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How to Avoid the Well-Trodden Path

The fall of my junior year was my most difficult period in college. I took a semester off from school to work full-time in Brooklyn on a technology nonprofit I cared about, yet it was a lonely experience full of anxiety.

By October, we only had two months of funding left. What we wanted to build was much harder to build than we first thought, and we had yet to arrive at a business model that would work. I didn’t even know if we’d still be around in summer of 2017.

Despite believing enough in myself to take time off from school to work on a non-profit, I soon lost my self-confidence. So, I did what most juniors do in the fall: I looked for a summer job. I was interested in technology investing, and there were plenty of firms who posted jobs on our school’s career site, making the application process dangerously frictionless. In the end, I accepted an offer within a week of receiving it.

Then something lucky happened. Our nonprofit got funded and I saw a path towards financial stability. But I didn’t have the courage to back out of my offer even though I knew I loved my work in Brooklyn more. I didn’t follow the motto my roommate taught me: “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” It took an uneasy seven months for me to finally back out of my job in May and work full-time on my nonprofit for the summer. It was the best choice of my college career.

I wish the college climate was one in which choosing non-traditional options was better respected. Sadly, it’s not, and that’s one reason why fewer people pursue them. There’s too much negative peer pressure out there, where we dismiss people who do things that are different as incapable of making it into the established routes.

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While I hesitate to give advice because I’ve barely had any life experiences and have no idea how my choices will turn out, here’s what the last two summers taught me about how to avoid the pressure of pursuing certain paths:

All college summers are a risk-free shot at pursuing your passions. These chances are precious and shouldn’t be wasted.

Of course, if financial obligations drive you to take an income-maximizing job, go for it. And if you’re choosing an income-maximizing job to maintain a certain lifestyle, this is a sensible way to make a decision.

My advice is agnostic to specific industries. Ultimately, though, I do encourage people to expand the scope of potential options they think they have beyond the traditional big tech companies, consulting firms, and banks. These are great for people who love them. But based on how many people pursue these three routes, I’m sure that the number of people who go into them because it’s the path of least resistance is much higher than the number of people that go into them because it’s what they love.

Instead, I encourage people to consider less common opportunities. Here is the strategy I like most for finding a non-traditional opportunity. Pick a problem in the world you care about (global warming, wealth inequality, underperforming schools, etc.). Then find the top 10 most interesting, accomplished, or promising organizations who are trying to solve that problem whether they be in the social, private, and public sector. If you can’t find a compelling organization, start solving the problem yourself and look hard for funding on campus.

If you spent sufficient time exploring these options, and you decide they’re not for you: excellent. I wrote this piece because I think traditional opportunities face an unhealthy lack of competition from nontraditional opportunities, and college career centers facilitate this oligopoly. Not because one is better than the other. More choice is good.

Now what if you’re too afraid of taking a nontraditional route because you’re afraid of failing?

For these people, I encourage you to think hard about what failing actually means. I’m confident you’ll realize failing is impossible because you have no responsibility or expectation. Say you pursue a nontraditional job and realize you don’t like the work. This can’t be called a failure for the same reason we don’t call people who go into traditional paths and realize they don’t like them failures.

Or say you start a summer project with the ambition of turning it into a company and it doesn’t work out. Nobody expects you to succeed in starting a company during a summer. This is a move with only upside. If it doesn’t work out, you will have learned more than you could’ve hoped to learn elsewhere and increased your chances of success for your next entrepreneurial goal.

The scenario in which a fear of failure makes some sense to me is when people say, “I don’t want to pursue a nontraditional route because it may close down certain traditional job opportunities in the future.” If you are diligent enough to think this far ahead, the probability is high that you’ll be able to get that traditional job later if you want it. Yes, some opportunities will be closed to you as a result of you not pursuing a certain path. But ask yourself why you even want to keep them open for yourself. Optionality is a dangerous drug. The risk of closing down a door you’ll likely never walk through is the price of discovering something you love.

Rohan N. Pavuluri ’18 is a Statistics concentrator in Lowell House.

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