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sellout’s conundrum by Rona W. '21

i am a lost child

Sometimes I went to recruiting events just to remember why I avoided recruiting events. The latest one, held in early May of this year, was at Abide, a bubble tea shop on the outskirts of campus. The recruiters had tried, they really did—wheeled in old-school arcade games, paid for limitless boba, etched the space in muted gold light.

A woman in a crisp suit handed me a stack of poker chips. “Use these to place bets.” She gestured at a whiteboard that proclaimed two hundred dollars’ worth of chips could be exchanged for a backpack; a thousand dollars’ worth meant AirPods. I wondered at this approximation of Maslow’s. Who needed self-actualization when one could listen to podcasts wirelessly?

A few minutes later, I was assessing the boba selection—passionfruit green tea, matcha milk tea, something reddish that involved guava—when a recruiter sidled up. Her greeting floated towards me. “Hi there!”

“Hi,” I said, pivoting away from the counter. I wasn’t sure what the company did. Hedge fund? What did hedge funds do? To amuse myself, I briefly pictured manicured shrubs made from dollar bills.

“How’s school going?”

Her voice formed the shape of possibility. Opportunity. Another future opened itself to me, sparkly and inviting. Wall Street, maybe, or a consulting firm, something synonymous with prestige, six-figure salaries, very reasonable health insurance. I could walk into a restaurant and order without looking at menu prices.

Behind us, a rinse of noise: groans and a burst of bright, asynchronous beeps. Somebody had just lost a game of Pac-Man. For a fleeting second, it was all I could hear of the room.

“Um, school is good,” I said.

After a few more lines of scripted dialogue, the recruiter moved on to other students. I turned back to the boba. At the bottom of each cup, tapioca pearls clotted into indistinguishable blurs of black.

More beeping. Somebody was cueing up a new game. I imagined Pac-Man, endlessly swerving about his maze, collecting point after point after point. Devouring through level upon level towards some inevitable death. Game over.

I handed my poker chips to a friend, grabbed two cups sloshing to the brim with milk tea, and left.

The summer after my freshman year at MIT, I wrote the following on Tumblr:

“We would commiserate with each other about how high school felt like a farce, like a four-year-long audition, and then we would go on to attend Ivies and top state universities and small liberal arts colleges and we would eventually switch our majors to something safe, like economics or computer science. And we would rebel, sure; we would dance on tabletops and kiss the wrong person and backpack through Europe, but inevitably, the intoxicating allure of the corporate world and all of its comforts would yank us back to the paths drawn for us before we were born. And by age thirty, we would make six-figures annually; we would have a mortgage, two-point-one kids, and a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and we would have grown into the boring-ass adults we swore we’d never be.”

Perhaps a tad melodramatic, but I felt more lost than ever. It was the same summer I read former Yale professor William Deresiewicz’s sharp rebuke of elite higher education. In The New Republic, he wrote, “I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.”

In retrospect, it’s a cynical take—in college, I’ve had the honor of meeting so many vibrant, curious souls—but to eighteen-year-old me, Deresiewicz offered a terrifying prospect. I didn’t want to be a Wall Street sellout. I wanted to be a writer. But I knew writing poetry was about as useful to greater society as shifting vast, moneyed sums from point A to point B, and at least the latter came with a dental plan.

I didn’t know what to do, so I chose to do nothing: stumbled into a job offer in Auckland and took a year off to work instead of coming back to MIT for my sophomore year.  The week before I flew off to the Southern Hemisphere, I read Mihir Desai’s op-ed in the Harvard Crimson, in which he dissuades students from pursuing careers in consulting or finance: “The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line. If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them. Creating optionality and buying lottery tickets are not way stations on the road to pursuing your dreamy outcomes. They are dangerous diversions that will change you.”

I envisioned myself as a corporate cog, devoid of fantastical hopes, and didn’t entirely hate the idea, because at least that person knew where she was going.

After New Zealand, I’m irrevocably different in some senses—more prone to fretting about the costs of mundane items like toilet paper, for example. But, for better or worse, I did not change into the sellout Desai warned of.

I’m nearly twenty-one now, yet I find myself craving the same things I’ve coveted my entire life: jasmine tea, Impressionist art, white chocolate, intense friendship. I suspect I will spend the rest of my life searching for the words to approximate the secret, untranslatable language of my mind, because it is the only way I might reach across impossible distances, the galaxies between people.

I thought I wanted to be a writer, so I signed with a literary agent and published a book. But I found no joy in self-promotion, in networking, in everything surrounding the craft itself. While I still love writing more than pretty much anything else, I don’t want to make it into a career.

I thought I wanted to go into finance, because I enjoyed math; it was what had drawn me to MIT. I found it similar to poetry: both abstracted the world into something more elegant. Both transcended their own language. But I found no fulfillment in exploiting economic loopholes, no matter how beautiful the numbers were.

I’m nearly twenty-one now, yet I’m still confused. All I have is an amalgamation of curiosities and dreams, but I don’t know what to do with that. I want to learn every secret of the universe, and there simply isn’t enough time to do so.

A few weeks ago, I went back to Abide with a graduating senior destined for Big Tech in the fall. We talked about majors. She’d opted for computer science, the most popular department at MIT. After coming back to school, I declared comparative media studies; nobody understood what it was or why it was useful.

“I took classes in both math and comparative media studies this past semester,” I said. “I know exactly what I learned in my math class—how to compute a probability density function, for example. What I learned in my comparative media studies classes…that’s much more amorphous. I think it’ll take me years to understand what I truly learned. But it’s important to me to be a mindful citizen of the world, to do things with purpose, and I’ll never learn that from doing a math pset.”

“The real world is a thing,” she pointed out. Vocational skill sets translated into financial stability; excessive, indulgent consumption of literature and sociology papers did not.

Later, I asked her why she’d decided to work at her Silicon Valley company.

“I think at MIT, I gained so many skills but didn’t have the time to figure out what I wanted, so I think I’ll spend a few years gaining exposure,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll stay there forever.”

I slurped at my boba and gazed outside, the glass blotted by raindrops. Massachusetts Avenue was nothing but windows: storefront after glinting storefront, a limitless throat of possibility. Often, I would walk along the same street, music tucked in my ears, footsteps meandering as if I had somewhere to go, but somehow never ending up anywhere at all.