h Elite Disillusionment (Annotated) / saffron huang / blog

Elite Disillusionment (Annotated)

January 13, 2020

After drafting, I sent this to a few people, including my good friend Matt Sun who made some insightful comments, drawing from his Stanford experience. I love to put pieces in conversation and see what emerges, so asked him to share those comments, which he kindly agreed to do. You are reading the annotated version of this (other version is here). I would be interested in seeing whether others (you?) have thoughts on these topics too. Also, this piece inspired a much longer and much more biting analysis of elite education I wrote for Palladium Magazine.

All manner of people take all manner of issue with elite universities. Chief among the usual qualms is the observation that places like Harvard pump out more financial analysts and consultants than appropriate for a university that purports to educate the transformative citizen-leaders of tomorrow. Is this really what all these kids came here to do, and why does the mission seem to fall so short? As I reach the tail end of my time here, I’m thinking about the distinct ways I’ve seen this environment – with all its trappings, narratives, and institutions – shape student paths. Sometimes I joke that Harvard is gaslighting all of us.

magnificent dreams

You get into Harvard by wanting to change the world, by having pie-in-the-sky ambitions. You don’t get in by limiting your goals simply to college admission - or, at least, you render that ulterior aim of yours undetectable. On the whole, it has been my experience that Harvard does manage to admit a lot of amazing, well-intentioned, bright people. But it changes them.

People get there, and realise that they’re not the best, the smartest, or the most hard-working anymore. So they say, okay, my role is not to change the world. That’s the role of him, or her, or them, because they’re all smarter and more hard-working than I am. The kid who just patented an invention, the other one who wrote two books, and the countless NGO founders who have collectively raised millions of dollars as teenagers. The real innovators, with destiny. Although these are largely illusory narratives and impressions, psychologically, their place in the world shifts. People become much less ambitious.

I wonder if there’s also an element of - wow, look at those kids who have been coding since they were 5 or that person who is literally the son of billionaires, how could I ever catch up? College treats each student as if they’re all just totally similar individuals but in reality we bring with us the baggage of our upbringings, social and economic status, etc. There’s something disheartening about coming into college and knowing that your starting point is drastically different from some others’. (side note, one line of encouragement my CS professor would often say was “a little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept” - i.e., when you’re just in college, a lot of other people’s “y-intercept” may be higher than yours, but as time goes to infinity, if you have a higher slope, meaning that you’re working harder or learning more, you can definitely meet or exceed them!)

For me the following items also contributed to this feeling:
- College teaches you that the world is incredibly complex, and naive attempts to “fix it” often result in catastrophic failure. This can lead to jadedness.
- I also think we’re conditioned to believe that change happens because of individual heroes, which then leads to disillusionment when we realize that no individual can fix all of society’s ills. I wonder what it would be like if society taught us that change is achieved not by individuals who are the exception to the norm, but by movements and coalitions created by masses of ordinary people working together. Perhaps Harvard and institutions like it have incentives to push forward the former narrative in order to keep themselves alive - after all, if change is always created by ordinary people, what’s the point of having elite institutions like Harvard?

They start to think smaller, safer. I’m not good enough for magnificent dreams. Hell, I can’t even get into any clubs. (Exclusivity is a bit of an issue on this campus.) Anyway, how do I even ‘change the world’ as I’d promised everyone upon entry to this place? I’m here now and I need to start fulfilling that mission, but man, people don’t talk about the logistics. The scope of their dreams tighten, from can-do-anything to yikes-I’m-not-THAT-exceptional-let’s-just-climb-the-ladder-that’s-meant-for-me. There is that guaranteed, successful thing that still impresses people and satisfies parents, but doesn’t change anything of substance. As luck would have it, that’s exactly the sort of path that career offices tend to be talented at finding and providing – the stable and prestigious opportunities at firms willing to pay up to $18,000 to recruit at career fairs.

In the first two years, when people asked me what I wanted to do with my education, I’d think back to the massive fantasies I’d concocted in my bedroom as a 17-year-old in Auckland, and feel a bit silly remembering the vague and grandiose notion of changing the world that had underpinned my aims. I mean, I’d had more specific ideas than that, but to tell the truth, the only thing I had real confidence in was that I wanted to really contribute something. I still did, and do. But having control of your life isn’t something that just happens to you; you have to be pro-active about it. And at times when I felt swamped with homework* I’d grumble to myself that it felt like Harvard was actively preventing me from figuring out what I really should be doing.

It would be hugely helpful if students had more breathing room and headspace, or ways to talk about and normalise these thoughts, and collaborate to make their dreams slightly less vague. Likewise, it would go a long way if career services had more resources on strategic decision-making and calculated risk-taking, or access to mentorship from people in “non-traditional” pathways. There is a lot of underexplored room for improvement in how we guide our young people, and significant mismatches in the labour market as a result.

There seems to be a lot of low-hanging fruit and potential for high ROI for solutions in this area. Career choices are some of the most important decisions people make, yet convention expects them to start narrowing down their path early on with very little information or experience trying things out, to prepare years in advance without knowing what the demand for various jobs or skills might be by the time they graduate, to listen to out-of-date advice, to conduct their first job-search almost exclusively within the narrow scope of the companies that choose to recruit at their school, and to place no emphasis on seriously sitting down to forecast how the future might look in 20-30 years when you’re mid-career.


By going to college for four years, you become uprooted from your home and community, and lose significant agency and power to serve a community that you know and are committed to. I personally got very disconnected from New Zealand while away – I felt like I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of the place anymore, didn’t know what was happening – and it’s hard to replace that with a new town in a new country.

Who should you be making a change for, what do you invest in, when you’re in an inherently transitory position? It’s obviously not impossible to do so, but it’s a difficulty that many don’t anticipate, especially if you’re someone that’s interested in sustainable, direct and local impact. It’s hard to imagine taking up responsibilities in Cambridge community development or the local council, if you know you’re only there 26 weeks a year for four years. Although there are plenty of people who volunteer as tutors, mentors and so on, I think the transience pushes many people to focus on self-development instead (including myself). This is completely fine, as personal growth is obviously important, but constant absorption in the self might be teaching students not to prioritise other-regarding goals.

Building on this point…I feel like a lot of students at elite colleges spend almost all their time on their campus (even if it’s situated right in the middle of a city). It’s probably for reasons of convenience, but I think we learn to enjoy the comfort of socializing with people who think like us and largely have the same values (in the context of society, Harvard is like one giant, extremely exclusive final club). I wonder if this then leads to us craving that same experience post-graduation and working at investment banks / tech companies / consulting firms where our workplaces will draw from the same types of people. Upwards (intellectual/socioeconomic) mobility always involves feeling like you’re leaving people behind.

psychological doors

Elite colleges also actually close doors – at least, psychologically. You don’t see Harvard alumni becoming plumbers, or farmers, or opening a corner store, or doing things that aren’t “worthy” of their degree, even if that’s what makes them happy. The pressure to prove that the price tag and hard work was “worth it”, and that you “lived up to your potential”, is an insidious side effect of attendance that no one talks about. It’s another barrier to risk-taking – even though they have an elite degree, which is ironically one of the best career backup plans one could possibly have. (And yes, I acknowledge that this is a privileged problem; it is still a problem.)

Yeah, it’s like if you don’t choose to do XYZ prestigious thing, everyone assumes it’s because you couldn’t hack it / get the offer, and you don’t want to look stupid in front of all your friends. It’s a mindset that starts perhaps with even getting that letter of admission - there’s no denying that a huge part of the thrill of knowing you got into Harvard is “I got in…even though so many others didn’t!” Just like we assume that many people who aren’t going to Harvard never had the choice because they couldn’t get in, we also assume that anyone graduating and working in a job that isn’t tech/consulting/finance simply wasn’t good enough for those prestigious positions.

I find that people back home are often much more ambitious about changing their part of the world than people at Harvard. At the end of sophomore year I felt blown away at how many Auckland University kids I knew that were starting companies and social enterprises, creating maker spaces, doing art, running for council – and nonchalantly inventing their own rules, which is something Harvard kids don’t seem to do. It might be that they don’t harbour so much mental pressure. It might be that they don’t take everything so seriously. It might be that they’re not so paralysed by and unaccustomed to the idea of failure.

The obligatory disclaimer is that I am grateful beyond words for my college education, which has permitted me the most eye-opening and irreplaceable experiences. Nevertheless, I like to think of myself as a realist about the kind of place Harvard is, and the spectrum of effects it has on people. There is much impact to be had in solving some of these problems, and in creating environments for college students in which they are empowered to take the risks they want to (especially if they are very well-placed to take risks), have agency, and can more easily find networks of others wanting to be creative and inspired, to create a mutually-reinforcing spiral of creativeness and inspiration until everyone explodes in a burst of glitter.

Obviously, elite schools open doors, but it’s about what you do with your education regardless of where or if you attend college. And (my main point) it’s about whether your mind is free from all the new narratives and pressures, finding ways past potential disillusionment and isolation to create connections, to do scary things and to breathe life into the dreams that you seek. I’ve found it to be a fulfilling experience, and I’m thankful that I currently feel no less ambitious than I did before. It hasn’t been an easy or wholly happy ride – but one that has forced me to figure out what I actually care about (which is continuously a work in progress). If you make sure that you don’t lose yourself in the madness, you really can find yourself.

* As some who know me will have heard me complain, homework comprising 70% of one’s semester grade was something entirely new to me at the start of college. I thought that homework was a learning aid, to help you as you went along and started really understanding the material and putting it all together in your head. Unfortunately, it’s mostly just a weekly stressor (or in the case of one of my first-year maths classes, 3x a week, each due at 9am) that you have to get basically perfect without fail, if you have any hope of getting an A. Everyone spends all their time nit-picking tricky and specific details rather than ensuring that they have a deep comprehension of the material… (When you have three problem sets per week, and a host of other things to deal with in your academic/extracurricular/social life, it’s funny how myopic your education can become)

categories: musings / tags: college harvard school dreams pressure narratives career service community
thoughts welcome here