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Musings on the Corporate Rat Race

I’m nearing the end of my 4-year university experience. Although I will graduate with a degree in finance, I no longer have avid dreams of working corporate.  Until a few months ago I had been ready to don my pressed shirt and Hermes tie (or maybe it’s WalMart, I can’t tell) every morning for the foreseeable future. I was conditioned throughout university to find that corporate job and spend my days in cubicles and meetings. It was simply a result of the business school environment: the colleagues I interacted with, the corporate representatives that trawled the campus, and the professors and career counselors that guided us down that path. I was sucked into this.

Yet there was a growing dissatisfaction in me as I sent that next application or dragged myself to networking events and job interviews. I knew I wouldn’t be happy. I had experienced it in every one of my internships; the initial interest, soon followed by a mounting complacency. The snoozes on my alarm would happen more frequently and begrudgingly as the weeks dragged on. If an internship was this painful, what would working full-time be like? I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted.

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We’re taught from an early age that the path to success is to go to a good college, get good grades, find a job and settle down. It’s so ingrained into our minds from our friends and family that we never stop to question it. But why blindly follow the herd down the cliff? Student loan debt in the U.S. is over $1 trillion and more than two-thirds of students graduate with debt. They’re forced into jobs to pay off their debt. Many students then realize the job they were promised doesn’t exist. Those that do find employment still remain unhappy, switching jobs on average 10-15 times over the span of their career. The “prestige” of the illusion is revealed, but to dismay and panic rather than amazement.

A recent question on Quora asked, “Why do so many people hate their jobs?” and received the following top answer:

One reason that many people with good college educations hate their jobs is that they picked a conservative / climb-the-ladder-oriented career when they were young (i.e., right after college) and then they never switched. Then, after doing that first profession for 7-10+ years, they feel locked in; they don’t know what to do next / how to change. They are doing pretty well financially in that first career, and they perceive tons of risk to switching careers. So they do the same thing for the rest of their life.

An article from Forbes supports this notion, stating that only 19% of people are satisfied with their jobs. Although the sample size of 400 isn’t by any means conclusive, the common theme is that workers feel stuck in their jobs. If time is the most precious commodity, is it not absurd to spend 10 hours every day doing something that makes you unhappy? And yet most people traverse through life like this.

Even a comfortable job that pays well can have its downsides, as it makes it all the more difficult to quit. Michael Lewis, the acclaimed author of books such as Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, describes what it was like for him to forgo his cushy 6-figure salary:

…It did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write. My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside.

Paul Graham, VC/Entrepreneur, likens jobs to pizza in an apt food metaphor to describe why people still pursue low-satisfaction jobs. The reason pizza is so common, albeit unhealthy, is because (1) it offers immediate appeal and (2) it’s produced cheaply and heavily marketed.

If people have to choose between something that’s cheap, heavily marketed, and appealing in the short term, and something that’s expensive, obscure, and appealing in the long term, which do you think most will choose? It’s the same with work. The average MIT graduate wants to work at Google or Microsoft, because it’s a recognized brand, it’s safe, and they’ll get paid a good salary right away. It’s the job equivalent of the pizza they had for lunch. The drawbacks will only become apparent later, and then only in a vague sense of malaise.

Many people go through life blind to the diverging paths along the road. They opt for the pizza because it’s what everyone else wants and gets.

Realize instead what makes you happy and shed the obligations you feel towards the opinions of others and how they view you. Until then, you will always be working towards some ideal that will ultimately be unfulfilling.

Otherwise, you may wake up one day and find a stranger staring back at you in the mirror. Of all the masters one can serve, “the opinion of others” is harrowing in its ability to command every single element of your life and consume you whole.

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