Five years ago, I ate a red velvet muffin every morning for about six weeks. It was the first semester of my freshman year, and I enjoyed the community of regulars that came with this breakfast ritual. The muffins were always these amorphous, half-goo red masses with too much sugar and never enough love. You could tell they were rushed during baking as soon as you took your first bite, but their butter-based façade led the unwary to believe they were more than just one of a batch of who-knows-how-many. The paper around them looked oily, with the top glossy like morning dew. I would eat one of these everyday, my sanity maintained only by the thought of hot coffee in the otherwise unforgiving upstate New York winter. I did so because I was intoxicated by the thought of community after moving to a new place without many friends.
One day, somebody asked if I actually liked the muffins. He had eaten one the other day, and described it almost precisely as I had in my head: undesirable on all fronts. I explained it wasn’t so much the muffins that I liked but rather the act of buying the muffin, sitting down for breakfast, and occasionally meeting someone new in the process. He laughed and said, “you don’t have to get a muffin.” A light bulb went off in my head, I realized that a red velvet muffin is not a necessary evil for getting to know new people, and I started eating a bagel with my coffee instead. That was the last time I seriously thought about muffins until this past summer in San Francisco.
As I was walking back to the office after lunch one afternoon, I felt a strong craving for a lemon poppyseed muffin. It all happened so fast. A flood of memories I had repressed surrounding muffins came rushing back and, at that moment, there was nothing in the world that I wanted more. This was absurd for several reasons: I have never in my life eaten a muffin of this variety, its acidity was in diametric gastric opposition with the chilled glass of milk I planned to have when I got back to work, and I am severely allergic to poppyseeds. Nothing added up. I told a coworker about this experience and they agreed it was irrational. When I accepted this, I came to a fuller understanding of why it is important to contextualize desires.
For me, the gift of the muffin was twofold. On the red velvet front, I learned that it is important to constantly reevaluate the methods we are employing to reach our objectives as they may not always be optimal or even well-founded. My friend stating simply that I did not have to get muffins—implying that I could get anything and still preserve my morning ritual—seems more or less obvious but I had never given it any introspection. Instead, I stuck to the first thing I picked and suffered as a consequence. After swapping out muffins for bagels I became much happier. I continued to experiment with my breakfast selections until ultimately settling on mixed fruit, a love affair that has held true ever since.
On the lemon poppyseed side of things, I realized the importance of questioning why we are pursuing the objectives that we are in the first place. Craving a sugary snack can easily be written off as being human, but for me the experience served to enlighten my own understanding of why I value the life trajectory I am on. It made me realize that it is not enough to simply want something before pursuing it. Rather, it is necessary to want it, disentangle the subconscious reasons fueling the desire, think about each of those reasons in turn and whether they make sense, and then decide if your desire is something you truly want. While it may be, chances are it isn’t.
As I progress further into my MIT career, two principles guide me. The first is the Red Velvet Principle: I must occasionally reconsider the path I’m on to make sure it’s the most direct route to where I’m going. The second is the Lemon Poppyseed Principle: I must critically question if where I’m heading is truly where I want to go. As I sit in Area Four café with a bagel and banana, I can’t help but notice the espresso-glazed muffin at the pastry counter. What lesson will this one teach me?