In the worst moments of despair the night before a midterm, with 300 pages of untouched, backlogged papers mocking me, I turn to my favorite procrastination technique—rationalization. And for me, the easiest route of rationalization is absurdity. Because, for all of us—or at least for us non-technical humanities majors—we will inevitably realize at some point in our careers here how absurd college is (and usually, the night before an exam). Here I am, sitting in my room, stressed to the gills about an hour and a half tomorrow when I’ll have to regurgitate some ridiculous academic analysis of an obscure, completely impractical topic—which I’ll inevitably forget the bulk of within a week—for which I’ll receive a single letter of evaluation that I’ll add to a sheet of paper to someday try to get a job. And that’s what I’m losing sleep over.
Without going into the merits of a liberal arts education, college is fantastic exactly because of this absurdity. Our four years here are purely for ourselves—the work we do has no consequence on anybody else, so it’s entirely intrinsically motivated. And while many people treat college as a means to an end, you don’t have to—you could spend all four years studying a topic like metaphysics, queer theory, or 19th-century Russian literature and be considered the most successful student in your class. Best of all, because of the pedigree of the university we attend, at the end of our four years here, no matter what we studied, we will be considered the most successful, most employable people of our age group in the country.
This is true privilege, and every single one of us has an equal share to it—we have, at our disposal, four years of complete, unadulterated self-fulfillment, knowing at the other side we’ll come out with a Columbia diploma. Sure, during our time here, some of us have other commitments—usually in the form of a job to pay for living expenses or loans—but they’re always secondary to “being a student.”
I think this is why the morning commute to my internship always depresses me so much. During rush hour, no matter how full the subway is, the car is dead silent. A vacuum of noise, except for the occasional hum of someone’s earbuds. Everyone stands still and hunched over, eyes glazed and dull, waiting for sleep to release them and the caffeine buzz to kick in. Marx’s worst nightmare—an alienated army, shackled by their paychecks to mindless jobs, counting down the hours until they can punch out and go back home.
Maybe some of the people around me are actually thrilled to go to work and love their jobs, and only look like they belong in a George Romero movie because they went too hard last night, or because it’s too goddamn early in the morning regardless. According to a Gallup poll last month, though, only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs or emotionally invested in their work.
The majority of people on the subway are going to their jobs because they have to and have never had the luxury of finding a job they’re emotionally invested in. Some of the people on the subway were once in our position, but chose careers that would bring them status and money and ended up in the 87 percent. They live for what their jobs produce— good dinners and nice apartments and luxury vacations—and find fulfillment through other ways— relationships, or their Frisbee teams after work, or the audiobooks they listen to on the way to work. (And some of the people on the subway chose their jobs for money and status and love their jobs, and all the power to them.)
I could never live half of my life for the other half—working during the day, unfulfilled, so that I can have the nights and the weekends. I could also never gain true fulfillment from only self-fulfillment, like traveling or permanently being a student. So how do we make it to the 13 percent?
I really believe that you can gain fulfillment from banking and consulting. Some of my best friends truly love their jobs and are genuinely excited for their next two years of 20-hour days (crazy bastards). For the most part, though, the main reason so many of my peers are sprinting to consulting and finance interviews is that these fields are the paint-by-the-numbers equivalent of a post-college life. If you’re halfway intelligent, at least slightly socially capable, and willing to network (i.e., kowtow) your ass off, then you will be hired by a prestigious, well-paying firm. And stability and prestige are both very nice.
But people our age don’t need to make $50,000 a year, and we certainly don’t need $100,000, student loans notwithstanding. At some point in our lives, jobs will be a means to an end. Too many of us choose certain post-graduation jobs because we think we have to, without considering whether we will be in the 13 percent or the 87 percent. And I think it’s a completely valid question to consider. For now, at least, we have the privilege to take some risks—or at least I tell that to myself every passing day that another one of my friends gets a job. This time in our lives is when we have the fewest strings attached and the most freedom to find what actually brings us happiness in the real world, rather than being set into a path we don’t enjoy. The further entrenched we become into a trajectory, the harder it is to get out. We set a course the second we leave the Broadway gates for the last time. And that’s absolutely terrifying.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.
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