October 16, 2016

WANG | The Missed Pursuit of Happiness

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There was a recent article that ran under The Sun’s news section, titled “Cornell Student Critique Culture of Careerism.” It was published in news, but given the collective shrieking of students and parents alike, it might as well have been an opinion column with a taste for blown fuses. In it, Erial, a classics student talks about the financial high wire act she’s embraced the moment she switched from studying chemistry and anatomy to Latin. She cites her apathy towards medicine, and the fact that she can’t even stand blood, which is a bit like a computer science major saying they don’t like computers. “That something I’ve accepted for who I am: I am not meant to be a doctor, but it’s okay,” she says, with a sniff of defiance.

To be honest, I found it refreshing. I respected her honesty and self-awareness. It’s not often someone in college can come out and say what they want in life. It’s even less often someone is going to come out and say money was part of the career decision they made. If there’s anything people will distort more than their sex lives, it’s their desire for money. For example, there’s a damning moment in Michael Lewis’s Wall Street classic Liar’s Poker where the soon to be graduated, soon to be poor Lewis interviews for a job at a prestigious bank. He’s naïve, pregnant with hope and unexpecting. When he’s asked the mandatory “Why do you want to be an investment banker?” he gives the honest answer. It’s a moral obligation, of course. “I want to make money,” he replies.

I want to make money.

If there ever was a time for the establishment to immolate its own unspoken laws, that was it. It didn’t happen, though. Heads exploded, but custom wasn’t customized. Lewis didn’t get the job, because he’d broken the taboo of speaking about his desire for money. You see, he’d accidentally hijacked the lexicon: People with jobs don’t know the word “money.” They’re supposed to be above it all: The hedonism is there, but no one is willing to admit it. It’s silly. The whole point of banking is to make money. Otherwise, we would just call it a think tank.

Our society can’t seem to reconcile the pursuit of career with the pursuit of money. It’s selfish, and shallow: That’s what we’re told. You can be posh, but you can’t try to be posh. Being well off is a side pursuit that we’re supposed to accidentally stumble into; being passionate about your career is the real goal. Anything else is misguided.

This level of self-deceit in careers blurs the actual pursuit of it. This is the crossroad that every college student faces. You hear it a lot nowadays in colloquial:  There’s a “hard” major and a “soft” major to be assigned to each study. We’re not talking about level of difficulty, but rather what’s going to be feasible in the job market. A “hard” major is feasible, which can range from economics to pre-med. Anything else is “soft,” like classics or history. When someone says they’re doing a “soft” major, it invokes a few responses: admiration, interest, snootiness, pity, but mostly — questions. As in, “Why are you doing this, and aren’t you concerned about your future?”

You do it because you love it. Because the money doesn’t matter. Because, as you’ve suspected, some people do things just for the money. It’s a decision I faced when applying to colleges. Writing is the one I enjoy unconditionally. It’s something that defines my autonomy, and my autonomy is the only thing that I have at this moment. I had never considered becoming a business major until I was gently nudged in that direction because it was practical, and when I did choose it, I wasn’t head over heels with the decision. It seemed like a cop out, that I’d chosen something over what I loved most.  One day, I thought I’d write columns a la Spotlight, the next, I’m spending my weekdays in lecture talking about suit and tie companies that prickle the backbones of nonconformists. But it’s growing on me because I’ve given it time. Being a business major isn’t something I’d ever enjoy more than writing, but I’ve accepted it’s more practical and less financially risky. Becoming a business major was business decision, but it’s one I can live with because I do enjoy it now.

But that’s why the article I read really spoke to me the way it did. It’s takes guts to one day, wake up and realize the lucrative path you’ve taken is the wrong one for you. What if I hated studying business? Would I take the plunge? It depends on two things, really. It matters how honest we are with ourselves when we choose our careers. It’s okay to make our decision based off of financial cues. We all do, to some extent. But we have to accept it. To try to imitate passion, to try to say we do what we do because we love it when we actually feel quite different is at best disingenuous and at worst unhealthy. The second things is: What do we value in our careers?  It’s easy to become dazzled by the mainstream and be swept away in the current trend. But at some point, we’d have to wake up to the reality we’ve bought into. It’s a point of contention that everyone is forced to go through. What makes us happy? Is it the money? Looks? Or is it more subtle, intangible and less flashy?

Someone cynical might say it’s impossible to have it both ways. I don’t agree. What they say is of the vertical perspective; from top to bottom. They want the top of the wants pyramid, the financially irresponsible, take the Maybach for a joyride kind of wants — and then they want the inner sanctimony, the peace, the self-confidence and sense of fulfillment that is found at the emotional base. But I think it’s more horizontal. We ebb and flow in our choices, and we make different choices based on our current circumstances. Time. We swing back and forth between ends when disequilibrium is attained. Sometimes we reach the middle when we’re self-aware and understanding of what we value. Other times, we stand on much more tenuous ground and disillusionment settles in gradually. In that case, it takes longer to realize the path we’re meant to take. But I like to be optimistic about the situation. I think everyone, in the end, realizes what makes them happy in life. It’s just a question of whether it’s too late.

William Wang is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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