The Harvard Dream
Expectations of 'Success' Do Not Make Happiness
Dreams die hard and we watch them erode / But we cannot be denied the fire inside. Bob Seger, 1988.
I had lunch last week with Roger, a fellow senior and an old friend of mine. It was the first time we'd seen each other in months, as a full schedule of classes, job interviews and thesis writing had taken away nearly all of our free time. We talked for almost two hours, and while Roger tried to project the optimism and self-confidence expected of a 21-year-old Ivy Leaguer nearing graduation, he confessed to be grappling with fear and doubt.
Roger was lonely. He was bored. The pressure he had felt for so many years was weighing heavily upon him.
"You know, my whole life, everyone has had these expectations for me. My parents, my relatives, my old friends from high school. And so I pushed myself every day. I just kept pushing, and now it's dawning on me," he said. "Somewhere along the way, I confused success for happiness. I'm not happy right now. And I'm not even half as successful as I thought I'd be."
Other seniors, no doubt, share Roger's feelings. The pressure starts all too early. From the moment we can walk, we are carted all over the city for piano and swimming lessons, Sunday school and Boy Scout meetings. In high school, we add varsity sports, theater and the newspaper. Naturally, we are good students, and we fill our evenings with trigonometry and Thoreau. And so we arrive at Harvard, factory for the best and brightest. Spurred on by ghosts of centuries past, we run faster, reach farther and climb higher.
We've always been the best at everything, and we've got to prove it again here. We join myriad organizations and run for president of all of them. We equate being busy with being happy. And after four years, a poor thesis means failure. So does settling for Columbia Law School rather than Yale, or a job paying $45,000 in Chicago for one paying $60,000 on Wall Street.
Forget love. Formals, especially are a waste of time. They're nothing more than dressing all up to try and impress a date who can't even party because she has to get up early for lab the next morning. It's the grades that matter anyway. Don't worry about dating until you're out there working at McKinsey.
"That's what I always told myself. Now I realize what bullshit it was," Roger said. "I didn't get the job I wanted, so I'll be settling for about $40,000 next year. Over time, I'll make more, and I'll buy myself a Beerner and a two-bedroom in the village. But I'll be working 90 hours a week. And I'll have no one to share it with."
Of course, some have reached their last semester and found guarantees of fame, fortune and success. They have all the answers, and the world is their oyster. Many, though, are intensely searching their souls, plagued by knowledge of dreams deferred--of an entire young life spent like so many greyhounds racing after an elusive rabbit. Then one morning they awake, like Roger did, and realize they'll never reach it.
"Harvard isn't a magical road to boundless happiness. It's a path surrounded by dying dreams. There's a big world out there, but right from freshman year, I've been boxed into medicine, law or business. I paid $120,000 in tuition. I can't afford to take a job teaching or one in journalism. And hell, I can't even look outside the big cities, because my Harvard degree has tainted me. People either resent me because of it, or wonder what I'm doing there if I'm such a 'bright Ivy League man.' I just want to scream."
He continued: "There are so many little things I've never learned along the way. I want to learn to waltz, to swing. To cook my own meals. I always dreamed of driving across America, maybe seeing a baseball game at all 28 parks. Or just chilling for a month at my family's cabin in Michigan, walking into town at night for ice cream or popcorn. I kept putting it off because of internships and all. Now I realize I'll never have time--ever."
Seven semesters after arriving in Harvard Yard, many seniors find themselves with ample free time on their hands. They're no longer officers in their various organizations, and they've found jobs and finished up their theses. They sit alone, isolated from their housemates by Harvard's stratifying, repressive entryway system, and they remember.
They smile in the warmth of countless joyful moments. They've been to the football games, the final club parties and the house formals. They've played intramurals, attended speeches by foreign dignitaries, volunteered in public service programs and streaked the Yard. They've grown as people by keeping a daily schedule, doing their own laundry and surviving without parents.
But they're smiling through their tears. They kept busy to avoid being alone. Now they struggle with the knowledge that graduation will be their last communal stroll through the Yard. They realize they may never see each other again. And they brace for the upcoming transition from collegiate superstardom to corporate-world anonymity.
They are lonely. They are scared. For all they have learned, they wonder if they are happy. That's the one thing they can't teach you at Harvard.
Christopher R. McFadden '97 of Eliot House was senior editor of The Crimson in 1996.