An aspirational paradox

In general, contemporary society disparages people extremely focused on their careers, labelling them as “careerists.” No real objections are presented; instead there is simply a vague simmering contempt for “careerists.” When an anti-careerist manages to articulate an objection, it is usually couched as a social justice problem: careerists cause unfair societies by being ahead of everyone else. When practiced appropriately, i.e. looking after one’s own best interests, “careerist” mentalities and behaviors, such as discipline, planning, and diligence, are necessary for prosperity, both personal and societal.

During the early stages, the opposite of careerism isn’t drifting: it’s aspirational behavior. An illustrative anecdote: a pre-med major in my year failed part of her science requirements repeatedly, mostly due to partying. Despite her inadequate academic record in her major field area, she applied to Harvard Medical in her final year. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t accepted. As a mutual acquaintance said: “one’s going up against people who’ve been working to get into Harvard Medical since middle school; they [Harvard] don’t need someone like her.” Although the result was only to be expected, it came as a complete shock to the girl and her parents since they had all believed that she was destined to attend Harvard Med. To listen to the former pre-med student talk today, she didn’t get to go to Harvard Med. It is as if some external force denied her a chance.

As a quick explanation to non-American readers, because the US system requires that students take courses outside of their major field, there is a high tolerance for poor marks in general education requirements; the trade-off is that one is expected to earn reasonably high marks in one’s own field in order to advance to the next level. For an institution such as Harvard Med, that a pre-med student earned anything below average marks in a science course would be unacceptable, unless there was a very good reason clarified in the application statement. A good reason would be a family tragedy or some life event beyond one’s control, but not partying.

The sheer reality is that my friend was right: Harvard Med receives applications from candidates who shown single-minded focus in pursuit of a goal since age twelve. In comparison to that, a twenty-three-year-old woman whose transcript screams “unfocused” is not a prize. Even the act of applying to Harvard would count against her since assessors would conclude that she hadn’t bothered to read the guidance and fit sections, i.e. the pages where expected grades and MCAT scores are listed, on Harvard Med’s website.

The case of Fisher vs. University of Texas 2013 and 2016 (the Supreme Court heard the case twice) is an example of the dichotomy between aspiration and careerism. Abigail Fisher applied to University of Texas – Austin but was turned away as her grades, though above average for her public school, were below the university’s automatic admission standards. The crux of her suit was that UT – Austin both didn’t take into account her extracurriculars and replaced her with an affirmative action candidate. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled – both times – that although UT – Austin ought to have been more transparent in their admissions process, there was no evidence that the university had discriminated against Fisher.

The aspirational part of this story was that Fisher’s extracurriculars, Habitat for Humanity, local youth orchestra without holding a principle position, and miscellaneous charitable activities, were not genuine distinctions in a candidate pool such as that commanded by UT – Austin. Based on my own experience as someone who was in youth orchestras from middle school until college – if one counts my first training ensembles, then I’ve been in orchestras from the age of six up – should an applicant wish to use music involvement as proof of merit, then youth ensemble participation is a simple expectation. Unless one was a section leader, youth orchestra membership is not a sign of exceptionality. According to Habitat for Humanity’s North America page, the annual number of volunteers is around two million. Volunteering with the charity is generous and worthy, but doing so does not make the volunteer stand out in a candidate pool.

While society can discuss endlessly the merits and demerits of affirmative action, the Fisher case indicates that the policy has taken on a role no one could have predicted: scapegoat. The policy has become an escape hatch for aspirationalists seeking to avoid facing their own inadequacies and lack of proper preparation or career focus. Instead of blunt conversations about the real reasons a person didn’t qualify for a desirable professional school or first-choice university, aspirational individuals can offload blame onto the policy. While one can hardly blame the policy for being a scapegoat, one must acknowledge that such use has potential to be very damaging to the social fabric.

A paradox

You know those little floaters on the surface of your eyes? They drift into view, catch your attention, then when you try to focus directly on one it disappears from view. They’re only really there if you don’t look straight at them.

Goodhart’s Law tells us that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The same basic logic applies to two of my favorite things: the Internet and college.

The Internet is still a magical thing, but we’ve killed some of the magic by trying to take the Internet seriously. The Internet ceases to provide output worth taking seriously when people actually take the Internet seriously. When you only keep it in your periphery, it’s actually worth taking seriously

Ditto for college. The basic problem with the current system is that we’re all taking it too seriously. That leads to all sorts of specific bad behavior. But it all comes from this root problem. College is only worth taking seriously if we don’t. When college is back in the ivory tower, separated from the “real” world, it’s a place where people can be creative and make non-obvious connections. But once we recognize “hey, that’s a pretty neat thing, let’s make it a one-size-fits-all solution to all of our problems” we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

My advice for getting the most out of the Internet: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do weird stuff.

My advice for getting the most out of college: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do the sort of stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have time for.