Dress For Success

I could be an astronaut again this year, or maybe have my mom fed-ex my boots, leather chaps and nickel-plated

I could be an astronaut again this year, or maybe have my mom fed-ex my boots, leather chaps and nickel-plated pistols and resurrect the old cowboy look that was such a hit with the ladies when I was eight. But it’s harder to get excited about Halloween this year. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been watching a costume party all month.

I first made this Halloween-buzz-killing revelation as I was standing idly by listening to a sharply dressed, future Goldman Sachs partner schmooze it up at a recruiting information session. I had watched him ask questions he already knew the answers to for 10 minutes when he finally moved in for the kill. He began to tell the recruiter how much fun he thinks investment banking is, how sitting in front of a spreadsheet at 3 a.m. on a Saturday sounds like a great way to spend an evening and how he really believes that it would be enormous fun to work for an organization that cares very little about him as a person. I didn’t really sympathize with him. I also didn’t really like his costume.

I had never taken a Psych class before this semester, and I don’t think that this guy has ever. As an economics concentrator, I thought it might be interesting to find out how individuals really think, instead of spending my entire academic life treating them as points on some obscure graph. As I expected, my initial experience with Psych 15 turned out to be interesting, but it wasn’t really all that earth-shattering—I mean, everything seemed fairly obvious. After all, I was pretty sure I knew myself. Don’t I know why I behave the way I do? I quickly realized that this may not be the case—maybe I didn’t really know myself as well as I thought I did.

One of the big concepts in social psych is self-presentation—the way we present ourselves to the world around us. A person’s self-presentation is often complicated as they strive to ingratiate ourselves with others, get ahead in their careers and generally climb the ladder as is expected. People adjust their self-presentation to their environment—here at Harvard, where everyone is clawing to get ahead all the time, people can have particularly diverse and incongruent selves. Call me crazy (my roommate does it all the time), but I think that the pressure we experience at Harvard creates more alternate selves than are necessary, more alternate selves that in the end, may do more harm than good.

People have already started to ask me what I’m going to dress up as, but in light of my bold new adventure into the world of Psych 15 (and from Dunster all the way to William James at 10 a.m.), I am inclined to think instead about the ways we dress up every day, clothed in costumes that often do not reflect who we really want to be.

I don’t think that most people who behave like the guy I heard at this recruiting event are being truthful to themselves. Most of us would not like investment banking. It does not make people happy. Talk to anyone who has done it—most pack their bags after a few torturous years. In the words of one of the most successful bankers ever to come out of Morgan Stanley (and a Harvard alum), “An old banker is a failed banker.”

This is my first go at recruiting and I already hate it. The never-ending information sessions and conversations with recruiters can all get a little repetitive and exhausting.

But I don’t think that most Harvard students realize why we hate the process so much. It’s not because it’s competitive. Harvard students thrive on competition—in fact most of us love it, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Rather, I think that we really hate recruiting because of the way it forces us to misrepresent ourselves, to play dress up not just on October 31, but for most of October, November and on into the future for as long as it takes. For many of us, like my over-eager information session friend, this process is as reflexive as breathing, and that is part of the problem. If you think that I’m being presumptuous because YOU actually like banking: Stop. Relax. Take a deep breath. Think about whether you are actually going to enjoy what being an investment banker is all about. Think about why you assume that it is so great, and why this wanna-be strap-hanger I overheard was trying so hard to convince a recruiter (and, it seemed, himself) that he loved it so much.

Could it be at all possible that the culture of success at Harvard drives people to skip right over the most important part of cognition—getting to know themselves and what they want and need—and instead, sends them straight into the outstretched arms of J.P. Morgan’s H.R. department? If putting our best foot forward means putting a foot forward that isn’t ours, how successful are we really going to be until we stop measuring success in dollars and start measuring it in happiness? In a lot of ways, I have begun to view my everyday experiences here at Harvard as recurring Halloweens, and I don’t think it’s making me a happier, more fulfilled person.

Believe it or not, I actually do have a positive recruiting experience to talk about, and I think it is important to mention. A few weeks after my first recruiting debacle, another firm presented itself in a totally different light. It came off as laid-back and fun, and although the environment wasn’t low pressure, it didn’t have a bloodthirsty desire to rip your guts out and eat you alive. The recruiters seemed to be enjoying themselves, and most of them had a few drinks while we talked. I felt comfortable in the situation, and I didn’t feel like I needed to pretend or present a particular image. I had a couple of drinks, and didn’t feel the need to put my “best foot” forward. I was just me. A drunk me. On this night of recruiting, I didn’t feel like I was trick-or-treating for a job.

Obviously the same experience can be interpreted differently depending on what you want out of life. Some people really do want to be investment bankers, and others don’t. This conflict is certainly not limited to those with finance-driven aspirations however. It’s not about investment banking. It is about the possibility that with all our running around trying to impress everyone all the time, it becomes hard to know what we really want, and who the person is that really wants it. The second company may not be a better place for everyone, but I think it was for me, and the only reason I can say that is because I stopped to think beforehand about who I am and what costume I might be driven to wear. If we critically examine the costumes that we wear we are more likely to figure out why we are wearing them.

I did not begin this rant of mine with the intention of lambasting recruiting. I actually started thinking about the different roles that we play in the context of our everyday relationships and friendships, something we have also been discussing in my Psych class.

The best friendships I’ve had here at Harvard and elsewhere have been the ones in which I was completely honest about myself, and the other people were completely honest about themselves with me. None of us wore masks. I have the most fun and am the happiest when I don’t feel the need to present a self other than the one that feels natural. Similarly, the most spectacular failures I’ve had with others have occurred because this kind of disclosure was absent.

With good friends, most of the time we don’t need to think about self presenting, we just do what makes us happy. With our friends, we don’t feel the pressure we do when trying to get into the “right” classes, the “right” jobs, or the “right” relationships. With our friends, we tend to know what is really right for us. There need not be any “best foot.”

Figuring out whether I’m wearing a costume won’t just help me land a more fulfilling job, but it will make my relationships more rewarding as well. This seems pretty obvious, but here at Harvard the forces driving me away from this knowledge can at times be overpowering. I know that I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, it has usually been better in the long run to take off my costume and get busy being who I really am (preferably with a partner), than to keep wearing it and strive for something that won’t end up making me happy anyway. I guess Psych has been an earth-shattering experience after all.

In the words of the wise and all-knowing Billy Joel, “They’re the faces of a stranger and we love to try them on.” He also said that he would “take you just the way you are.” I tend to think the emphasis was on the latter.

Matthew L. Siegel ’05 is an economics concentrator living in Dunster House. He enjoys playing with Jello, eating dinosaur soup and rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers.