I’m a fourth year student at the University of British Columbia and many of my friends are finished their undergraduate degrees. One of their chief concerns: What do I do now?
Note the question is not: What should I do with my life?
Their typical Harvard undergraduate, I believe is really the typical high-achieving undergraduate:
(a) is very good at school; (b) has been very successful by conventional standards for his entire life; (c) has little or no experience of the “real world” outside of school or school-like settings; (d) feels either the ambition or the duty to have a positive impact on the world (not well defined); and (e) is driven more by fear of not being a success than by a concrete desire to do anything in particular.
So what happens to these ambitious high-achievers? They get taken up by the well-structured recruitment processes of established institutions. What are these processes? Medical School, law school, graduate school, consulting firms, accounting firms, and corporate law firms. These recruitment processes gives the students who have spent the last 16 years following a well defined path the next stepping block.
Once these new grads get recruited they get comfortable with the income, and start building their family. After that when kids come along it gets exceedingly hard to transfer careers.
One interesting reason is that people start justifying their career choice. A case of cognitive dissonance. Where previously the reason for working at a investment firm was to pay the bills and learn the necessary skills to move on and change the world. The new justification is the markets of the world need to be fluid, the management of the portfolio is very important to so and so etc.
There’s nothing wrong with a career at an investment bank, or at a corporate law firm. But the universities of North America are supposed to be training the leaders of tomorrow. The smart, high-achieving new graduates have a deep desire to help the world, but many of them do not end up fulfilling their ambitious if vague dreams.
I can’t fault the investment banks they are doing what they need to do to succeed. But the world would be a better place if more university graduates go on to really have an impact.
So what can we students do? Our chief problem is our vague goals. So try writing down what you really want to achieve in life, and stop worrying about failing to have an impact – because you just might end up working at in Wall Street or Bay Street.