September 29, 2022

KUBINEC | Don’t Sacrifice Your Life For a Career

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On a gray spring day in 2021, President Pollack gave a heartfelt speech to Cornell’s graduating class, urging the socially distanced seniors to leverage their education “to tackle big, thorny problems” facing the world.

Half of Cornell’s employed 2021 graduates now work in tech, finance or consulting. The top employer for Arts & Sciences graduates in the class of 2021 is Facebook. The rest of those graduating seniors are presumably in graduate programs or nonprofits, gathering skills to tackle thorny problems.

In short, there are two main paths facing the Cornell graduate: work a lot to make gobs of money, or work a lot to save the world. The trouble is, both of these options assume a work-centered life, and as it turns out, we tend to be terribly unhappy in our work-related pursuits. Orienting our lives around community and family while placing work second would be a better way to live.

This summer, I sat on my friend’s apartment roof as he lit a cigarette — a habit he’d picked up to cope with the depression he was facing because of his internship, he explained. This friend was employed by a tech giant many Cornellians would auction a kidney to work for, and he was miserable. He’s far from alone in feeling that way.

Cornell’s 2020 mental health survey found that 88.5 percent of undergrads see their coursework as “moderately or extremely stressful,” and 75.5 percent experience concerns about their future in the same way. Translation: we really don’t enjoy the work we’re doing now, and we’re not optimistic that things will get much better.

This is an accepted reality at Cornell, part of our “work hard play hard” culture — but it’s something I’ve always found puzzling. Why is the reward for acceptance to an Ivy League school working 70 hours a week at Goldman Sachs? Shouldn’t the point of going to Cornell be to earn a decent living doing something less burdensome, even if it involves taking a pay cut?

Adam Ziccardi ‘21 was one of those 2021 graduates meant to solve thorny problems. He began his time at Cornell as an engineer to avoid the “philosophy major to Starbucks pipeline,” he told me. But after accepting that he didn’t enjoy being an engineer, Ziccardi switched his major to religious studies. He worked as a substitute teacher after graduation before moving to a farm.

“I was a Cornell graduate and what was I doing? I was watering the plants and walking the dogs,” Ziccardi said with a laugh. But Ziccardi felt free and appreciative of his life. 

We don’t all have to live on farms, but Ziccardi’s story illustrates that we also don’t all have to sacrifice our well-being to climb the corporate ladder. What if we entertained the possibility that rejecting the career-gods and building a life centered on family and community is not just a nice way for the non-Ivy-League-educated to live, but the actual best orientation for our lives?

High-paying tech and finance jobs cluster in increasingly expensive cities and expect employees to be highly committed to their work, meaning it’s hard to start a family. Work takes a quasi-religious centrality in a person’s life. 

Working excessive hours increases your risk of stroke or alcoholism, per the World Economic Forum. A lack of strong social ties can be as harmful to your health as smoking. University of Toronto researchers ranked 98 Canadian neighborhoods by happiness, and two of Canada’s megacities — Toronto and Montreal — tied for last. In short, the workaholic, fast-moving, big-city dream being sold by tech and finance giants isn’t going to make you happy.

Plus, as Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic, our career idol is a “god with firing power.” So, companies make their offices feel like all-inclusive resorts, and workers practice watered-down Buddhism to make life feel meaningful. I’m not sold.

To be clear, I don’t think tech and finance careers are irredeemable. I hope some of my classmates help solve thorny problems and work in cool offices. I spent a lot of my own time at Cornell thinking my life would be meaningless without an impressive job. But when most Cornell undergraduates can’t imagine a future without extreme stress or abject misery, something has gone terribly wrong. It’s time to start considering alternatives.  

If I could get existential for a moment, consider what happens when you die.

The church was packed wall to wall as the upstate New York town turned out en masse for my friend’s dad’s funeral earlier this semester. The man was a school headmaster and rowing coach — a community giant in his small town. Several community members tearfully testified to the handprints he’d left on their lives. The man made peace with God, leaving his family believing he was in Heaven. What will your funeral look like?

This is a question that Microsoft can’t help you answer, but it’s probably an important thought for deciding what your life should be for.

You can begin rejecting the pull of career-minded life while at Cornell. Take a new class outside of your major or minors — sheerly for the joy of learning. Get into a spontaneous long conversation with a friend, even though you should be getting started on that problem set. Allow yourself to rest in ways that don’t involve self-improvement or HBO Max binging. 

Choosing between career and community isn’t a zero-sum game, of course. But if I had to pick one to take over the other, I’m taking the latter.

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected] You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.