Reflecting on Harvard

The summer before my senior year, I worked in investment banking for 10 weeks. Surprisingly, from the long hours of tedious tasks came a transformative experience that shaped how I crafted my life in senior year, how I reflected on Harvard, and how I thought about my own future. Now, looking toward graduation in just 2 weeks and having just finished my last week at Harvard, I am introspecting even more on these topics and what advice I would give to my younger self and by extension, current students at Harvard. Specifically, I write for students who find themselves caught up in the echo chamber of campus, lost on their place in the university (and perhaps the professional world), and with broad interests in sectors slightly off the mainstream path. 

In high school, I was passionate about sustainability, research, and education and hoped to chart my own paths in these areas in college and beyond. How did I, then, instead end up in the very different field of investment banking? 

When I arrived at Harvard, I, like many others, was instantly bombarded with streams of marketing emails, posters, and door dropped flyers for various student groups. And like many others, I instinctively gravitated toward the larger organizations with fancy names and claimed pre-professionals bents where I naturally felt safer somehow. Navigating a landscape of 400+ student groups (not to mention countless non-student group opportunities) was daunting and more importantly, was my first exposure to what later became the increasingly prominent dissonance between “should” and “want” and thus societal expectations and passions. As you may by now expect, I ended up joining and taking leadership in a number of finance and consulting groups on campus and spending a large portion of my sophomore and junior years (and mental energy) on related internship recruiting efforts. 

Then, more recently, largely over the course of the past year, with my return offer accepted and full time job locked in, I started to attempt a return to the person I was at the very start of Harvard – cutting out the noise from the echo chambers of the university bubble and being liberated from college contained involvements to instead focus on time investments with payoffs for my own long term future. 

What follows is my own takeaways on the more meta considerations around finding purpose as well as the more actionable advice on the process of achieving more micro goals along this longer path. 

My Takeaways

College is the only time you will ever be a full time learner. Internalize your title of “student” as it will be the last time in which you can focus on finding value for yourself rather than constantly creating products of value to others. So attend interesting events, read fascinating books, reach out to people (professors, thought leaders, recent graduates, founders, researchers, authors, travelers, etc.) who you find intriguing and just try to meet with and learn from them. 

To that end, focus on your long term goals. Take advantage of the only time you can work for yourself by default. Avoid doing tedious tasks for student groups just to incorporate new buzzwords on your resume or claim higher fancy sounding titles within the organization – the whole rest of your life can be centered around this (if you so choose). Take part in student groups and other activities because you actually believe in their mission, love the people you work with, feel like you are gaining skills and growing, and genuinely feel engaged in the work. 

Define yourself by your interests, not your strengths. If you define yourself by your strengths (assessed most commonly by external benchmarks or outcomes), your entire sense of self-worth and identity is tied to the status of your uncontrollable environment. With an unsuccessful interview, a negative performance review, a bad exam grade, your perceived value and your claimed future vision are shattered, leading to constant identity crises, disappointment, and volatile experiences. Instead, go back to your core instincts (likely from long before Harvard), what you gravitate toward in the absence of expectations, and what you do when noone is watching. In this way, find your true interests and define yourself by those – the way in which you craft your confidence, sense of self, place in the world, and vision for your future will be much clearer, grounded, stable, and exciting. 

Don’t get caught in an endless derisking loop. Students are admitted to Harvard because of their unblemished records and lack of destabilizing failures. Students attend Harvard to have a stamp of approval on their resume around their intelligence and diligence so that in the future, they no longer have to go through time intensive processes merely to signal these attributes. So, in short, students go to Harvard to derisk themselves, in theory, to be able to then take risks. But what happens instead is that Harvard students become dependent on the derisking process – they are unable to find validation, security, or benchmarks for self worth in anything else. Consequently, they become stuck in an endless loop of derisking processes simply because they are unable to derive satisfaction from anything else. But in this loop, they find little happiness or purpose. So think less about the “shoulds” and think more about the “wants” – college is the last time in which people use any sort of standardized benchmarks for success. If you chase these external metrics and require them for your own decision making and views of yourself and future, then you end up in this loop of unhappiness and confusion, forever defined by societal expectations and never by your own passions.

 

Don’t underestimate the low hanging fruit (table stakes). Too often, people feel as though they are judged based on life changing, lofty achievements. Certainly these are valued, but the lower hanging fruit is frequently underestimated. Perhaps in two weeks, you will turn in an incredible presentation, but if during those two weeks, you leave your team in the dark, focusing 100% on the deck and communicating 0% on where you stand or neglecting to support your team in other endeavors, you will more likely be remembered as the negligent person than the presentation mastermind. Perhaps you share great insights and helpful perspectives during a call, but if you forgot to show up for the first two times it was scheduled for, you will be remembered more as the disorganized person who cared too little than the brilliant strategic mind. So be organized, communicate (even if it is just to say you need two more weeks on the presentation!), and just show up because it is your patterns of behavior that define you more than single breakthroughs. 

Focus on your own value add to develop genuine relationships. Frequently, students go into the infamous networking conversations with a pure focus on what they hope to achieve and what they hope to receive from the relatively more senior individual in question. But the most effective, genuine, and long term professional relationships are ones in which, just like in personal relationship development, you focus not only on the take but also and first on the give. While you may not be able to offer jobs or promotions, never overlook your unique value add – perhaps you can provide a fresh perspective to a company seeking to reach a Gen Z audience; maybe you have a deep academic understanding of cutting edge technologies more senior people never got exposed to in classroom settings with technical rigor; you know the university landscape better than anyone outside of the university ecosystem so use that to provide recruiting and team building based insights. Figure out your value add, share that, and build a relationship on a strong symbiotic foundation. 

Be accountable, data driven, and reasonably contrarian. With the deluge of information available on practically any imaginable topic, it is easy to fall into herd mentalities through the literature (just as we do about life goals on Harvard’s campus). Build up your base understanding first – the definitions, history, and statistics on the present state. Then, create analyses and predictions of the future yourself based on your initial learnings and first principles, and only afterwards, read the perspectives of thought leaders in the space. To this end, be data driven and intellectually honest – always considering possible risks and counter arguments – but also have the confidence to be reasonably contrarian. Thought leaders know just as much as you do about the future (and ultimately no one knows anything at all about the future) so calibrate to the data and not to the herd. Frequently the most powerful, interesting, and meaningful insights were crafted from a contrarian perspective. And since all predictions have flaws and fuzziness around them, incorporate accountability for yourself and track your bets: is the company that you felt stood no chance actually doing poorly 5 years from now? Is the company you raved about actually growing and dominating down the line? Are these results realized for the reasons you had thought and through the mechanisms you had pinpointed? Then calibrate your thinking and approach based on these reflections to constantly grow. 

Conclusion

Finally, to conclude, 1) learn all you can, 2) live for yourself, 3) figure out and follow your own passions, 4) build genuine relationships, and 5) explore interesting ideas and track their corresponding outcomes. With this, you will go through Harvard with a stronger foundation for building your desired skill set and finding meaning (and hopefully happiness) in all that you do. 

Authors

Jessica Li
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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