In my very first lecture at MIT Sloan School of Management, a professor started class with a drawing of a huge three-ring target. The bullseye was colored green, the middle ring was yellow, and the outer ring was red. “This is your comfort zone,” she said, pointing to the green circle. “We want you to push yourselves to the yellow zone as much as possible. If you find yourself in the red zone, ask for help.”
Breaking out of the figurative bubble is the message at Sloan, and it turns out there’s a strong scientific basis for it. The yellow zone, describing the kind of new experience that induces a little bit of anxiety but not a full-blown panic, is called your “optimal anxiety.”
Operating in the yellow zone can push you to be more productive, think more creatively, and help you manage change more comfortably. For me, I’ve noticed that picking up new skills outside my normal routine helps me focus better on my core work. I think learning something new gives my brain time to put the puzzle pieces together, and it restores my energy and enthusiasm for whatever problem I’m working on.
Over the past year, Sloan has become my comfort zone. I love Sloan lectures and speaker series, I like hanging out with my friends in the E62 cafe, and I’m always busy with recruiting and homework. We have our own little bubble on the east side of campus!
In order to break out of my Sloan bubble, I’ve been working on building community outside of Sloan. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to engage with the greater Institute as a Sloan student. I’ve curated a list of five approaches I’ve used to break out of my Sloan bubble and dip into the yellow zone.
1. The Muddy Charles. Just go.
Okay, okay. This one is obvious. The Muddy Charles is MIT’s on-campus bar. It’s cheap, they sometimes have free food, and I guarantee if you go, you will likely see a familiar face and meet at least one new person.
2. Join an MIT-wide club.
The MIT-wide club I joined is WMBR, MIT’s radio station. Like most MIT-wide clubs, WMBR includes graduate students, undergrads and community members. Participating in WMBR has taught me production skills, helped me find my creative voice, and introduced me to a lot of interesting folks who share my taste in music.
3. Take courses with group projects.
While class projects might not be the first thing you think to add to your social calendar, courses with group projects are a great way to meet students from other departments. MBA students can take up to three courses outside of Sloan, and I took full advantage.
My favorite project-based class was Amos Winter’s Global Development course in the mechanical engineering department. My partner, a first-year graduate student at Lincoln Labs, and I built a vibration damper for a low-cost prosthetic knee. Designing a prototype and learning how to use the Hobby Shop equipment was definitely in the yellow zone for me, but we had tons of support. Having to design and build a working device was a big contrast to my Sloan coursework.
4. Play in the Graduate Student Council Orientation Olympics.
The Graduate Student Council hosts social events throughout the year, but the kickoff is the Orientation Olympics. While Sloan has our own Sloan Olympics, it is not nearly as goofy as the Orientation Olympics. Last year, I played in the Olympics with a friend from Sloan, and we got whupped in a game of badminton against a UK-ranked badminton star. (I’m pretty sure the organizers lost track of score after the first game, but sometimes you can just tell when you’re outclassed!)
5. Sign up for Independent Activities Period (IAP) courses.
During January, MIT offers lots of fun, low-commitment IAP courses. This year, my roommates and I decided to “embrace winter” by signing up for the MITOC Winter School IAP course. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we attend lectures about how to gear up and stay safe in wild winter weather conditions. Over the weekends, we head out for outdoor adventures in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Through Winter School, I linked up with the trail running group within MITOC. I ran cross country in high school and college, so I’m excited to find MIT folks who love running through mud.
While the department bubble is safe and comfortable, it’s healthy to break out of your comfort zone once in a while. With so many activities on campus, there are a lot of opportunities to shake up your normal routine and try something fresh.
Hope to see you at the Muddy!
Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT.
This post originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Admissions student blogs.