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How one semester of college inspires top students to ditch their dreams

Adapted from Working Jobs, available March 15, 2015. If you make it all the way to the bottom there’s a link to download the first 25 pages :)

It’s no surprise that the reality of work doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

We prepare for work for so long, sitting in classroom after classroom, that it’s only well into our adulthood that we start to actually do it. In the United States, we’re expected to finish at least a dozen years of schooling, a number that has steadily increased since the Industrial Age. Spending this much time in preparation for work gives a lot of time for people, organizations, and media to influence our expectations of what work will be like. They all tell students to do their work because it will prepare them for a great career and happy life.

We accept the premise that by diligently doing what we’re told, we’ll benefit from a rewarding career and an abundant life.

This is one of modern life’s great paradoxes. We expect a lot from work, but we delay our gratification and place blind faith in the system. As a society, we write checks that instruct individuals to cash in once they pay their dues. But we’re starting to realize that these checks aren’t good anymore. This is the profound let down of our generation.

Imagine it like an investment. We don’t know it at the time, but as children and young adults we invest our ability to make decisions with our intuition for the promise of these brilliant future returns. Because our intuition is no longer “liquid”, we can only make decisions by doing what we’re told. Even if the future returns never arrive, we’ve lost what intuition we had and now have to build it back up again from scratch.

This loss of intuition enables a phenomenon on college campuses that I call the great game of musical chairs.

The game is played in the fall semester of senior year. In this game, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve actualized yourself for the preceding three years. Nobody cares how much you really, sincerely, understand James Joyce now. Tuck away your balanced but critical assessment of impressionist art until you start dating again in your thirties. Nobody cares.

For the next few months, you’re sprinting around the circle looking for an open chair. What’s more, you don’t want just any chair, you want a comfortable, ergonomic chair. You want a comfortable, ergonomic chair that’s a design classic. Basically, everybody is looking for an Aeron chair.

You didn’t care about Aeron chairs in the past, but all of sudden, everybody around you really seems to want one. So, you show up to info sessions and start interviewing for jobs you didn’t know existed until three weeks ago when you went to that Bain info session because there was free pizza. Nothing they’re saying makes very much sense but they’re dressed nicely and assure you they’ll get into Harvard Business School afterwards so now you want that job.

By the way, what I just described was just my own (and many of my classmates’) real experience succumbing to the allure of what might be loosely called the “business school track.” Equally alluring is the “law school track,” “medical school track,” and countless other tracks that seem to have a clear pecking order and cultural traditions. This isn’t to say that people who are perfect fits for these tracks, followed them, and have found purpose in their work do not exist. But more than likely they haven’t gotten this far anyway.

As my friend Tim Wu (now better known as his progressive house producer alter-ego Elephante) put it:

There’s this strong herd mentality toward these great-paying finance and consulting jobs that you see all of your friends getting. I never would have dreamed about going into either of those jobs prior to college. But once you’re there, you’re in the middle of this school of fish all swimming in one direction. So you start to think maybe there’s something wrong with me for not wanting this as well. My roommates were getting $100K starting salaries at these prestigious firms and it became this very big status thing, where people would look up to the kids who got offers at Goldman Sachs or a hedge fund. It was total group-think. Freshman year I’d have said there’s no way, but over time it just chipped away at me.

He ended up graduating Harvard to a job in management consulting and wrestled to unlearn this group think so he could pursue what he’d always known to be his calling: a career in music.

At the time, that decision seems like the least risky thing one can do. But implicit in the decision to pursue it is the acknowledgement that you can’t do what you originally wanted to do for money--that these guys in the suits will have a better idea of how to live a rich and meaningful life than you would if left to your own devices.

The irony is that if you listen carefully, it should be clear that they don’t have a better idea. How could they?

I was lucky enough to find a “desirable chair” (during that tumultuous autumn of my senior year) at a management consulting firm called McKinsey & Company, where I learned a lot from some very smart people. But I really wish I’d had the perspective to see things more clearly when I was applying.

I graduated from a math and science academy (where I relished in my English and History classes) to study Neuroscience at a liberal arts college. In retrospect, I think I was preparing myself for medical school. I spent my summers doing clinical research and nonprofit consulting and ended up forgoing graduate school entirely to pursue a career in finance, or something. I remember one interviewer laughing at me when I walked him through my resume. "I'm a neuroscience and english double major and I want to be a management consultant," I'd said, in my convincing voice I'd practiced many times alone in my room.

McKinsey took us to dinner the night before our final round interviews. The recruiters sat us in between current consultants so we could inquire about their lives and get a feel for the type of people we might be working with.

Some questions that were asked:

Q: What's your favorite thing about the firm? A: The people.

Okay cool, I get that. I went to college for the people I’d meet and am terrified that work won't provide the people inspiration that I treasured in college.

Q: How did you end up here? A: Funny story, actually, I was originally planning to do “my passion” but saw McKinsey on campus and one thing led to another and here I am.

Um... okay that's cool too. Sounds kind of like me. (Maybe these people are like me, I thought to myself, hopefully.)

Q: Why have you stayed for as long as you have? A: Well, I never planned to stay this long. I promised myself that I'd go off and do “my passion” after two years but I just kept following what felt right and here I am seven years later. You see a lot of people at the firm that stay on like that. I never thought it'd be me though (followed by a nervous laugh).

I wasn’t sure what to make of that final sentiment. It's technically a success story because this woman "made partner," but I felt a twinge of sadness in her voice. At the time, her response didn't seem so important, but I kept hearing the same story over and over again.

But maybe that was okay, because I didn't even know my own passion yet, so I looked for my first role out of college to either open doors once I identified my passion or eventually evolve to become my passion. Later that week, I received an offer.

That's the rationale a lot of young professionals use when deciding on their first job. I'll work here for a while, learn some skills, meet some people, gain perspective and then decide once I know where I want to direct my career which of these opened doors I should walk through.

Noting this, I looked around the firm to see how other consultants approached finding their careers. Though some found great satisfaction in their work and some found other opportunities through work, many (roughly half) remained at the firm in spite of themselves. They had always planned to find something more closely aligned to their passions but never did.

I learned that there’s a saying that the top 25% of consultants leave the firm for greener pastures, the bottom 25% of consultants aren’t invited to stay, and everybody leftover doesn’t have anything better to do.

It reminded me of Josh Waitzkin's meditation on incremental growth in The Art of Learning. In it, he says, "The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity." Waitzkin invokes the hermit crab as way to illustrate this point.

As the hermit crab gets bigger, it must find a more spacious shell. So this slow, clumsy creature embarks on a quest for a new home. If it does not find an adequate shell quickly, a "terribly delicate moment of truth arises." The typically well-protected hermit crab is, for a precarious moment in time, exposing its vulnerable mushiness to predators. Though scary and potentially dangerous, it is these moments in between shells that determine our growth. Someone that does not make a mindful decision to stay with a career allows inaction to guide their growth, and in that way, resembles an anorexic hermit crab, "starving itself so it doesn't have to grow to find a new shell."

We know decisions are important. We make decisions every day about how we spend our time or who we spend our time with. But for some reason, we tend to prioritize important decisions about careers less thoughtfully than we might plan our free time. Why don’t we recognize that decisions about our careers have the greatest impact on how we spend our time on any given day, 40-plus hours per week, and even the people we spend our time with? Why are we so afraid of the space in between our shells?

If we’re not having impact and experiencing joy in the process of work, then we must be working to attain it later on. But that just doesn’t seem to be happening. “Later on,” I’m starting to believe, is now or never.

Imagine what we can accomplish if we help each other rebuild our intuition. One has to believe that we’d all work on things that mattered more, things that would bring us more joy, and things that will ultimately have a bigger positive impact on the world.

These are the “working jobs” that I’m dreaming about. That’s why I’m writing a book. If any of this resonated with you, you can download the first 25 pages of the book for free. Click here.