I like to think about death. Not in a desirous way—it’s never something I wish upon myself or anyone else. I find comfort in the thought because it helps me remember what’s important in life, almost like a framing tool that guides my values and decisions. It brings urgency to appreciating life, as a suggestion that one day I won’t have the opportunity to enjoy the experiences I have today. But lately, the thought has been making me uneasy instead of bringing the wave of gratitude I have come to expect. In the setting of the University, when I think about death, I can’t help but wonder—am I holding onto values that won’t matter in the grand scheme? Am I manufacturing my life into something that on my death day I will regret?
In a recent sociology class, I watched a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The silent film mocks the industrial process, showing the ridiculous effects of trying to quickly manufacture a perfect product or experience. I took some vague notes on the film, but didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later, when I was sitting in a business class with a guest lecture about branding by a top marketing executive. The speaker told a brief anecdote on how he tries to name drop his University of Chicago affiliation and partnership at McKinsey to ensure that his clients have faith in his credentials. We were on the topic of personal branding, and his anecdote underscored the importance of manufacturing and publicizing your identity in a way that boasts branded affiliations. I thought about my own Columbia branding and the company names on my résumé, and I felt like a product on the conveyor belt in Modern Times, getting fixed up with bells and whistles as I went down an assembly line.
In many ways, my time at Columbia has formally been about manufacturing a personal identity that looks good on paper, with the idea that this paper—my résumé—will help me reach new places in life that will further add to the paper. The day I die, I’m not sure whether I will earnestly or exasperatedly think of this paper and say, “This! This is what it was all for!” I suppose my true hope is that I won’t think of the paper at all, and that on my death day I will have much more satisfying experiences to recall than a list of my brand-name affiliations.
Forgive me for the melodrama. I know that Columbia—for me and many others—has been far more than a stamp on the résumé. It’s a place where I’ve made lifelong friends and explored new depths of my beliefs and identity. But it’s also an institution that imparts values on its members, and one of the strongest ones I’ve learned to accept is the importance of personal branding. That’s why there’s such a strongly perceived difference between, for example, being a Rhodes Scholar and getting a full but unnamed scholarship for a Ph.D. at Oxford. This is not natural. This is the product of valuing a name over an experience. It’s the result of a values system perpetuated by an institution whose importance lies in the weight of its name, be it the White House or Columbia.
I’m conflicted. I know that in many slush piles of résumés, mine gets a second look because I have Columbia and The New Yorker tied to me by ink under my name. I understand the benefits that come with strong personal branding, and I am grateful for my experiences at these brand-name institutions. What I’m not sure I appreciate is the emphasis that I’ve learned to place on the value of personal branding. I don’t want to orient the trajectory of my life according to the objective of picking up fancy titles and affiliations like they’re the only things that matter until the day I die. But I can’t shake the feeling that those fancy titles really are important—that it might not be such a terrible idea to keep aiming for the next one.
When I think about death, I’m reminded about the value of enjoying experiences in life. When I think about the values I’ve picked up at Columbia, I’m reminded that how things sound—on paper, to others, even to yourself—might be more important than how my experiences feel. Is there really a contradiction here? Does the pursuit of quality experiences conflict with the pursuit of a quality personal brand?
Sometimes when I think about this too much, I feel nervous. It’s not comfortable to wonder whether I have to sacrifice one of my core values for another. But when the day comes that I do have to pick one over another, I want to choose the value that’s consistent with how I feel when I think about death.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Balancing with Bhandari runs alternate Tuesdays.
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