The Prestige Paradox

Bob graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics. Four years later, he graduated from Yale Law School. At age 28, he was working at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York. By age 52, he was running the place and making millions. At 55, Bob headed south to Washington to serve as the assistant to the president for economic policy. After a couple of years, he was in the cabinet. Thanks to his new position, Bob's signature can be found on every newly-printed piece of American currency. As the crowning glory of this stellar resume, Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin '60 is steering the world's most powerful country through the rocky waters of the global financial crisis.

By conquering the elusive troika of money, power and prestige, Rubin is living the dream of the hyper-ambitious. As the embodiment of what so many at Harvard seem to be striving to emulate, he's the poster boy of the Harvard undergrad. The drive to equal this uber-alum's conquest of the troika has become one of the defining characteristics of undergraduate--especially senior--life at Harvard. Curiously though, this drive is often self-defeating. For the more success we attain, the less-satisfied we feel. Call it the prestige paradox.

The prestige paradox works like this: An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can't help but begin to define herself by it.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

This worry leads to irrational obsessions about how to maintain the shine of the Harvard status badge when everyone else is also wearing one. For example, you can't be satisfied, the thinking goes, with just any grad school--anything below the mythical "Top Five" (or whatever standard is in fashion) might not cut it in the need-to-impress game. Similarly, getting a job is great, but unless it's with a Goldman, Sachs, a McKinsey or a Microsoft, survival in the prestige scene might prove difficult.

It's not the case that less-prestigious alternatives wouldn't satisfy. Rather, the Rubin wannabes won't allow themselves to be satisfied with them. Satisfaction with anything less than what the conventional wisdom deems impressive raises fears of losing standing in the rat race. Contentment with less than the best might imply a slacker's complacency, a willingness to give up on the race. Or worse, it might reveal that you couldn't compete in the race at all.

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

This is not to imply that ambition isn't important. It can inspire great things, like putting a man on the moon, founding a Silicon Valley powerhouse or discovering a cure for cancer. But without proper perspective, this mentality just isn't healthy. Only one who's ascended to Rubin-esque levels of success would ever feel satisfied--maybe. Even if you get that far, for the prestige-driven, self-esteem is continuously tethered to a hazy, capricious definition of what others define as successful.

At Harvard, it's hard to resist becoming a rat. The temptations to run in the rat race while here and after are all around us, with constant talk of "elite" grad schools, firms and fellowships. Running is both socially acceptable and promoted. A regular dose of healthy perspective of life outside the walls of the Yard is needed as an antidote to these temptations.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a Robert Rubin. But, there is something wrong with feeling like a failure if you never quite equal old Bob.

Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.