Climbing Ladders

This essay is about a cultural phenomenon I am noticing amongst students at top-tier universities. This is an incredibly challenging piece to write because it is, by nature, offensive. I do not believe it to be untrue, however, as I really believe in this concept. None of it is personal, but it is frustrating.

The path I am trying to illustrate did not happen to me, but I see it all the time here at school.

So what is happening?

Well, nothing particularly new. “The sickness” has just been rebranded. From the time students enter college, they are swept up into a cultural wave: the tide of “careers.”

My fear is that “the idea of an elite career” is ruining America. More explicitly, I think that a significant percentage of students are chasing a hopeless religion of boring, meaningless work. This is the Sickness.

I am trying to be explicit but again this is hard to write about given the number of caveats. I know there are many more pressing problems in the world. I know this is a first-world problem. I know everyone comes from a different background and that should be considered in this essay.

This blog post is a generalization. It is me judging the world. I am trying to judge fairly, but of course tell me how I am wrong.

My fear is that our class of generational talent is being funneled down the wrong path. My optimism is that we can significantly change the world by simply diverting this cohort of talent into more impactful work.

This essay is a rant about how the sickness roots itself in many of our top students.

Smart, intellectually curious people come to college in hopes of “finding their passions” and “growing as a person.” You are naive, optimistic, and had once dreamed of being an astronaut.

You leave everything you know behind (in some cases: families, homes, friends, communities, etc.) for this opportunity. You have worked your entire lives to this point on getting into college. All of your nights studying for AP tests and participating in pointless high school clubs. This is it.

You have made it – the holy grail! University!

What do you do there?

You meet strangers. Talk to upperclassmen. Call your parents. Go to classes. Go to career fairs. Talk to your counselors.

And boom. It already happened. The most important thing has just happened and no one even talks about it.

Your anchor has been set.

Subconsciously, the benchmark of what is cool has been engrained in your mind. Impressive has a definition for you now. And this becomes the upper bound of the word ambitious.

You meet dozens of people and rank them on a leaderboard. You go talk to upperclassmen and figure out their career trajectories and rank them back on that leaderboard. Your parents are so excited, and tell you to keep trying to do more things. You go to classes and hear professors talk about themselves and your accomplishments. Fast forward. You go to career fairs and see all of the opportunities ahead. You join clubs. Your clubs affirm your beliefs. You talk to your counselors who share the tracks that people can take to be successful.

And…you blink…

It is the summer of your sophomore year. You did not have an internship you freshman year (because people told you most freshmen do not get one), but now….now you have one! You have an internship and your parents are proud. You are working in wealth management and they are super excited!

Except, well. You hate your job. It is super boring work and no one even cares when you show up. You work 60 hours a week and basically read WSJ and make power-points all day. You get to wear a suit. But at least it is good for the resume!

You come back to school and all your friends are re-ranking their respective leaderboards. No one asks what you did at work. They ask where you did and how long you spent in the office.

You immediately begin recruiting now for the “big dogs.” Everyone is excited. You literally wait in line to talk to these people at the career fair. You go to their events. You are nervous, your parents are too, but you some how get an interview. You spent your nights studying for these interviews and you show up excited. You talk to some 24 year old who has been working in consulting for 2 years and hates his job but tell you he loves it.

You get McKinsey. BCG said no.

Even though you have no idea what you will be doing when you graduate, you did it. You got your job. You ranked up on the leaderboard and all of your friends idol you.

Fast forward, blink a few times.

You make it to your job, wearing your beautiful new suit, and…well…It turns out it sucks. It sucks primarily because you are working in New Mexico at a utilities company making powerpoints to help middle management optimize their workflows. Now you are working 80 hours a week and travel to and from Chicago every week. It is fine. You make it through the internship.

It is the end of the summer and your manager calls. She tells you she loved your work throughout the internship and that they would love to extend you a job offer.

You are excited.

They want to give you a bonus of $20k.

Wow you think this is awesome.

She tells you that you have one week to sign it or else you lose the bonus.

$20,000 is more money than you have made cumulatively over your life time. This is a lot of money. You talk to your parents and they agree.

And do you really want to go through another round of waiting in line at career fairs?

So you say yes. You know you hate your job, but you want to learn so you say yes. You think that going to McKinsey, even though you know that you will not particularly enjoy the work, will give you a platform to figure out what you want to do.

You come back to school. You have a new patagonia jacket branded by your new employer and you are feeling good.

Once again, everyone is asking you how your summer was, recalibrating their internal leaderboards, and this time, well you rise to the top. You are the upperclassmen you met some four years ago.

You are a senior! And it is September. And you already have a job! Living the dream. Right?

It gets better. McKinsey is coming to campus soon and they want you to sit on a panel. That is right. Your classmates will see you sitting on a stage while you get to talk about how great your experience was!

This happens a few times throughout the year…until you blink a few times and you have graduated. You take your “send-off trip” to Europe and then start your job.

Super excited!



You look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself…”what am I actually doing? Am I sick?”

The ladder continues…