The Burden of a Harvard Education

from Getty Images, http://www.CNBC.com

[I wrote this back in 2018, upon returning from the 10 Year Reunion at Harvard. It’s meant to be a reflection of my thoughts in 2018]

In the last weekend of May 2018, I was back on Harvard campus – a place I graduated exactly 10 years ago, to celebrate the 10th Year Reunion. It’s an annual tradition at Harvard to welcome back its students who graduated 10 years ago.

Upon returning to campus, it immediately took me back to 2008.
In 2008, I had a job lined up in Tokyo at a global investment bank.
I was surrounded by proud family and friends – all happy and relieved that I had finally become a Harvard College grad – a distinction only 1,600 or so individuals can claim each year. I had a not-so-serious boyfriend (who I ended up breaking up a month later) – he was part of an exclusive all boys club at Harvard who rode a BMW and his first gift to me was a $3000 Chanel leather bag.

In 2008, life for me was smooth sailing, to say the least.

My friends were headed to the best tech companies, consulting firms, banks, graduate schools in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London – you get the idea. Having witnessed the agony of the application rounds, the grueling interview process and the decision of which company to work for or which graduate program to be in – we felt a sigh of relief when we all had jobs and places to be at the end of the year.

The world welcomed us with possibilities beyond the reach of our own abilities; our resumes shone bright with the big H that we knew no one could take away from us, ever.
The words “You’re a Harvard grad!” opened doors everywhere we went, even in the post-Lehman crisis that upended most adults’ lives. Since most of us were immune to it with our big H and youths, we casually went on our fancy jobs and grad school posts.

The point is, it was not so difficult to be a Harvard grad back in 2008.

Fast forward to 2018. We had navigated through the financial crisis, the migration from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, countless bachelorette parties (and a few baby showers), the Age of Dating Apps, and the rise and fall of Facebook. In May 2018, we were back together in the same space as 2008 that gave us the magic potion to that smooth-sailing life.

Aside from catching up with friends and the conversations that ensued, I had low expectations coming into the celebratory reunion – I knew we would have dinners outside (worse than the school cafeteria), brunch in the Yard (too many young kids in Ralph Lauren), and a dance party (somewhat sketchy) to close the weekend off. The 5 year reunion I had attended in 2013 (when I was still at my banking job in NYC) was mostly drinking all day, eating cold fried food, and boasting and complaining about our jobs. And then there were more cocktails, roses and wines – so my expectations were kept pretty low for the 10th as well – perhaps a bit more drama.

I was proven wrong.

Well, for the most part, I was right – we did drink a lot, there were a lot more kids, and the food was just as bad.

I was proven wrong because of the one panel I attended.

It was a panel titled like another horrible self-help book – wait for it – it was titled “What is Success?” Despite its name, it became the inspiration to write this article, so hear me out.

The panel seemed like a last minute addition to the reunion program because it started at 10am (no one shows up before noon on a Saturday), and had a very different tone from the rest of the program. I had this weird sense that this was not going to be a typical place to humblebrag to your fellow classmates (I mean, it started at 10am!), which was the case for most organized events.

It was held in a lecture hall that had been the room Lawrence Summers (former Economic advisor to President Obama) taught me about globalization; it was the lecture hall that I always felt inadequate but content that I belong at Harvard – confusing pair of emotions, I know. It was the lecture hall that, even after 10 years, nothing about it had changed – the heavy doors, the movie-stadium like chairs, and squeaky, awkwardly shaped desks.

I won’t go into the details of what was discussed at this panel. I might talk about it in another blog entry. Today, I want to focus on one thing: The Burden of Harvard.

Someone brought this up during the breakout session of the panel.

When it was time for the audience to ask questions, he said – “It’s been 10 years since we’ve all graduated – and we are now starting to feel the burden of having gone to Harvard. I am not sure what success is, because this burden is with me everywhere I go.”

He didn’t use “responsibility,” “duty” or other cute words to describe our mission in life – instead, the word of choice was “burden.” Burden is not usually our choice of words to describe Harvard because we are too prideful of the institution and what it stands for. But we all knew what it meant when he mentioned it. At least, I hoped we all understood it, because it penetrated into my heart so fast, too quick for me to put up any guards.

What’s the Burden of Harvard?

It’s the sense of responsibility to live an impactful life.

It’s the expectation to be hyper-successful beyond your peers.

It’s the obligation to be the model citizen of the world.

It’s the guilt of entitlement in the age of scarcity.

It’s the immunity to the world’s most depressing realities.

It’s the liability of the world’s greatest education.

If you are a Harvard grad and don’t feel this burden, you are lying to yourself, or too proud and ignorant of your so-called accomplishments.

I know that I struggle immensely with the burden of being a Harvard grad. My extreme luck got me to Harvard – yes I worked hard, but I know that the admissions process depends so much more than just pure ability or potential. Those of us who attended Harvard know this best – it’s a crapshoot and we have no idea why we were there and not the other girl who was much more prepared, smarter, in your high school class. Knowing that, after years of toying around in my first banking job and subsequent consulting jobs and managerial roles, I struggled, very much, to understand my role in society.

Is it to make money, and hopefully use that money to do good for the world? Is it to provide the best education for my future unborn children? Is it to retire as early as possible, travel everywhere and soak up the world? Is it to start an NPO in a third world country so I can help the most disadvantaged kids?

As a Harvard grad (and any higher institution in the USA that most people can recognize without the help of google), you are given opportunities most are not given. At the same time, we are also driven and capable — and have conscience and dreams, too – that we are not sure how much should be shared with the world.

When these factors are combined, there’s an overwhelming sense of emptiness in all that we do. Nothing is ever enough. It was so easy to define ‘success’ in college because most college rankings would rank Harvard as the ‘best’ college in the world. We knew we were headed in the right direction because the biggest publication in the world said so, right? But when we no longer have the validation of our success, we find ourselves lost. Then the burden kicks in because we are lost, when we are supposed to be the most productive, energetic human beings in the world.

It’s a huge ocean we are trying to maneuver, because we were told that the world is ours to take. When 10 years ago we sailed out to sea on our fully equipped yacht, it was exhilarating, adventurous — somehow, we convinced ourselves that we deserved all of it. Along the way, though, we saw sailboats with no supplies, those sinking ships that had no lifeboats – yet we continued to sail away navigated by the wind and the tides.

And we are lost.

The burden of Harvard is the huge yacht. We could choose to rescue these sinking ships, or just sail away to paradise where feast awaits. But that choice is hard, especially on a comfortable yacht in the middle of the sea. Worse, we know that we are the ones directing this big, fancy yacht, and we always have the option to get off this yacht and perhaps try a sailboat, help others pick themselves up, or share what we have.

When the Burden of Harvard was brought up at this panel, I felt the sense of liberation I never felt before. Finally, someone let it out. When it was mentioned, it dampened optimism, created further doubt, and left a sense of ambiguity as to who we were. Yet it was liberating because finally, we were able to face the glimpse of reality. We no longer were floating in the false assumption of our right to a good life just because we graduated from Harvard. We learned that the good life, whatever that is, is something to be earned. The price of privilege was the burden to create a life bigger than a ranking, bigger than Harvard, bigger than yourself.

I am still struggling, but struggling with clarity. I am finally able to admit that I will live with this burden for a while. It’s the cost of the privilege I am given. It’s what grounds me and allows me to be vulnerable. It’s okay to feel this way.

It also freed me from the need to live up to society’s standards like I had done 14 years ago as a high school student when we chose to attend Harvardt. Having gone to Harvard, I am no longer afraid of the world’s “best”’ I am not intimidated by the harvards, the goldman sachs, the googles and the trumps of the world. Despite the immense hole I have to fill to understand deeply about the world unknown to me, at least I am no longer mesmerized by the illusion of what most would consider “the best.” I thank Harvard for that; I thank the panel at 10am that I decided to show up for, and my classmate who was brave enough to voice what had cluttered my mind for so long.

I will always live with the privilege and the burden as a Harvard grad.
I’m no Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
I am just a Harvard grad, class of 2008.