertically. Crappy metaphors aside, being sideways can mean gaining a new perspective on the world, and getting into spaces that you never even know existed—deal with side effects, not with totality.