Discussions about banking, finance, and the application grind in the industrial engineering department are as commonplace as references to the Core in John Jay Dining Hall. The application process to banks and consulting jobs is one that many Ivy League students understand: It is competitive, clearly structured, and reputable. There is no uncertainty about what needs to be done: Dress professionally; attend an information session; network appropriately; submit an application, resume, and cover letter; prepare for the interview, go through several rounds; and (hopefully) receive an offer soon after. The timeline is clear. There is comfort in having an answer to the question “What are you doing after graduation?” before Christmas. However, most of my peers rarely sound excited about the prospect of spending their lives in a bank.
As a caveat, I say most because I do have some friends who are genuinely interested in financial markets, banking, and the whole lifestyle that comes with it. Kudos to them for investing their life in what they love!
Some people are lucky. They find their passion at a young age. “I'm going to be a doctor and save people's lives!” “One day, I'm going to become a world-famous violinist.” “Time loses meaning when I'm coding in front of a computer.”
In the past, college used to be a time of exploration. Now, when I look around at my friends who are economics majors or industrial engineers, I see them settling for the “cubicle life” to drown in the corporate whirlpool from year one. “I don't really have a passion. Investment banking pays well, though. I'll do it for a few years, and then I'll quit and do what I love.” Sometimes, I feel like I'm the only one who hasn't been able to find life's meaning stashed away in the filing cabinets of the finance industry.
What is the point of spending all night in the office and making all that money when you don't have any time to spend with the people you love? Is it only when you realize that the only relationships you're cultivating are with those who only care about how much revenue you are generating for the company?
Back in high school, my favorite teacher gave a wonderful graduation speech, and his main message was clear: Think. He proposed thinking about joy and about what makes us happy. However, I'm going to go one step further and propose that we also think about fear and the rationale behind it. Is your fear of uncertainty so great that you would willingly give up the wonder of being free?
Our 20s are meant to be the greatest times of our lives. Now is the time to make the mistakes that are most worth making. True, you can always work a couple of years on Wall Street, save up some money, and then leave. However, it's also true that even when you win the “rat race,” you're still a rat.
Here we are at the greatest university in the world (no bias!), and we are all seemingly going into finance. There is so much talent entering the community but no innovation leaving it. So I propose some food for thought: What is your purpose in life? Do you feel we have an obligation to leave the world a better place than before we entered it?
I'm not suggesting that I know the answers to all the questions that I am asking or that my thoughts will never change. Heck, I don't even know yet what my plans are for next year yet! And yes, I am freaking out about it. However, I also believe that we all have the tenacity to become successful when we do what we love if we have the courage to fight for it. So I'm not going to let my fears of the unknown force me to settle down at the age of 21. I am going to struggle, and I'm going to hope that one day I will find that thing that I can do to make the world a better place. Because at the end of it all, my hope is that I can live my life in such a way that when I look back on the path that I am taking now, I will be proud to claim it as mine.
The author is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior studying industrial engineering and operations research. She is a teaching assistant for Managing Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship this semester and the vice president of Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs.
This article is part of a series reflecting on Columbia's start-up week, and the relationship between entrepreneurship and students on campus and beyond.
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