Sandlund: Hopefully Confused
Smart, young, ambitious and confused: Corporate recruiting and growing up.
I spent the first week of my senior fall waking up early every morning determined to do work, only to remain in bed in the fetal position, paralyzed by stress. Thoughts of what I needed to do — apply for jobs, start my thesis, apply to fellowships — overwhelmed me. The weight of infinite futures lay heavy on my chest. And so the last rays of summer light were lost on me. If birds chirped, I did not hear them. If the grass gleamed, awash in early morning dew, I did not see past my bedroom window.
Those who know me understand I am not a natural planner, as much as I would like to convince future employers otherwise. My father has taught me (at least) three things: Do not waste, be organized for the next day and do not plan too much. The last two lessons may seem contradictory, but in the concept of the future exists a clear division. There is the certain future of coffee and a nice poop and the uncertain future of “What am I going to do with my life?” For a long time, I existed primarily in the first version of the future, one I like to call the subsistence future. You live in this future if you have time and basic necessities provided for, or if you have neither of these things and must work so hard you cannot plan ahead. Most Dartmouth students have some version of the time-rich subsistence future. It is nice and cozy, and everything is assured. You can still contemplate the big questions, but you do it from the comfort of the hypothetical. The hard reality of American social expectations is a fuzzy background. Sadly, that reality must be faced one day — this is what I have told myself “growing up” means. It seems to me, though, that we do not grow up so much as change how we think.
I was desperate not to find myself at Commencement looking around confused and asking, “What next?” I do not want to feel left behind, but I also wanted to find something personally meaningful to do. I’m sure many Dartmouth students who grew up in America experienced this notion of self-imposed peer pressure during the college application process. I did not. My high school sent graduates to so many different countries and random programs that, while there was some sense of awe for the rare University of Oxford and Harvard University acceptances, most people were fairly content finding their own path. There was an understanding that we would wind up in vastly different worlds but that we all came from the same transient international school. Maybe I was just blissfully unaware of the sense of competition; maybe as I’ve gotten older I have become more concerned with what others do. I certainly hope not — it is easier to believe something is different at prestige-oriented institutions such as Dartmouth, and that the difference points to fundamental traits of American culture.
Something switched in my brain after that early gauntlet of prospecting my future, like a gold miner manically trying to determine the right plot of land to buy. The size of the frontal lobe in a human is what makes us different from animals like dogs. It allows us to plan, among other executive functions. It also helps explain why dogs are happier than us. My frontal lobe came out the other side of recruiting in unusually good form; my brain had been soaked in cortisol and hardened for the things to come. It was ready to direct the forces of my mind toward potential veins of gold and, after debilitating procrastination, I started to apply to many, many jobs. This seemed like the best way to use my newfound mindset. It did not matter if the jobs themselves were what I wanted to do — what mattered most was that they were opportunities that could allow me to do some interesting future thing.
And so I successfully convinced my brain to think seriously about not just one future but the future that would come after that imagined future. As if to demonstrate the change in how I thought about time, for a few weeks after my mental shift I constantly thought the current date was the day ahead of the actual date. I was disobeying a fundamental tenet of my father’s, but I was also forcing myself to seriously consider what I wanted to achieve with my education.
From my perspective, the money and prestige are mere symptoms of what corporate recruiting really offers. These jobs provide something people crave: a degree of certainty. You worry until you don’t have to worry. Some students want these jobs so they can relax for the rest of senior year, returning at least for now to the fold of the subsistence mindset. Others enjoy the knowledge that these jobs will set them down a career path they are interested in pursuing. Still, others apply simply because they feel like they should take advantage of a good opportunity. I count myself in this group. All of us take comfort in the knowledge that, if successful, they will be able to pay the bills.
Regardless of the rhetoric about selling one’s soul, recruiting is a privilege offered by elite institutions. Most people work for for-profit institutions after college, because that is how the world works. I do not believe it is fair to criticize these people as corporate drones because if you really care that much, you should criticize our society instead — and then go about changing it. I’m not sure how to feel about recruiting in the context of complaints over a limited selection of job types — but I have enjoyed the experience of seeing my brain change and become more planful. My duty is to broaden my perspective and to pursue the things I find interesting. Ultimately, all you have to do is know what your priorities are and act on them with some conviction. In a world fettered by material necessity and materialism, that can be harder than it sounds.