Welcome to Vocate!
I felt compelled to write to all of our students because I see so much of my own story in hearing theirs. I empathize with their hopes and fears, while seeing many making some of the mistakes I did. I realize that my path is just one and that everyone is charting their own. Yet, I hope that by sharing my embarrassing regrets below, you’ll find some guidance. – Alex Tonelli, Founder
REGRET #1: MENTAL MODELS OF PRESTIGE
Investment banking was the “top of the food chain.” I saw classmates wearing suits and getting flown to NY for fancy dinners. The career center only seemed to have jobs with banks and consulting firms, which were hard to get, so I assumed they were the best. I turned down an internship at an 8-person hedge fund to go work as a banking analyst. The CIO said to me, “Don’t you realize that people go work at banks in order to get this job?” When I told the story to the 30-year-old sitting in his cubicle at 3AM, he said to me, “That job pays $1M/yr and you can spend your days working from the beach. I’d kill for that job.”
“All” of my friends were getting banking jobs and so I fixated on this path and didn’t spend anytime exploring what else I might like to do. Generally, career centers only supply about 5% of all jobs on a campus, so the ones that are there are scarce and perceived as “elite.” Statistically, “all” of your friends can’t be getting these jobs — it just feels that way. Further, the idea of eliteness is often more perception than reality.
Every school has dominant industries where this perception exists. These jobs can be good paths, but they’re only some of the good paths out there (and they are rarely “great” paths). Further, people misunderstand that there is a stratification within those communities. For example, if you work at a lower-tier firm or in a crummy division, you’re putting yourself far behind if you had taken a superlative path elsewhere (particularly if you were doing something you actually liked).
REGRET #2: WORRYING ABOUT MONEY
Whatever your financial difficulty, I promise I can empathize. I’m an orphan who worked my way through school with no financial aid and spent time living in a car. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “what you make early in your career does not matter. Often, how much you make can be inversely related to the quality of an opportunity.”
I ignored this advice. I was ornery because I felt I was being underpaid and often made lifestyle decisions driven by money. I spent a lot of time interviewing for other jobs, which distracted me.
A piece of advice that still sticks with me is, “life is a revenue game, not a cost game.” Meaning, if you perform well and choose fruitful paths, money will follow. Anytime you make a cost-related decision that takes you away from the things that matter to you (which can be career-related, or just life-enjoyment), you’re losing far more than you’re ‘saving.’
Going to a college should give you financial freedom. Amounts of money that seem big now will seem tiny in the future. You’re eminently capable and will have access to job opportunities for the rest of your life. Being impatient will set you back in finding happiness.
REGRET #3: GEOGRAPHY
I thought about my career path as a choice that seemed permanent. My mental model was about NY, which I thought was the center of the universe, and I was salty about being in Boston even though I was in the midst of a life-altering experience. Later, when I got accepted at Stanford and Harvard Business School, I barely considered Stanford, thinking California was equivalent to Mars. A strong mentor forced me to reconsider, and now I can’t imagine if I had made another choice. Further, I thought I was missing out on NY, but more of my friends ended up in SF than NY. The world is bigger than we think and broader exposure leaves one likely to understand themselves better.
REGRET #4: “AVOIDING” B-SCHOOL
I had in my head a cost-benefit analysis of business school. I didn’t see why I would go unless I “had” to and if I could progress (meaning, make more money) without doing it, then I would.
Going to Stanford was life-changing in a similar way that going to Dartmouth was life-changing. Would you choose not to go to college if given the chance? B-school, no matter where you go, is a very healthy thing. The most important thing is that it’s a happy time in life where you’ll learn a ton about yourself, others, and the world. However, you’ll also open doors and build skills that will help you get to a new base camp on your career ascent and will allow you to transition into any field you desire. With the knowledge that you’ll have this transition point available, you should feel empowered to pursue what really matters to you knowing there is this safety net. Further, reinforcing points from above, getting into school is about doing things that are truly superlative, not being at the 7th best big firm.
REGRET #5: FOCUSING ON THE RESUME NAME, NOT THE EXPERIENCE
A name on a resume is far less important than what you know and how you communicate that. My freshman summer, I worked in a J.Crew store. I became the worldwide leading salesperson and told the story as an example of hunger and effectiveness. At first, I was bashful to tell people and thought I had screwed up because I couldn’t get a “real” job for the summer. I still tell that to people, who love hearing it.
Many people get internships getting coffee in a glorified mailroom at a “flashy” name, but then have no genuine experience. There are so many ways you can gain real experience that will convey well to an employer. The key is to do something worthwhile and show that you are excellent at it.
REGRET #6: FOCUSING ON THE DESTINATION
The hardest thing to do for a talented person is to figure out what you want. Getting it, while it may seem difficult, will end up being a forgone conclusion in retrospect. The issue is that when you don’t focus on learning about yourself, you end up chasing (and getting) something else. It leads to unhappiness and poor performance because you haven’t figured things out. Your career stalls and you’re left wondering, what happened. When I was struggling through my banking program, I looked at myself in the mirror one day and said, “I hate you.” I knew then I needed to figure out a different path.
REGRET #7: FOCUSING ON GPA
College has so much to offer and yet, very little of that comes from classroom experiences. There are a very few number of jobs where the GPA matters. My last two years, I pushed hard to make cum laude. I skipped countless frat meetings to make it happen. My GPA hasn’t mattered at all, but the loss of any time during what were incredible years remains a point of sadness. Further, I failed to grow as a person and failed to connect with many classmates or younger peers who today I wish I knew better. I wish I had optimized all along for courses that allowed me to keep my GPA respectable, but didn’t require a ton of effort. The exception here is about courses where you are truly passionate, but again, that’s not about your GPA either.
REGRET #8: MENTAL MODELS ABOUT YOUR MAJOR
Related to #7, I thought I ‘needed’ to be an economics major to be in ‘business.’ Funny, a lot of people feel this way and so economics classes are crowded and the system is designed to “weed” people out. I got terrible grades in my first three classes, both because they are hard and because I wasn’t passionate about the subject. In reality, people who do econ because they feel like they ‘should’ end up hurting themselves because they crush their GPA and they have less fun and don’t find areas where they are passionate, can excel, and can sell those things to potential employers. I ended up studying Govt/French/Gender Studies, which was a lot of fun and basically came about because I enjoyed one class and took another. My grades were great, and I didn’t have to kill myself, so was able to dedicate myself to other areas of interest outside the classroom.
REGRET #9: THINKING ABOUT LAW SCHOOL
I thought to myself, “lawyers get paid a lot and have prestigious jobs. I could probably do well on the LSAT and go to law school.” I didn’t realize that a) law school is really hard to get into, b) there are very few jobs when you get out, and c) lawyers do the work that bankers/accountants don’t want to do. There are some people out there in the world who really love their jobs as a lawyer, but more often than not, people get ‘stuck’ there. Don’t use this as a ‘fallback’ path. Decide proactively you want to do it for the right reasons, but don’t just do it for the sake of it.
We’ve been amazed at how common these mental models are when we deal with students and we have a little bit of frustration about navigating these issues on a case-by-case basis. Part of life is learning ‘the hard way,’ but we hope to help you avoid some of that pain.
In short, we hope that you’ll trust us on some of this as we’ve seen it all and are here to help. At the least, I’d be more open-minded than closed in thinking through your path. I promise the things you “know” will change over time. We have some of the very ‘best’ jobs in the world which are likely aligned with your personal passions. Let us help you on that path.