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Playing Monopoly as a child, I was always fascinated by the apparent paradox that Monopoly money was both useful and yet had no value. While playing it was necessarily and rightly valued, at the end of the game it became utterly useless.
As with Monopoly, so too with the game of life. Currencies that have only instrumental value can quickly lose their importance. As soon as these instrumental currencies are no longer useful for reaching the ends we care about, they become altogether worthless.
One such currency is potential, the ability to “do anything.” As undergraduates at Harvard, we are familiar with pre-professional potential afforded to us by “all the doors that a Harvard degree opens.” No doubt, accumulating this potential is often worthwhile and does legitimately open many doors. Yet, just like Monopoly money, the danger is forgetting why that potential is valuable. The danger is ending the game without having converted the potential into something we actually care about.
This danger is realized in Harvard undergraduates, who are far too focused on increasing potential. We forget the reason we pursue potential; we lose sight of its instrumental nature. Instead, we accumulate potential for its own sake. Like a child infatuated with accumulating Monopoly money, we end the game with millions in unspent potential.
For instance, many undergraduates choose concentrations in order to “keep options open.” Even after graduating, an astounding fraction of graduates go into the fields of consulting, technology and finance because they want to “gain skills” and “be able to go into any other field after a few years.” The problem? Amassing this potential can become a goal in and of itself, and the skills are never put to use on anything that matters.
Given what it takes to get into Harvard, this isn’t all that surprising. Most undergraduates are here because they worked hard to garner enough potential to be accepted into Harvard. Furthermore, many of us chose Harvard precisely because we wanted to be able to do anything once we graduate.
The point isn’t to condemn or shame those of us who focus on maximizing potential, be it through taking consulting or finance jobs, or deciding to pursue high-potential concentrations. In fact, for some of us, those options are worth pursuing because we enjoy them and care about that work. But I fear that many of us will find ourselves in these fields for longer than we would want now, for the wrong reasons.
It’s easy to forget how hard it is to resist the allure of potential, especially when the social culture reinforces its pull. High-potential internships, extracurriculars, and jobs carry significant social clout. Too often, conversations of “what are you doing next summer” lead to positive affirmation if and only if the answer is “Goldman Sachs” or “Google.” I, too, have been guilty of both over-asking the question and reinforcing these dynamics by being impressed with these answers. With that in mind, it is not surprising that the fraction of Harvard undergraduates who intend to pursue consulting, finance, or technology jumps from 20 percent among first-years to half the class by graduation.
Of course, this issue isn’t limited to Harvard. The same issue occurs in business contexts so frequently that economists coined the phrase “Goodhart’s Law.” In fact, there are psychology studies showing that merely introducing a medium, or currency, leads us to focus on maximizing that medium rather than the things we care about. Maximizing potential is so difficult to beat, in part because thinking this way is hardwired into the way we think about the world. To overcome this instinct, we must remind ourselves why we care about potential, and we must reject the system that leads us to fetishize potential in and of itself.
There’s no better time to start questioning potential than during college. In the next few years, we will make decisions that will determine large parts of our lives. Many of us are unsure of what we want to do with our lives, which is understandable. Yes, going into consulting, finance, or technology for a few years can teach valuable skills and be a resume booster. But the solution isn’t always to maximize potential. And even when it is the best next step, the most important promise we have to make to ourselves is not to fall for the danger of Monopoly money. Not to become accustomed to how impressed others are when we tell them where we work and to well-paying employers that offer massages and meals at work. We must try hard to battle this habituation and continue to ask ourselves what we want to do with our lives. And we must be willing to give up potential once we find meaning, once we discover what we were saving Monopoly money for all along.
Being good at making Monopoly money is what got us into Harvard. But success in our next phase, adult life, involves figuring out for ourselves what we want to spend our Monopoly money on. What do I value? Am I doing what is important to me? It isn’t about what you do, but why you do it.
Jonas A. G. Nelle ’21, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a special concentrator in Rationality in Eliot House.
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