Last fall I caught the bug. With my sister starting work at a bulge-bracket investment bank and my blockmates suiting up for every McKinsey and Morgan Stanley event on campus, I found myself newly fixated on the allure of extreme wealth. Over the course of a few short months, money began to appear to me as the easiest and most attractive measure of success—after all, it is far and away the most quantifiable. For the first time in my life, I added “business” to my set of stock responses to questions about my long-term ambitions.
My lifelong interests in the public sector and academics were minimized and replaced by a baby-faced, well-groomed, and sober penchant for the almighty dollar. Since I still bore some residual left-leaning trepidation about the prospect of working in financial services, I hitched my wagon to the business of technology, that lucrative and vaguely liberal industry where a faithful set of evangelists preach of our imminent salvation at the hands of apps.
I sought out and entered a summer internship on the business side of a fast-growing tech firm based in Paris and San Francisco, which specializes in Facebook applications for big businesses. Many of my fellow interns at the firm had turned down jobs at Boston Consulting Group and Google to work there. It was a hot company. To boot, I was making enough money and was going to walk away with some serious resume padding.
But I hated every minute of it. If there’s anything this internship taught me, it’s that time is not merely a commodity that you can bundle and slap on your resume; you actually have to live it. And if you’re doing something you don’t like, it can be quite unpleasant. Many people in the world are forced to do things they hate simply to survive. Those things are not usually internships, and avoiding them seems to be one of the main attractions of a Harvard education. With that in mind, my daily toil felt particularly absurd. It didn’t take me three weeks to remember that I wasn’t actually a Disciple of Tech Millennialism—that I don’t care one bit about click-through rates or cost per mille and that I’d rather go to graduate school for seven years than spend another month writing about “Return on Investment on Facebook.” And I still had two months of 55-hour workweeks left.
As far as I can tell, I found myself in this predicament because the Harvard environment had brought on a temporary psychosis—a haze under which all aspirations apart from the lucrative were subtly shameful. Perhaps I was just anxious about the prospect of winding up the least wealthy of my blockmates. Or maybe the arms race had exaggerated my competitiveness. Either way, I soon became painfully aware that my internship decision had been motivated by the job I wanted to have rather than the work I actually wanted to do.
So I grew a beard. A nasty, out-of-control beard, which nearly everyone I meet comments on. This beard is my personal, subtle statement that I will not be attending any Bain events this semester—that I will be starting a band and applying to Ph.D. programs when the time comes.
I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who takes a job in tech, banking, or consulting. In fact, I’m happy that there are people who make our markets liquid and our technology useful. But I would warn that there are institutional and cultural pressures at this school which can distort the career decisions of students, leading more of them to pursue work in these industries than otherwise would, even considering their attractive salaries.
Apart from Teach for America, these industries represent the far-and-away best recruitment apparatus around. And, in recruitment, convenience is king. Furthermore, as Anita J Joseph ’12 described in an excellent column last semester, the pressure of simply wanting to eat at the same restaurants as your friends after graduation can be a serious draw to the more lucrative professions.
But we can never forget that every day people fall into careers that leave them unsatisfied and full of what-might-have-beens. The only remedy is personal introspection. And facial hair. So: Grow your beards, mustaches, and soul patches (okay, maybe not soul patches), and figure out what you actually want to do. Women, your facial hair can be figurative. Don’t let the clean-shaven emissaries of the more convenient professions decide for you.
Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.