I've spent a long time thinking over what to say about finishing college. It is undoubtedly a major milestone, and now that it's come and gone I can't help but think: "That's it?" I spent a good amount of time having a lovely conversation with one of my professors shortly before my last final exam about this very feeling. As she noted, life is full of those moments. We spend so much time looking forward to specific events, building them up in our minds to the point that when they arrive they feel anticlimactic.
I guess that's what I'm hoping to gain from this reflection. Despite all the pomp and circumstance of my graduation ceremony, I walked away from it lacking any sense of finality. A lot was said that night, but I can't say I remember anything of great significance. I have a lot of thoughts about my experience, what I learned, and most importantly, what I now observe about the world going forward.
A Time to Be Selfish
My first thought regarding graduation was that this is one of the few moments of my life where being completely, unabashedly selfish is justified. While I generally aim not to be, for the sake of closure, I am going to be brutally selfish and pat myself on the back.
I am, by any reasonable definition, a model student. The type of student every university strives to produce. Allow me to elaborate.
I began engaging with my university early, electing to participate in a pre-orientation program that had me biking nearly 200 miles from RIT to Niagara Falls and back during the few days before the rest of the new students arrived. In my first few weeks of my very first semester, I became a student ambassador for the Computer Science department (then my major). As a student ambassador, I represented the department during open houses, talking with prospective students about why RIT might be the place for them. When I changed majors at the end of my freshman year (from Computer Science to Information Technology), I could no longer remain in this role.
As a (mostly) financially independent student, I had to work to pay my own living expenses (and occasionally tuition), on my own. By early October my freshman year, I was working with ITS at RIT at Resnet as a "Residential Computing Consultant", the on-campus technical support center for students, faculty and staff. My career with Resnet spanned three years, during which I was promoted to a "Senior Residential Computing Consultant," which essentially made me a shift manager.
At Resnet I met someone who is not only still my friend, but who has also been a serious role model for me ever since. My friend Mike is responsible for a lot of my personal and professional growth over the past few years. At Mike's suggestion, I applied to spend my summer teaching at iD Tech Camps at Princeton (yes, that Princeton). That suggestion led to three amazing summers with iD, during which I taught a number of courses including game design for kids as young as 8, and programming in Java for kids as old as 17. My final summer with iD, I worked as a Lead Instructor, which meant in addition to my teaching responsibilities I was working more closely with the camp directors, and mentoring some of the other instructors.
After my first summer with iD, the fall of my sophomore year, I returned to campus early to work orientation week as an Orientation Assistant. My career with Orientation at RIT is incredibly signficant. I spent four amazing years with the organization. I became a Lead Orientation Assistant in the fall of my fourth year at RIT, where I spent Orientation week supervising a wonderful group of Orientation Assistants. Just a few weeks after Orientation ended, I was selected as a Student Orientation Coordinator (SOC), which had me working year-round with the full-time professional staff and three other SOCs planning and preparing for orientation the following year. In this role I was responsible for tasks like developing staff selection and training, program planning, and ensuring the smooth operation of the entire week.
Also in the fall of my sophomore year, I began my career with the Academic Support Center at RIT. I started as a volunteer Peer Mentor for the freshman seminar courses. In this role, I worked in a classroom with an instructor aiding freshman students with their transition into college. The following year, the position became a hired, paid position with the title Peer Advisor. The role was essentially the same, but was a little more of an instructor-like role than an assistant role as it was before. The year after that (my 4th year at RIT), I became a Lead Peer Advisor, which added the responsibility of supervising and mentoring a team of Peer Advisors, and working a bit more closely with the professional staff in the Academic Support Center. That same year, I also spent a semester working as a Program Assistant for the Supplemental Instruction program in the Academic Support Center.
It was also in my sophomore year that I changed majors to Information Technology (a degree program which is now called Web and Mobile Computing).
During the Spring semester of my third year at RIT, I started my first co-op at Brand Networks in downtown Rochester (in part thanks to a nudge by my friend Mike). RIT's co-op program is one of the things that attracted me so strongly to RIT in the first place, and it did not disappoint. I learned an incredible amount on that first co-op. I also did so well that when I applied there again for my second co-op during my fourth year, they welcomed me back with a raise.
At the start of my fourth year, my friend Ryan and I started a new club at RIT, focusing on web and mobile application development. We called it Localhost - initially the name was purely a web development joke, but we grew to like it and stuck with the name. Together we worked to foster an environment where students could gather to discuss web and mobile development topics not discussed in our regular coursework. Though other students in our program have made attempts at starting similar groups, previous efforts all died when their founders graduated. Thus far, Localhost is alive and well - the torch has been passed.
Naturally, many of those roles overlapped. In addition to my full-time course load, I was often working two or three of the above jobs at a time to cover my living expenses. You'd think that by the time senior year (my fifth year, thanks to co-ops), rolled around, I'd be ready to slow down. And I felt like I would slow down. But I did just the opposite.
In my final year at RIT I held a few more jobs. I was continuing to work as a Lead Peer Advisor for the Academic Support Center. That fall, I also worked on a web project with the Sustainability Institute at RIT: an office energy-use calculator, partially sponsored by Staples. Starting in December, I worked with a startup on campus called mySpiderweb, which continued through to graduation. That Spring, I worked as the Program Assistant for YearOne (the freshman seminar course in the Academic Support Center), where I helped with Peer Advisor selection and program planning. I also worked as one of the first hired mentors for the Presentation Center, a new initiative at RIT that aims to assist students with their public speaking.
Spring semester also brought with it the challenge of transitioning my club, Localhost, to new leadership. It also brought the small challenge of finding a job. After a few months and multiple interviews, I ultimately decided to accept a job in Rochester at a company called ClickSpark. I started working there part-time a few weeks ahead of graduation. I was fortunate enough to have flexible and understanding supervisors, and so left my other roles gracefully. Job in hand, I began my apartment search, and a few weeks later signed a lease on my first "real" place.
And so it seemed that everything fell into place. The icing on the cake was learning that I'd be graduating Suma Cum Laude, and a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society. Written out like this, it's hard not to feel incredibly accomplished. I crammed a lot into five years, pretty objectively working my ass off. I fit the narative: go to school, work hard, and you'll be successful. But that's not the whole story.
The Biggest Lesson I Learned
Managing a full course load and two or three jobs at a time forced me to develop strong time management skills. Juggling a wide variety of tasks, obligations, and social commitments is difficult to do well. But I got really good at it. I've even written about it. While this is undoubtedly a good skill to have, it is not the silver bullet to my success I often touted it as to new students.
The simple truth is, I had a quite a bit of spare time. Despite doing so much, I made plenty of time to go to hockey games, watch some movies, and play a shit load of video games. Somewhere in there I managed to find over 300 hours just to play Skyrim (not exagerating), and hundreds of hours more playing other video games. Despite this, it behooved me to maintain an outward image of perpetual overload. When people thought I was busy, they were more flexible.
In a classic case of perception being more important than reality, I found that how people perceived me was often more significant than what I actually did. If I could maintain a perception of working hard on something, it would be viewed more favorably. Never mind the fact that in reality I put it off until the last minute and cobbled something together really quickly.
I understand how manipulative this seems, but it was more innocent than it appears. In practice, this was mostly me commenting about how much work I had to do, which was always true, and how I was working on it. Except I wasn't always working on it, though I always intended to. I'm just a horrible procrastinator. Despite always telling new students that college would be unlike high school in that they would not be able to "bullshit" their way through it, I became really good at doing just that.
I did a majority of my work at the last minute. I put significant effort into studying maybe half a dozen times in my five years at school. I took advantage of small flourishes on projects that made them seem higher quality than they were. I worked to maintain positive relationships with my professors so they would view me favorably. I got really good at playing grade games. I often felt my GPA was meaningless, which is why I never tried to get an A, and why I didn't include it on my resume in my job search.
I did care about learning though. Even in classes I didn't enjoy, I tried to just understand things because I like learning, even if I didn't think the knowledge would be particularly useful long term (looking at you, calculus). I'm very good at learning. Weird quirks in my brain make me an intuitive thinker. I often learn new things by understanding them in terms of concepts I already know. It's why I'm a decent programmer, and why I was good at taking tests I never studied for. In academic settings, I easily reap the rewards most students struggle for.
And this is where the biggest lesson I learned comes in. And here it is:
The foundational concept of the American Dream is a lie.
If that feels like a huge logical leap, bear with me.
Since I was a child, the overarching narrative from adults is that to get what you want in life, you must work hard. If you don't like the way things are, work hard and you can change them. Work hard, and you will be successful.
Indeed, American culture prides itself on our work ethic. When polticians want to persuade you, they talk about "working class" Americans. The people who put in the hard work for everything they have. Every objectively successful person (which sadly in our culture is typically synonmous with "rich person"), will tell you the story about how hard they worked to build their business or wealth. Those who have more use the fact that "they worked for it" as their first defense.
It's a shame that's a lie.
I don't say this to discount the value of hard work. Indeed, I did work hard. Being a full-time student working 25 hours a week is objectively difficult, no matter what you're studying. But what I found in all my time at school is that how hard I worked was not the determining factor in my outcomes. I would wager this is the case for the average person.
This is so counter to everything I was told growing up that it has completely upended my view of the world. "Hard work" is so often pushed on children as the ultimate goal. "Work hard and you'll be successful," is the story. But if hard work was actually the determining factor, I should have failed almost every test I took. I'd walk into a class having spent no time at all studying, sit next to a student who studied for hours, finish the test before them, and earn an A while they walk away with a B-. With no context at all, most people would assume I worked harder, studied more and therefore did better on the test. But in my experience this was never the case. I was the guy everyone hated because I wouldn't even study and I'd ruin the curve.
But it wasn't just in tests. There were numerous programming projects I'd spend just a few hours on and earn an A while most of my classmates spent nearly twice as much time on them to get the same result. In my public speaking classes, I performed a number of my speeches with little or no practice, yet I took second place in the public speaking contest at RIT last Spring.
As the years in college passed, it became increasingly clear to me that while I was often busy, I was not often working as hard as I am able to work. On virutally everything, I could have worked harder. At no point did I ever feel like I was working as hard as I possibly could. Yet I was almost never worried about the outcome of what work I did put in. I'd learned that even when I felt like I was slacking, I'd walk away with a positive outcome.
The deciding factor in my success as a student was not how hard I worked.
While it is impossible to know exactly how hard my peers were actually working, I do not believe that a vast majority of people slack more than I do. I believe that my natural talents, by sheer genetic luck, make me good at things that made me an excellent student. Up to this point in my life, that has served me incredibly well.
Why This Revelation Matters
By unlearning a lesson thrust upon me my entire life, I have come to realize a few things.
First, if you'll forgive me for sounding like Donald Trump, is that there are winners and losers in life. So often we categorize the losers as people who are to blame for their circumstances. We say things like, "If they hadn't... then..." or "If they had only... then..." We look down on those people as if they elected to be poor, or uneducated, or unemployed. Indeed, the polical right depends on this narrative of "hard working people" as the basis for their stance on a wide range of social issues. They believe the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful person is that the successful person worked for it where the unsuccessful person didn't. I will always maintain that work ethic is a factor, but it is not the determining factor it's often made out to be. There are undoubtedly thousands of people who worked harder than I did and have less to show for it.
Second, is that no one achieves anything alone. Humans are social creatures. That is the primary reason our species even survived. A person who tells you they attained success entirely on their own is at best naive, and at worst a liar. Somewhere along the way, another person had to do something that enabled them to do what they did. You don't start a business alone. You get the capital or tools or knowledge from someone else at some point. No matter what you do, you depend on another person to have done something that enables you to do what you do. "You didn't build that," as Barack Obama said. We all depend on each other. My list of achievements is long not because of me, but because other people handed me opportunities. Opportunities not offered to everyone else.
Third, is that no sense of entitlement is greater than when you feel you have worked for something. Wealthy people defend their frivolous lifestyles by saying they "worked for it." I have spent years hearing from old people that my generation is entitled. That we have no work ethic. That they worked for everything they have, while we expect to be handed everything for nothing. But I know plenty of people who worked just as hard as I did and have less to show for it. We're a generation that sees glaring disparities in outcomes and questions the ethics of a world that operates like that. Despite the general opinion about it, as you work and earn more you become more privileged, not less. Privilege is not only composed of things you don't earn. My mother's favorite line of discipline used to be, "____ is a privilege, not a right," as she threatened to take something away from me as a child. When you feel you have worked hard and therefore deserve the thing you have, that is a privilege, and it can be taken away from you. My work ethic is not a defense for my privilege.
Together, these realizations have taught me that creating successful people is not a zero-sum game. When one person becomes a "winner", that does not mean someone else must become a "loser". I did not get where I am on my own, so I should never expect someone else to. And no matter how hard I work, that in and of itself is not justification for every privilege I've earned. My hard work is not the only factor that brought me here.
My success can beget someone else's. And I'm obligated to ensure that it does.