What If You Go To Harvard And End Up A Nobody?


What if you go to Harvard College and end up a nobody?

A happy life is all about managing expectations. If you matriculate at Harvard, great things are expected of you. And if you don’t do great things, are you a disappointment?

Education has been on my mind a lot lately because of my new jobs as a varsity high school tennis coach and as a stay at home dad. I’ve seen first hand the grind my student athletes go through and I sometimes wonder whether it’s all worth it. Supposedly my high school is one of the best in the city, yet not every graduate goes to a university like Harvard.

I pick on Harvard because it’s the most well known university in the world and also costs about $63,025 annually in tuition, room, and board if you receive no aid. If there’s one school you’d be willing to sacrifice your entire life savings for, Harvard would be it. But you can substitute any elite private university in the title, and the point is the same.

Using the word “nobody” is admittedly harsh, but I come from the viewpoint that for at least 13 years after college, I was a nobody, busy working in banking. Yes, banking is an integral part of making an economy work, much like oil is to a car engine. However, at the end of the day, all I was doing was helping corporations and fund managers get wealthier. Sad, but I’m doing my best to change.

If you attend a school like Harvard, you must go on to do great things. With an acceptance rate of only 5.4%, you aren’t allowed to retire early and waste your potential, be a stay at home parent before age 35, work the same job as someone who went to State U, or morph into some highly opinionated personal finance blogger who enjoys stoking the fire. Now that you can learn everything online for free, the stakes for achieving greatness have never been higher!

The purpose of this article is to:

1)  Challenge our unhealthy desire for prestige and money

2) Reassess the pressure cooker environment we put our kids through

3) Discover what actual Harvard graduates do for a living

4) Encourage our smartest people to do more productive things with their lives

5) Give folks who’ve been rejected from elite universities and coveted jobs hope that anything is possible

6) Go beyond the act of giving money by spending more time helping other people

Profiles Of Those Who Went To An Elite School

Ivy League Admissions Selectivity Chart By School

We only hear about famous people who went to Harvard. You know, people like the 43rd POTUS George W. Bush, the “inventor” of the internet Al Gore, Chairman of the Fed Ben Bernanke, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Academy Award winner actress Natalie Portman, former First Lady Michelle Obama, the 35th POTUS John F Kennedy, unabomber Ted Kacznski and NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin.

But what about the thousands of graduating alumni Harvard spits out every year? What do they do? Let’s find out through a semi-random sampling of LinkedIn profiles online. To get my search started, I chose one person I know who went to Harvard and then clicked forward to see what her fellow classmates ended up doing.

My sample set is admittedly biased as someone with a finance background who therefore knows more finance people than average, but let’s see where the rabbit hole goes. I’ve changed some of the dates and tidbits to protect the identity of these random folks. If you think I’m talking about you, I’m not!

Profile #1

Harvard College

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Occupation: Investment banking and private equity before b-school, private equity tech investor at TPG after b-school

Thoughts: She mentioned to me during a summer associate internship that she was not going to b-school for the main purpose of making money after I asked whether she’s going back to private equity after graduation. With an air of nobility she said, “Sam, life is not just about making money you know?” She then decided to go back into private equity and is now a VP making even more money. This career profile is the quintessential and stereotypical pedigree of an elite private school graduate.

Profile #2

Tufts University

Harvard MBA

Occupation: Clorox marketing manager, Twitter marketing manager, self-employed, brand strategy at a Willamette Valley vineyard

Thoughts: Not many people think about working at an old-school consumer products company after getting a Harvard MBA, but Clorox has one of the best management training programs. But if you think about it, how excited can you really be marketing a toilet bowl cleaning wand as your career? She joined Twitter soon after IPO, but since the stock has done poorly, the company went through several rounds of layoffs and I suspect she was a casualty given her year of self-employment afterward. But now, she has a pretty cool job marketing wine and living a relaxing life!

Profile #3

Harvard College

Dartmouth MBA

Occupation: Goldman Sachs, CLSA MD

Thoughts: Another standard career path for those who attend Ivy league universities. He was a great guy who caught an error in my resume when I was interviewing. I got the dates mixed up. I’m just surprised he’s still working since he was at GS for years before GS went public in 1999, and has worked for 25+ years now. I wonder whether he went through a divorce or something else is going on. 

Profile #4

Philips Academy Andover: Prestigious northeast private high school

Harvard College

Occupation: McKinsey Consulting analyst, VP of Operations at failed e-commerce startup, founder of clothing startup that needs funding

Thoughts: McKinsey is one of the hardest places to get a job after college due to their infamous case study interviews and brainteasers e.g. how many jelly beans can fit inside a Boeing 747 and why? After McKinsey, he spent five years working at one of the biggest flameouts in e-commerce history where the company raised over $300M and was valued at over $1B before getting acquired for less than $30M. Good for him for utilizing what he learned to start his own e-commerce company. But without another round of funding this year, it’s highly likely his business will dissolve and he’ll end up burning through lots of his own cash. Running in place for 10 years is tough. 

Profile #5 

Yale University undergrad

Yale University Masters

Harvard College PhD

Occupation: Analytics for a startup, analyst for a mobile gaming startup, director of growth for a startup, head of growth for another startup, venture capital, self-employed

Thoughts: I’m absolutely blown away by his resume. I was strongly considering getting a PhD after I left the private sector in 2012, but realized I was too dumb and impatient. The weird thing is, after all his education, he went on to join companies that have nothing to do with what he learned. I can do analytics and growth marketing with the best of them since I run my own site. His path makes me feel that getting a PhD is too costly a career move today. With his resume, I would be seriously disappointed with my career so far. 

Profile #6

Yale University

Occupation: Forbes 30 Under 30, Started a social media advertising company that rebranded after six years because they needed a change in direction (code for things aren’t working as planned)

Thoughts: I’m always impressed with the Forbes X Under X crowd. Yale has a 6.3% acceptance rate and is right up there with Harvard in terms of prestige. The advertising technology space is very hard because the margins are so thin and Google and Facebook are the oligopoly players. I tried creating my own online advertising network and did OK for about two years before I got undercut. It doesn’t look like her company will ever get acquired, which stinks b/c for six years, I’m sure she and her co-founders weren’t paying themselves a market rate salary. They could have worked in tech, banking or consulting and probably made 3X more in the same time frame. But all the same, props to anybody who starts a company and makes it last for over six years!

Profile #7

Harvard University: Math major, Phi Beta Kapa

Occupation: Co-founder of the social media ad startup with the Yale main founder, but left to start his own fintech company providing cheaper retirement plans for companies. Y Combinator backed.

Thoughts: After he realized the adtech startup wasn’t going to flourish, he applied to the famous startup incubator, Y Combinator, got in and launched his own fintech company that serves to reduce 401k administration fees. He raised a $3.5M seed round in 2016, and we shall see what happens! I’m completely biased for people who start a company, get into an incubator, raise money, and try and create something out of nothing. The vast majority fail, even with smart backers, but it’s still impressive all the same. I just wonder whether it’s necessary to go to Harvard or Yale to start a company? 

Profile #8

Punahou: Hawaii private grade school

Harvard College

Occupation: TV anchor at Bloomberg

Thoughts: Punahou is the school I’d love for my son to attend if we move back to Hawaii. It’s K-12, which makes it much more convenient once you get in compared to schools in SF where you’ve got to reapply for high school after K – 8. The cost is about $20,500 a year, which is 60% cheaper than private schools in SF and NYC. This Harvard graduate is doing a bang up job as the anchor of Bloomberg West. I’m the most impressed with her profile. 

Profile #9

Harvard College

Harvard MBA

Occupation: Credit Suisse before b-school, McKinsey after b-school

Thoughts: Most graduates just stick to the finance path or the strategy consulting path. So it’s rare to see him try both. It feels like he’s still trying to figure out what he really wants to do in life given he’s still in his 20s. Understandable, but once again, I’m left wondering how we can encourage the smartest people on Earth to do more to help other people rather than to chase money. 

Profile #10

Greenwich Academy: Private high school

Harvard College: Majored in Art History

Occupation: Reporter at The NYT, founded a subscription based tech news site

Thoughts: Pretty neat to have worked for The NYT and then do something entrepreneurial in his field of expertise. Subscription based news websites are tough because most of the news you can read for free or can be shared for free. But all you need is 10,000 subscribers paying $100 a year to earn $1,000,000 in revenue, and perhaps $500,000 a year in take home pay. I’ve just decided to go the 100% free model because there’s only upside when you’re at the bottom! I really like people who take what they’ve learned from their day jobs and try to do something on their own. I wish more people did this because there’s so much inefficiency with larger corporations.

Profile #11

I’olani School – Private high school in Honolulu, main competitor to Punahou

Dartmouth College

Stanford University Graduate School of Business

Occupation: venture capital fundraising, private equity fundraising, account executive for a software company (8 months), consultant for a small CRM company (9 months), business development manager at a food delivery startup.

Thoughts: I’m thoroughly disappointed. After 19 years of private school and $600,000 in tuition, the guy ended up at a company that has already raised a Series D round. Even if the company goes public, he’s unlikely going to make a large amount of money joining so late in the game. Food delivery companies have come under siege lately (Bento Now went under, Sprig went under, Munchery laid off a bunch of workers etc). If his company was figuring out how to deliver food more efficiently and profitably to help feed people at the bottom of the pyramid, that would be amazing. But it’s not. 

Overall Harvard Alumni Snapshot

Now that you’ve read my not so arbitrary 11 profiles of Harvard and other Ivy League alumni, let me share with you the Harvard graduate data provided by LinkedIn. It’s a good idea to type in your school of choice and read their snapshot before attending. Let’s take a look.

Where do Harvard graduates live, work, and do

LinkedIn profile of 201,507 Harvard Alumni

There’s a lot of misinformation in the graphs due to mislabeling, but we learn the following:

* The Boston Area is ranked first in terms of where most Harvard alum end up working. So you’ve got to wonder why Boston isn’t more of an economic powerhouse like New York City, London, or the San Francisco Bay Area. Boston is relatively cheap compared to other major international cities.

* New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles are the main cities of employment for Harvard alum.

* Google, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, IBM, BCG, Morgan Stanley, Amazon, and Bain are the most common employers. All the others listed in the employers column have to do with education.

* Business Development is the most common role. Business Development basically is a catchall phrase for those who try to build new business partnerships with other companies to grow revenue, profits, and exposure. For example, the Business Development role at Financial Samurai may entail building new advertising relationships with products in the retirement space. Biz Dev requires financial acumen, social skills, negotiating skills, and product knowledge. It’s a good role to be in before you start your own company. I’m surprised Education is higher than Entrepreneurship, since everybody wants to be their own boss.

In contrast, take a look at the graduate profile on LinkedIn of my alma mater, William & Mary in Virginia. There’s a definite geographic bias towards the East Coast and it looks like consulting companies are the main employers. I’m proud to see Education and Community and Social Services right up there in the What they do column. Check out your school’s profile as well.

William & Mary

William and Mary graduate profiles

Be Somebody

One of the most peculiar situations I found myself in was rejecting Harvard University and other Ivy League applicants for summer internships or financial analyst jobs at Goldman Sachs between 1999 – 2001. Goldman made all employees, regardless of their seniority, actively participate in the interview process in order to maintain our tight culture.

Here I was, a guy who absolutely would not have gotten into Harvard if I applied, rejecting guys and gals who would run circles around me in school. I’d most likely whip them on the tennis court, but tennis wasn’t a prerequisite to get a job in banking, or was it? There’s something to be said for hiring well-rounded individuals instead of robots.

Google, McKinsey, Microsoft, Amazon and the likes are all amazing companies with plenty of elite university graduates. But at the end of the day, what exactly are you doing with all that education and your top 0.1% brain? Is your life’s purpose to figure out how to best optimize an online ad? Is your calling to provide senior management reasons why they should fire 25% of their work force to optimize profits? Are you seriously pumped to wake up each morning to figure out how to best improve on demand food delivery times? Come on. There’s got to be more to work than making lots of money.

The most fulfilling work directly helps someone in need. You will NEVER feel burnt out and will NEVER burn out as long as you are making a difference in someone else’s life. I wasn’t lucky enough to realize this until I was in my 30s. Better late than never.

Although it’s nice to donate money once you’ve made enough money, the people who are most inspiring are the teachers, social workers, and non-profit advocates of the world. They are the ones who often help the most, but curiously get paid the least. And then there are the amazing research scientists and doctors who are actually utilizing their incredible intelligence to give people hope.

If you didn’t get into a school like Harvard, be thankful! You won’t have the expectations of the world on your shoulders. Further, you likely won’t get trapped in a career cycle of endlessly pursuing money and prestige. Once you’re in the vortex, it’s almost impossible to break free. And if you did attend Harvard or the like, major props to you. Utilize your intellectual gift by doing something the rest of us could never imagine!

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Readers, any Harvard or other Ivy League alumni out there? If so, what are you doing now for work? Did you feel pressure to really be someone great given the prestige of your university? What kind of educational and career expectations do you have for yourself and for your kids? What is your definition of “somebody”?