By Tiffany Zhou, Harvard Business School Class of 2017
There’s been an odd gloom on campus lately, and I’m not talking about the weather. I’m talking about those of us who are still figuring out what to do this summer.
It’s understandably jarring—we spent all of first semester philosophizing about leadership, changing the world, finding your calling. Then suddenly: résumé drops, round after round of interviews, “tell me about a time when you lead a team,” “why do you want to work in X industry in X city.” Or you finally roll up your sleeves to do the dirty work on your startup and find it’s an endless, uninspiring to-do list of people to call, emails to write, accelerator applications to fill out; you have no idea where this drudgery is going, only that the glorious destination you envisioned is many thousands of steps from where you are today.
And then there are the rejection emails. “Sorry, you were awesome, but so was everybody else.” But why not me? You console yourself that there are plenty of other opportunities—rejection is part of the journey!—but it still stings more than you care to admit.
Meanwhile, all around you, other people seem to be getting their lives in order. Your classmates’ eyes light up as they ponder their future as investment managers, consultants, product and marketing managers. People start talking about summer nights in New York, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Dubai. You’re still writing cold emails, conducting awkward phone calls, groping in the dark for your next stepping stone, straining your eyes to see any indication, any sign that you’re not walking down a dead end road.
This is when the path of least resistance beckons. After all, you got this far on the road you’ve already traveled—it would be so easy to just keep going. You’re already good at it. You know what it looks like. Those recruiters are practically serving you jobs on a platter. Sure, it wasn’t the industry or job of your dreams…but you could still be a leader, have some impact. You could stop wondering if you’ll ever make it and know that you’ll be okay. You won’t have to put up with classmates’ sympathetic and infuriating assurances that “everything will work out.” (Because who can really know if anything will work out?) The certainty would feel so good.
When that voice of caution and “reason” starts to whisper, don’t listen. So often, what we tell ourselves is “being rational” is actually being afraid. We’re afraid of failure, afraid of “falling behind” (a ridiculous notion anyway), afraid of the judgment or pity of other people. These fears are totally normal—they don’t make you a coward, just a properly wired human being—but that doesn’t mean that they should be heeded. Fear should never be the primary motivation for your actions.
I have lived both sides of this story. In college, I studied business and economics because it was the “right” thing to do. After graduation, I dutifully toiled as a management consultant until one weary Thursday night, sitting in traffic en route home from LaGuardia. I looked out the window and thought to myself, “I can’t live like this.” It wasn’t the hours that were the problem; it was how I was spending those hours.
So I moved to San Francisco and joined a non-profit start-up. I did similar work, but at least now I was serving some greater social mission. Although I was much happier, a little voice still insisted that this path wasn’t quite right. I could feel in my bones that I was meant to do something else with my life.
My commitment for RC year was to listen to that little voice. Finally, I’m working on a project that I should have started years ago. Like all creative, entrepreneurial endeavors, it has a dismally lower chance of success compared to the established, well-insured paths I’m used to. But now is the time to take this chance, otherwise I’ll spend a lifetime promising myself a “tomorrow” that never comes. Anyway, working on this makes me happier than anything I’ve ever done. It makes life make sense. For the first time ever, I don’t constantly worry that I’m wasting my time.
Inevitably, of course, the work drags, doubts fester, and inspiration burns low. When this happens, I trick the fear away. I go to the gym; because I hate going to the gym, being there makes me think, if I can do this, I can do anything. I clean my apartment because external order creates space for internal creativity. I talk to friends who’ve known me long before HBS, who remind me that no matter what happens, someone believes in me and cares about me. Ironically, it is often in these moments away from my work that the energy and inspiration hit hardest.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in one semester at HBS, it’s that your courage and persistence will fail you before your abilities do. The thing is, you’ll never know ahead of time whether you have what it takes to “make it.” You can only ever know how much you believe in your vision, and whether you want it enough to pursue a promise far down the road rather than give in to tomorrow’s gratification.
Listen to that promise instead of your fear. Don’t be distracted by the choices of people around you. Everyone has their own calling, and some paths are better lit than others, but if you walk someone else’s path you’ll never be able to shake the feeling that you’re missing out on your own life.