I just read The Opposite of Loneliness.
It’s written by this young woman, Marina Keegan. Maybe you’ve heard of her because she got famous from her essay The Opposite of Loneliness. She wrote it for the Yale Daily News where she graduated, magna cum laude in May 2012. She died five days later in a car accident. She was twenty two years old.
The essay went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. It then became the leading essay and the title of a book of her works, fiction and non-fiction, gathered posthumously by family, friends and a beloved English professor.
The essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, is a very powerful piece and I recommend you read it. You can find it online here.
My review of this book, however, focuses solely on the essay Even Artichokes Have Doubts.
Even Artichokes Have Doubts endeavors to make sense of the startling fact that 25 percent of employed Yale students will enter the consulting or finance industry upon graduation.
Yale grads. The “best of the best.” Bred to change the world. What happens when 25 percent of the “brightest stars” in our generation’s universe abandon whatever dream they held as Freshman for a career in banking and finance only four years later?
Don’t you wonder about this? Don’t you want to know when we stopped running after the light? And the promise? And the things that made us sing?
This is a big deal. This is a huge deal. This is so many people! This is one-fourth of our people! Regardless of what you think… we ought to be pausing for a second to ask why.
If you ask someone what they want from life they will usually reply with some version of “I want to be significant, to make a difference, to leave the world a slightly better place.” If they aren’t doing this and you ask them why, you will get some version of “I’m scared” or “I’m too busy” (which is just another version of “I’m scared”).
Rarely do you hear, “I want to be an investment banker.” “I want to work for a financial institution.”
In an effort to understand this incongruency, Keegan conducted a survey of incoming Yale freshman.
freshman after freshman what they thought they might be doing upon graduation. Not one of them said they wanted to be a consultant or an investment banker. Now I’m sure that these people do exist—but they certainly weren’t expressing interest at a rate of 25 percent… Yet sometime between Freshman Screw and Last Chance Dance something in our collective cogs shifts and these jobs become attractive. We’re told they help us gain valuable skills. We’re told a lot of things.
And those things we’re told get in the way of the things we know which gets in the way of all the things we are here to do.
One senior I spoke with (and will refer to as Shloe Carbib for the sake of Google anonymity) has known what she’s wanted since Freshman year. When asked what she hoped to do with her life, Shloe responded immediately: “Oh, you know, I want to write and direct films or be an indie music celebrity.” Ironies of expression aside, there was a sincerity to her avowal. “I want to devote my life to the things that I love. I want to create something lasting that I’m really proud of.”
“Of course I don’t want to be a consultant,” she said…clutching a borrowed copy of Mark Consentino’s Case In Point (the aspiring-consultant bible). “It’s just very scary to watch as many of your friends have already secured six-figure salaries and are going to be living in luxury next year. I’m trying to figure out if I love art enough to be poor.”
This essay was written in 2012. The belief of the starving artist prevails. The shitty apartments, the roaches, the overdue bills as one struggles to sell paintings or poems or pottery.
But we need the art. And the creativity. And the possibility.
If only other things didn’t get in the way.
Writes Keegan about graduating senior Anne Shi:
“When asked what she might be most interested in doing with her life, she mentioned a fantasy of opening a restaurant that supports local artists and sustainable food. Eventually, she’s “aiming for something that does more good than just enriching [her]self.” She just doesn’t think she’s ready for anything like that quite yet.
“How can I change the world as a twenty-one or twenty-two year old?” she said. “I know that’s a very pessimistic view, but I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge or experience to step into those shoes. Even if you know that you want to go into the public sector, you’d benefit from experience in the private sector.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
One senior who interned with J.P. Morgan described his experience this way.
“Working there was a combination of the least fulfilling, least interesting, and least educational experiences of my life. I guess I did learn something, but I learned it in the first two days and could have stopped my internship then. In the next two months I learned nothing but still came to work early and for some reason had to stay until ten,” he said. “I would see these people who loved it, but honestly it seemed like they were either uninteresting or lying to themselves.”
This is the next generation. Where did we go wrong? Because I know it’s not just them. I know it’s you and me too. Being scared. Opting for the safer version. How many times a day do I reflect on my grand vision and then tell myself, next month. Next month.
Not because I don’t have time or money or connections or enough experience. Because I’m scared. And everything else seems so much easier.
How do we pay for that? Not just with our life. While that would be high enough, the price we pay is with the lives of those we love—now and to come. With the health of the planet—now and to come. With the survival of our species—now and to come.
Are consulting firms inherently evil? Probably not. Are banks inherently evil? Probably not… So is there anything intrinsically wrong with the fact that 25 percent of employed Yale graduates end up in this industry?
Yeah, I think so.
Of course this is my own opinion, but to me there’s something sad about so many of us entering a line of work in which we’re not (for the most part) producing something, or helping someone, or engaging in something that we’re explicitly passionate about. Even if it’s just for two or three years. That’s a lot of years! And these aren’t just years. This is my twenty-three and twenty-four and twenty-five….
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it really is a fantastic way to gain valuable, real-world skills. And maybe everyone will quit these jobs in a few years and do something else. But it worries me…..
I’m just scared about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them is this the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like it can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear—at twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five—we might forget.
One essay. This was one essay. From one life. That ended at twenty two.
We don’t have time to be scared. We don’t have time to choose safe. Now is the time to “do something really cool to this world.”
And it is up to us.