February 10, 2022

NGUYEN | Off to the Rat Races!

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I picture an all-out rat race when I think of my life post-grad, one of Ratatouille-sized proportions. I see a stream of clamoring bodies, sacks of fur scampering over one another and tirelessly pushing forward. It’s an image of vigorous, almost violent, effort — and all for a hunk of cheese dangling from a stick. It’s close enough to invite temptation, but it’s always hanging in the distant beyond. Just barely out of reach.

It’s only a matter of time before I, too, jump into the madness and enter the rat race.

I spent a good chunk of my winter break tumbling down a LinkedIn rabbit hole. December and January watched me slosh through light masochism. I wasted hours sifting through old friends’ job announcements and early graduation posts, through their humble brags and not-so-humble flexes. The more I scrolled, the more I found myself in deep spirals of frustration, wondering how and why the rest of the world seemed to have unlimited stores of energy and talent and time. And wondering how I had fallen so pathetically far behind.

But during one of these LinkedIn benders, knee-deep in a bout of self-pity, a funny thing happened: I started to admire the audacity of the platform. I mean, LinkedIn’s really got nerve. These days, all other social networks hinge on some tightrope of contrived authenticity. There are endless paradoxes for how we should present ourselves online: Appear unattainable, but remain relatable. Ooze commercial appeal, but project authenticity. Impress effortlessly.

But LinkedIn is different. It rejects the balancing act: To be “good” at LinkedIn is to be confident about displaying your effort and your desire to impress. There is no pretense of authenticity or humility. We’re allowed to lean into self-centered presentations, and we’re invited to share every accomplishment loudly and proudly. On LinkedIn, we can be honest that our online social activities are actually personal self-marketing campaigns — and, in effect, LinkedIn also grants us permission to be candid about our careerist dispositions, our thirst for what society labels as “success.”

This particular effect of LinkedIn is notable because, too often, we devote time to trying to obscure how much we value the fruits of our labor under capitalism.

I’ve spent most of my college years pretending to be above the rat race, avoiding job applications and internships as if I can reject the pressure of capitalism through moral abstention. It’s been easy, actually, to develop a sense of moral superiority in college. Higher education supplies us with the space and privilege to analyze the world around us from a distance. I am in a fortunate position as a Cornell student to worry little about day-to-day survival and earning livable wages. Instead, I’ve sat on the $2,000 benches at Zeus, far away from any real workplace. I’ve taken notes and learned about the systems that perpetuate inequality, all while avoiding direct participation in them.

But the view from the ivory tower is always idyllic, up until the point when we have to plunge down and into the thicket of adult reality.

I’ve finally hit my last semester at Cornell. I suppose it should feel like an accomplishment, but really, it just feels frightening to stare down at a life where I’ll no longer be measuring time in semesters. What will happen when I no longer have the privilege of college cloistering me away from the real world? Come May, idealism will hit reality, and four years of shiny privilege may pave into what I’ve been afraid of for so long: losing my selfhood to turn the wheel of capitalism.

Or maybe, if I’m embracing the LinkedIn mentality and being candid about my tilt toward careerism, I might admit to myself that, all along, college was never my escape from the rat race. It’s been my pathway toward it. I might admit that tearing up my California roots to endure four frigid years in Ithaca wasn’t a decision to “find myself” or “step out of my comfort zone” or “grow” — no, attending Cornell was a conscious submission to my ambitious cravings. 

It’s easy to Stockholm your psyche when you throw around empty buzzwords, but the facade buckles when we begin to see college for what it is: four years meant to maximize our value on the job market. We come to college because we desire a success measured in six-figure salaries and job promotions and raises, and because we long for the affordances attached to those things: personal freedom, social cachet and comfort.

It’s why parents shovel tens of thousands of dollars toward college tuitions, why students accept massive loans as a fact of adult life, why mega-celebrities break laws in order to finagle their already-moneyed children through the gates of higher education.

I’ve got three more months left to bask in the glow of the Great College Experience. Whether or not I’ve stacked my resumé up with enough workable skills and experiences will be answered in due time. I’ll likely waste more hours down the LinkedIn rabbit hole, polishing up my profile and loathing how much we’ve been encouraged to bend to our inner careerists.

But again, I suppose this is what I’ve been working toward all along.

I can hear the rumbling of rodent paws loud and clear now. A sea of rats anticipating May graduation. And I can see my future self, too: throwing my body into the mob and clawing my way toward that glob of cheese.

It’s only a matter of time before I take my place in the rat race. 

Niko Nguyen is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Fault Line runs every other Friday this semester.