This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.
Professor Seth Teller, my former advisor (as an undergrad researcher), mentor, and academic role model, passed away earlier this month. He truly and passionately worked towards addressing important problems (with autonomous vehicles, assistive technologies, and robotics for disaster recovery at least!), somehow with both vigor and patience; he has done so much, and yet there was so much more to do and more to come. The situation is entirely shocking to me, and I wanted to share some words.
On 7/12, I was reminded of how compassionate of a community MIT is. I woke up to an email with the subject line “Call me ASAP” from my former grad student supervisor David Hayden. It had been more than 1.5 years since we were last in touch, but he wanted me to hear the sad news from a person and not from something less personal (i.e. email, internet). (Thank you, David, I really appreciated it!) And it’s a great reflection of the warm person that Seth was (and the people around him!). No matter how busy he was, he would smile and greet me in the halls, and always made time to meet with me when I asked. Throughout the day, friends messaged me, and I messaged friends, to make sure that everyone was doing alright. A couple years out of MIT now, I am reminded that Seth has touched so many people, so many lives. Even friends who did not know him except as a professor reached out to say a few kind words.
I want to share one small anecdote, which has affected me to today.
About 2.5 years ago, having very little clue about what I wanted to do/achieve with my life (what some of us fondly call the quarter-life crisis), I went to Seth Teller at a loss and told him the executive summary of my vague interests: “I think self-driving cars are pretty cool.” Seth had co-led the MIT DARPA Urban Driving Challenge team back in 2006, but at this point, it was mostly a past project. He told me the following: “If you have an idea of what your passion in life is, then you have to go after it as hard as you possibly can. Only then can you hope to find your true passion.”
Anyone can tell you to go after your dreams. Seth’s insight is that dreams and ambitions are not always clear from the start — they may be hidden, they may manifest themselves in several forms. He knew that hard work is required to find them, extract them from the mess of school and experience and daily life, pursue them, and achieve them.
Shortly after, I left his group and joined the Distributed Robotics Lab (under Daniela Rus, MIT), where I started studying transportation problems from a computational/robotics perspective and did my Masters thesis on algorithms for automatic mapping (“GPSZip: semantic representation and compression system for GPS using coresets”). And now I have moved on to Alex Bayen’s group at Berkeley to continue studying the problems of estimation, prediction, and control/automation of current and future transportation systems.
In short: When I grow up, I want to be like Seth Teller. I want to work on important problems, and I want to help people. I want to support the people around me, and I want to help people find and go after their dreams. And I want to always take the time to smile and say hello.
I am grateful for every short minute I spent with Seth. For more information, here is the initial press release, the investigation update, and his personal website. I do not know the circumstances for his death, but I am very sorry for the world (and especially those closest to him) for the loss.