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Why is your career already your life?

In almost any conversation about future plans with my fellow students at Duke, I catch myself wondering how anyone is so sure about what they want to do with their lives. At 19 years old you’ve already decided that you’re going to spend the rest of your life as a doctor, mathematician, or software engineer? Or, alternatively, you’ve hedged all your bets on getting a consulting job upon graduation? Now, that’s not to say that people can’t change their minds and pivot to a different field or career—but Duke students act as if their chosen path is an absolute certainty. 

We spend hundreds of hours in the library, skip out on Duke basketball games and social events, miss amazing speakers and cultural events—all to secure a sky-high GPA that will open the door to prestigious graduate schools or high-paying jobs. We make sure the next phase of our lives is filled with bigger, better and more impressive things. We bolster our already crammed resumes, secure research positions and aim for some of the world’s best summer internships just to maintain our places in the rat race that is chasing money, success and status.

Why? That’s how success has been defined for us. We live in a capitalistic world that runs not on Dunkin’ but on dollar bills, fame, and securing the most impressive credentials. We teach our kids, either explicitly or implicitly, that doing well means getting good grades, securing a position with Facebook, or getting into a top-25 medical school. It’s also great to learn to grind and work for what you want, but how are you so sure that you’ve even found something you really want?

When my inner monologue eventually reaches this conclusion, as it always does, I get angry. Duke students are mostly young people, but we are all conditioned to follow others’ definitions of what our lives should be. Granted, I’m sure it’s not helped by the helicopter moms and dads that have planned out our lives at every stage, nor by being surrounded by others that seem to have internalized the same ideas about wealth, impressiveness and resume-building. 

But despite our society collectively agreeing on this being the right path to follow, it’s still bullsh*t. Duke students are, on average, one fourth of the way through our entire lives (if we live to 80 or so) and already we have dedicated our existence on this tiny rock that orbits an unimpressive star to maximizing our potential success in whatever careers we have been conditioned to seek.

As I consider our limited definitions of success and the small number of paths that we feel permitted to follow in life, I realize that we are not even doing what the most traditionally successful people advise us to do. CEOs, billionaires, and celebrities frequently say that in your 20s while you’re still young, you should try to travel, experience new things, get the hell out of your comfort zone, and try to figure out what really makes you you. Granted, it’s a privilege to have the means to travel and many experiences cost money—but Duke has so many resources to help us out. We are blessed to have DukeEngage, study abroad opportunities that are cheaper than our tuition, and so many other cool speakers, events and people to help us figure out our place in the world. 

Nonetheless, we are not taking the advice even of the figures that we consider the most successful. We skip study abroad to prepare for tech recruiting, set ourselves up for lifestyles designed to maximize our comfort, and never leave a spare moment to think about who and what we really want to be. We just mimic those around us and before us, follow our parents’ career guidance, and generally accept the way of the world as a foregone conclusion. 

Coming into Duke, I decided that my goal was to work for a top tech company because I believed that a Facebook, Microsoft or Google job was the way that I could show people that I had succeeded. I wanted it as an addition to my resume and as a key that would unlock many doors for me. And that thought made sense; landing an offer from a big tech company would make things easier for me long-term. I would have a fairly stable career and plenty of opportunity for advancement. And even grinding for the next two years to achieve it would make sense in terms of stability or from a financial standpoint, but in the past year I’ve come to value not being tied down and I’ve sought out unique experiences. I’ve realized how much I would miss if I wanted to fulfill every item on the Facebook recruiter’s checklist, and decided recently that that life is not for me, especially when I’m not even sure if I want to be working in the software industry. I’ve come to realize that I do not want that top tech internship, despite how well it might set me up for the rest of my life if I would acquire it. 

I know that not everyone is comfortable with the uncertainty that comes from not knowing the future, and that it’s scary to admit you have no idea what you want to do or why you want to do it. But choosing the future trajectory of your life should not be you choosing the safest or most lucrative path. And committing so strongly to that path so early on in your life will undoubtedly cause you to miss out on other opportunities for exploring other fields and exploring who you really are. And since it seems like half of the student body at Duke acts like their future is set in stone, I have one question for you, fellow college students: why are you already acting as if this path that you have been greatly influenced to follow is your life? 

Luke Sallmen is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.  

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