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After graduating, I took a prestigious finance job and then, three months later, I quit. I used to regret it sometimes. These days I'm sure it's the best decision I ever made.
I've been meaning for a few years to write an op-ed in The Crimson explaining my reasons and encouraging others to do the same. It was going to be a persuasive essay with a thesis and three or four well-argued points. Here are some excerpts from notes on my phone:
"Which do you value more, your money or your time?"
"Why are you doing what you do? No, not the stock answer you use at cocktail parties — or have you repeated it enough that you believe it too?"
But this wouldn't be honest. The truth is, I don't have a thesis. That's kind of the point.
Harvard students are great at solving optimization problems — the hard part is knowing what to optimize for. Most of us come into freshman year having just spent an adolescence on good grades and impressive activities, maximizing our appeal to admissions officers. And then what?
I guess that's what the education part was for. We were supposed to sit down, read some books, hash it out. But the world was complicated, and the devil's advocate was loud, and our curriculum was so radically agnostic that many of us graduated in a state of moral confusion, ready to subscribe to whichever narrative came bundled with two years deferred graduation and weekend trips to Bali.
I fell for it too — I understand the appeal. It's a decision that feels, comfortingly, like indecision. It offers security disguised as freedom, compliance branded as achievement. And its core premise is simple, even beautiful: Your wealth is earned. Your power is legitimate.
But the premise is false. And you know that it's false. And you don't care that you know that it's false. You pretend you believe it, or just as damningly, you pretend you believe nothing.
It’s not you, it's how the game is played. We bottle up questions and reservations to avoid offending our bosses. The thing is, our bosses are bullshitting too: that's why they hired us! "We got a Harvard kid to sign off on this, so whatever happens, you know we did our best." They take five percent, rain or shine.
I've argued previously in these pages that college incentivizes us to write papers that look and sound smart, regardless of actual content. I'm now convinced the problem runs deeper. This signaling game isn't just how teaching fellows distribute grades, it's how holders of capital distribute wealth. I'm a living, breathing "whom." My job is to make a company look smart and legitimate. I'm just embarrassed it took me until the second time a CEO led investors to my workspace to notice.
A friend, now working as a teacher, told me the other day that our mutual acquaintance (a bro-y drunk, as I remember) is now casually moving hundreds of millions of dollars a day. This is a common genre of laugh-then-sigh joke for people who have entered and exited the Harvard bubble: We've met the secret cabal that runs everything, and boy, they don't have a clue what's going on either.
I mean, it's almost funny if you don't think too hard about the consequences. Section kid controls the means of production!
So no, I'm not telling you to quit your job. I don't know what you should do with your time, or what I should do, for that matter. But I'm working on it. I wish you'd join me.
I wish there was a context where we could talk freely and earnestly about what we think we believe, what we think we want, and what we're really just unsure about. I wish we could approach the open 60-year canvas ahead with true uncertainty, without the constraint that the next step has to follow logically, respectably from the last. I wish these conversations didn't put you in the defensive crouch of arguing that what you do for 40+ hours a week is fundamentally good.
Maybe I sound like a scold, but really: Imagine what we could do if we viewed social problems with a fraction of the creative urgency with which Silicon Valley views the distance between a twentysomething and the laundromat. We, of all people, are not passive observers of this drama!
No, I'm not so naïve as to think that some grand theory of everything, the key to a virtuous and consequential life, is just around the corner. In all honesty, I doubt most of us will ever be fully satisfied we chose the best life available to us. But I reject the idea that we should throw up our hands and take refuge in the dubious wisdom of crowds. We can try.
So here’s what I ask. Sometime soon, create a distance between yourself and the rhythms of your life. Travel somewhere alone, without work friends or internet. Even just take a long walk with your phone off. When the noise is shut out, when the instant feedback of your social network is reduced to a far-off hum, ask yourself two questions:
What are you doing?
And what do you think someone with your skills, resources, and connections could be doing in this moment?
You have nothing to lose but your check-plus.
Milo B. Beckman ’15 is a graduate of Eliot House.
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