A guest post by Stephanie Denning, who writes about leadership issues from a Millennial perspective. The views expressed here are her own.
“Oh, the places you’ll go.”
Millennials have heard it before. College is often called “The best four years of your life.” After having experienced college for myself, I would liken it more to the Hunger Games, a soul-sucking experience I have no desire to return to.
In a nutshell, it went like this. Your net worth was defined by your grade point average. As such, almost any behavior was tolerated to get ahead. After all, getting anything below a ‘B’ was lethal. The glaring issue in this game called “college” is that you win by getting ahead. How you do it doesn’t matter. It’s not about learning. It’s not about values (values shmalues,) Being a good person? Sorry I even mentioned it.
On my graduation day, I asked the valedictorian of the engineering school at Columbia if he would have done anything differently. He answered, “Make more friends.”
Interestingly, the social dynamics didn’t offer much relief to the competitive backdrop of the academics. All friendships were shrouded in Schadenfreude. In other words, people derived pleasure in seeing you fail. It was commonplace for friends to get angry with you for getting a better grade.
I am not exempt from these afflictions. I too am competitive to a fault. Which is why the toughest thing I faced in college was accepting that I wasn’t the best, an outcome I deemed as failure. Up until college, everything had come easily to me, almost eerily so. When I look back and try to identify any blip of an obstacle, the best I can come up with (and I’m embarrassed to admit this) is the time I got a B+ on a math test on vectors in 9th grade.
“And remember that life’s a great balancing act.” – Dr. Seuss
So when I stumbled upon the story of Madison Holleran, I was drawn in. Meet Madison Holleran.
She’s a freshman track star at UPenn. Smart, funny, and popular. She was a talented athlete. By high school graduation, she had won two consecutive New Jersey state soccer titles, and the state championship in track for the 800-meter, and she had graduated with honors. If you Google a photo of her, you’ll see she’s strikingly pretty with an infectious smile. By all objective measures she was a success.
I’ll pause here. Because as Madison’s story marinates in your mind, the last place you expect the story to go is that of suicide. Sadly, that’s exactly how Madison Holleran’s story ends. How can someone with so much promise be so unhappy? What happened? What triggered this tragedy? Is UPenn in some way responsible?
As I was mulling over these questions myself, I decided to send Madison’s story to a few colleagues. My colleagues and I are consultants. Consulting is another notoriously cutthroat pressure cooker. It’s really not all that different from Columbia, which is why I wanted to get their thoughts on Madison’s story.
The consensus was that UPenn’s cutthroat culture was somehow responsible for Madison’s death. After all, they incubated this Petri dish which bred and spread the infection. Meanwhile the kids try to find coping mechanisms: picking the easiest subjects, trading sleep or a social life for studying, or excessive drinking. What wasn’t an option was any tradeoff that sacrificed getting an A, even if the tradeoff was for the sake of learning or interest in the subject.
“Only you can control your future.” – Dr. Seuss
With the advantage of hindsight, what I find most interesting is that students buy into a university’s notion of success. It only occurred to me after I had graduated that success in school really has nothing to do with your intelligence or how successful you’ll be in life.
This begs the question, why do we willingly plop ourselves in the pressure cooker?
The technical explanation comes courtesy of the Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence’s signaling theory which you can find here.
In layman’s terms, it goes like this: you choose to attend the college with the best reputation because you assume that it will signal to the market you are better candidate which will land you a better job.
“Better job,” I’ve learned, really means the job that combines the best reputation with the best pay. Examples today would be a Google or a Goldman Sachs. The assumption is that success is synonymous with those two things: brand equity and salary. An individual’s value is based on the number of “signals” they can accumulate and send to the job market.
Here’s the problem. Going to brand-name schools and working at brand-name companies is a way for us to signal to the world that we are valuable. It’s a way for us to tell ourselves we are successful. But this is your relative value. But what is your intrinsic value?
Defining your value based on brand names is an outdated definition of success. That’s the Baby Boomer view of the world. For Millennials like myself, never before have so many career options been available to us. We have the freedom to redefine what we deem to be a successful career.
While we know this in theory, in practice it’s much more difficult to execute. It takes maturity and guts to eschew the system we grew up in. We constantly question whether we’re doing the right thing. We play it safe choosing big brands and big salaries. The lingering question then becomes: At what point do we call it quits?
“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” – Dr. Seuss
The people who are immune to signals of success are usually the people who become the most successful. This is ultimately the irony of the success. Just take a sampling of the quintessential success stories of our time: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett or Albert Einstein. None of them seemed to care much about the external signals of success. What they cared about was capitalizing on their own intrinsic value.
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Follow Stephanie Denning on Twitter at @stephdenning
This article was written by Steve Denning from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.