O, Fair Career

If last year's event is any indicator, hundreds of students will flock to the Media Jobs and Internship Fair today. I predict that the Science Center will be packed tighter than it would be for any class. Journalism and the arts--both fields where the best work comes from people who landed there almost by mistake--will miraculously appear as yet another "career path," as straightforward as going to work for a bank.

Thankfully for Harvard students, no great vision is necessary. Just like applying to professional schools, all we have to do is show evidence of past experience, meet a few of the right people, send over a few "clips" and work our way to the top. Like every other option that Harvard students today see when they look out at the great wide world, the media now lie at the end of yet another well-beaten path to success.

There is a plague passing through Harvard right now. It incubates in career fairs and extracurricular activities and summer jobs. Its symptoms are exhibited when papers and essays, once ends in themselves, become "writing samples," when newspaper articles become "clips," when teachers become "recommendations," when acquaintances become "contacts" and, worst of all, when realized dreams become "stepping stones" to bigger-and-better things. Some might diagnose it as "careerism."

Others might name the virus as "ambition." I think it's more than that. It's the idea that life is a track; that every significant endeavor somehow has to be reduced to being a jumping-off point for the next, better endeavor; that things do not happen to us through luck or exceptional vision or untutored talent but rather through a series of well-calculated moves; that "successful" is something we will become in the future, not something we can be right now. And it's the idea that a career is something that already exists, that finding one's way in the world involves sliding into a pre-existing position currently occupied by someone else. This plague represents nothing less than a failure of imagination. It is a waste of our talent and of our youth.

Harvard students are supposedly some of the most gifted in the country. We are the nation's brain-trust, or at least part of it. And yet we are all worried about finding jobs. Why? The economy has never been better. The world is full of problems that need solutions. There are one thousand different directions each of us could go. We are the ones who should be forging new paths into the next century. So why is our greatest aspiration to work for the biggest banks, or to write for "Beavis and Butthead"? Why are we so worried about keeping our resumes in shape, about staying on the "right track," when we could be doing something completely new?

It is difficult to determine who to blame for this incredibly limiting view of what life or a career should be. Harvard deserves some of the onus, of course, but not as much as we might expect. After all, what is Harvard doing to us by not having any pre-professional majors if not screaming that we should stop being so obsessive about our future careers? The Office of Career Services has contributed its fair share, and students are right to blame it for its tight focus on finance, but other possibilities are there for those who look.

Adults in general merit some discredit, for always asking us what we wanted to be when we grow up--a terrible question, and if our entire generation would vow never to ask this question to anyone under 20 once we grow up, a new generation might someday be capable of self-satisfaction again. But the truth is that no one is really responsible for our obsession with "success"--tangible success, that is, the kind that comes with either a big public name or a large salary--other than ourselves.

At Harvard, of all places, we imagine that we are all extremely self-confident. The truth is that very few of us are. If we truly believed in ourselves and our talents, we wouldn't feel the need to prove ourselves all the time by doing what we think other people expect us to do. We could just be who we are, letting other people take us or leave us while we set to work on those things that move our hearts. The hundreds of Harvard graduates who wind up in certain professions simply because those jobs were the best-paying or most selective ones are a testament to our lack of confidence.

If we had faith in ourselves, if we believed in ourselves enough to live and love our most enduring dreams, then we wouldn't always be clamoring for the highest salary or the biggest name-brand place to work in a desperate scramble to say to the world: "This is who I am." We would go to graduate schools, redesign cities, write novels, start theater companies, found publications, sing, teach, research and discover all kinds of new things that so frighteningly few people are capable of discovering. Student loans be damned. We have the talent. We have the resources. We just don't have the faith.

Occasionally I wonder what would happen if we stopped worrying for a few moments about our futures and started attacking the present with that same passion that drives us in hordes to career fairs. What if we stopped focusing so much on how to shape our current status into what some job might want from us someday and started just being ourselves?

"Be yourself." It's a line we hear so much that we don't even think about it. But what does it really mean to be yourself? Does it mean "living up to your potential"? Not if "potential" implies someone else's conception of your talents instead of your own. Being yourself means believing that your own vision of what the world should be is a worthy one, and being yourself means wanting to live by that vision. It means doing things that we enjoy doing. It means studying what we want to study, not what we think other people might find impressive someday. It means doing things because we know those things will be meaningful to us, not because we feel like we "should."

In the end, there is no "should" except for the one we define for ourselves. Talent is a commodity that can be bought and sold, as the Media Fair and any other career fair will make clear. But while you might be thrilled to work somewhere where those talents can be used, I urge you not to sell your talent at too low a price. There are many professionals in the world. There is only one you. Don't forget it.

Dara Horn's column appears on alternate Fridays.