The Brain Drain
My alma mater, Dartmouth College, graduated five (!) valedictorians this year. The majority are moving on to jobs in finance or management consulting.
Dartmouth, of course, is not alone in sending a disproportionate number of its best and brightest to these narrow sectors. In recent years, to name an oft-cited example, Princeton sent 36% of its students to finance jobs while Harvard sent 17%.
There are many reasons proposed for this brain drain (whether or not this is really a “drain” is a different debate, though I tend to agree it is), including: prestige, money, the need to pass a new competitive admissions process to signal value, and psychologically-astute recruiting tactics.
I’m particularly interested, however, in an explanation offered by David Brooks in a recent column:
“Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options.”
According to Brooks, elite students assume their choices are limited to: (a) making lots of money in finance and consulting, or (b) saving the world by working for a boots-on-the-ground non-profit. [Stanford students, Brooks notes, get an extra option less popular on the East Coast: (c) starting a tech company.]
This rings true.
A Stunted Career Vocabulary
Something I noticed time and again when out talking about SO GOOD is that the current generation of college students has a stunted vocabulary when it comes to discussing career aspirations.
I’m not exactly sure why, though I hypothesize it’s some combination of the character-crushing competitive college admissions process (which most students don’t understand) and the dulling effect of the “follow your passion” culture. When college graduation looms, these students realize that they lack the mental models needed to develop a sophisticated vision of the role work can play in a life well-lived. So they fall back on simplistic heuristics.
What we need is more career conversations, started much earlier, handled with significantly more subtlety and intelligence than most 19 year-olds, or the career advice industry that caters to them, seem willing to pursue.
A Deeper Career Vocabulary
In an effort to begin a transition toward a richer vocabulary of career aspirations, I’ve listed below three issues relevant to career choice that any ambitious college student, confused about life after graduation, should spend more time trying to understand…
- The Value of Craftsmanship. There’s a deep sense of satisfaction in the process of mastering a craft that produces things that the world values. There’s an even deeper satisfaction in subsequently applying this craft and receiving recognition for your competence. For millennia, human culture has understood and revered this value. Many different career paths can provide this return — if you know what you’re looking for.
- The Importance of Lifestyle. What traits define, to you, a good life? Autonomy? Time affluence? Mobility and adventure? Connection? Influence? Impact? Students tend to place too much importance on the specifics of a job, as if there was a specific knowledge work pursuit hardwired in their genes. It is instead the general traits of their lifestyle that tend to bring people satisfaction — not specific jobs. How deeply do you understand what general traits resonate with you? This understanding brings great clarity to your path through the working world.
- A Personal Ethic. Identifying your core values is important. But equally important is translating these values into an actionable ethic. As Brooks mentions in the column I cited earlier, too many students seem stuck with a watered down, college admission-style model of ethics, where doing volunteer work is sufficient to label your life as moral. Ethics run deeper. If, for example, you’re talented enough to graduate at the top of an Ivy League class, you need to ask: What is my responsibility to the world? What legacy do I want to leave behind? This doesn’t mean you must aspire to become the next Paul Farmer. On the other hand, it might mean that helping a hedge fund make a small number of wealthy people slightly more wealthy does not make the cut. (See Clayton Christensen’s recent book for interesting thoughts on this topic.)
To summarize, what you do for a living is important. When you face this decision for the first (though certainly not last) time, you need to approach it with more than a slogan and a handful of cliches. This is a topic that deserves a deeper and more nuanced conversation.