Harvard University consistently is ranked one of the top universities in the world. But what if you go to Harvard University and still end up a nobody?
When I say nobody, I’m just talking about being an average person working an average job. Not someone still living in mom’s garage playing video games all day at age 40. OK, a little harsh, but you get the idea.
A happy life is all about managing expectations. If you matriculate at Harvard, whether for undergrad or graduate school, great things are expected of you. And if you don’t do great things, are you a disappointment? Many would say so. More importantly, you might even think so.
Education has been on my mind a lot lately after my son got into preschool. If he likes the school, it goes through the 8th grade. However, Is it worth spending tens of thousands a year in tuition for the next nine years? I’m not so sure!
In addition, I was a private high school tennis coach for three years observing how the kids went through the pressure of trying to get into a good university. I sometimes wondered whether their grind was 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. In fact, most attend regular schools any high schooler could have gotten into.
Why Harvard University?
I pick on Harvard because it’s the most well known university in the world and also costs $51,904 annually in tuition alone if you receive no aid.
You can replace Harvard University with any expensive private university in the Top 20. Schools like Duke, Brown, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, all count.
I’m assuming if you went to Harvard or another Ivy League School, you won’t be offended by this article. The golden carpet was rolled out for you compared to a field littered with land mines for the rest of us commoners.
Using the word “nobody” is admittedly harsh, but I say I’m a nobody all the time and think it’s great! I went to public high school, The College of William & Mary, got my MBA from UC Berkeley and worked in finance for 13 years. Who cares. I’ve operated Financial Samurai since 2009. Ho hum. Being a nobody is just fine with me, partially because I went to public schools.
Being a nobody is par fo the course. Most of us are not curing cancer or coming up with a new vaccine for COVID-19. We just go about doing our business so we can make enough to provide for our family. Truly, how may of us really love what we’re doing and are also helping improve world?
The Pressure To Do Something With Your Degree
On the other hand, if you attend a school like Harvard, you must go on to do great things. Otherwise, what’s the point? With an acceptance rate of only ~5%, you aren’t allowed to retire early and waste your potential either. You better hurry up and fix at least one of the world’s great problems!
Forget about being a stay-at-home parent and spending valuable time during your child’s first five years of life. Go out there and make a career for yourself! You don’t need a Harvard degree, let alone a college degree to raise children.
Don’t you dare work at the same job as someone who went to State U. either. 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 people directly
7) Encourage schools to encourage their graduates to broaden their career prospects beyond just banking, consulting, big law, or tech
9) Not stress so much as parents about the future of our children
Status Matters More Than We’d Like To Think
Let’s be frank. In today’s world, having a certain level of status matters. After trying to avoid playing the status game since I left finance in 2012, I was rudely awakened starting in 2019 when my son got rejected from six out of seven preschools.
Ever since this rejection experience, I decided to become more relevant again for the sake of my children. During the pandemic, I decided to take the publisher, Portfolio Penguin, up on their offer and publish a new book.
In the end, Buy This, Not That, became an instant Wall Street Journal bestseller. And I gained back some status as a bestselling author. Status matters, whether we like to think so or not.
Hence, if you went to an elite university, the expectation is that you will go on to do great things. Let’s look at the career profiles of those who went to Harvard and other elite schools.
Profiles Of Those Who Went To An Elite 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!
Harvard Alum Profile #1
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.
Harvard Alum Profile #2
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 the stock did poorly soon after. 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!
Harvard Alum Profile #3
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.
Harvard Alum Profile #4
Philips Academy Andover (high school)
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.
Harvard Alum 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.
Yale Alum Profile #6
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!
Harvard Alum Profile #7
Undergraduate at 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. In 2020, his company continues to do well and he’s raised even more money.
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?
Harvard Alum Profile #8
Punahou: Hawaii private grade school
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 $23,000 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 like her profile because she always has a cheery disposition, kind of like your Facebook friend’s curated pictures. In fact, she ended up blurbing my new personal finance book.
Harvard Alum Profile #9
MBA from Harvard
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.
Harvard Alum 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 her 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.
Harvard Alum Profile #11
I’olani School – Private high school in Honolulu, main competitor to Punahou
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.
Harvard Alum Profile #12
Phillips Exeter Academy
Stanford University Masters, Computer Science
Occupation: Goldman Sachs (1.5 years), international gaming company (3 years), Blizzard Entertainment producer (3 years), founder of own game company (3.5 years) before it shut down, founded another game company (4 years) but its game is still in beta.
Thoughts: I went to middle school with him and thought he was a great guy. His parents were wealthy and he was super smart. He had a great gig at Blizzard, the producer of the mega hit game World of Warcraft. He could have stayed and got paid extremely well. But he decided to go the entrepreneurial route, which is always admirable.
Because his family is wealthy, he can afford to go for seven years without making much money. This is one of the key competitive advantages of the wealthy, being able to take risks without financial ruin. But frankly, it’s a disappointment that after almost four years, his game is a bust. Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart.
Harvard Alum Profile #13
Georgetown Preparatory School
Yale Law School
Occupation: United States Court Of Appeals for the District Of Columbia Judge 2006 – present. Now incredibly famous for sniffling, ranting, and talking about beer during his job interview in front of a bunch of Senators. OK, this Supreme Court Justice is not in my LinkedIn network. I just thought it was interested to highlight.
Thoughts: With his mom as a judge and his father as the CEO of a company, this person grew up with an extraordinary amount of privilege. Despite having a relatively low salary for most of his career, he was able to pay off $200,000 in credit card debt, join a country club that had a $90,000 initiation fee, and take out a $1.1M+ mortgage due to the help of his parents.
Harvard Alum Profile #14
San Francisco University High School
University of Pennsylvania (B.A.)
Harvard Business School (MBA)
Occupation: Created a subscription newsletter about life hacks after spending a couple years at a large consumer internet startup (post MBA), a couple years as a VC associate (post MBA), product manager at another internet startup (pre MBA), and two years as a strategy consultant after undergrad.
Thoughts: This Harvard MBA and U. Penn grad has done literally every job that such graduates would love to land e.g. strategy consulting, VC, internet startup.
However, despite working at all the go-to industries and companies and attending all the prestigious schools a go-getter would want, at 35-years-old, she left it all behind to try and build something of her own. I get it because it is much more rewarding to build something of your own than build someone else’s dream.
The thing is, you don’t need all that education and experience to start a newsletter or your own website. You can start both for free. Yes, you will need something to write about and experience certainly helps. However, regardless of the road you take after high school, you will ultimately learn fascinating things about yourself and life.
Overall Harvard Alumni Snapshot
Now that you’ve read my not so arbitrary 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.
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.
William & Mary Alumni Profile
In contrast, take a look at the graduate profile on LinkedIn of my alma mater, William & Mary in Virginia. Again, William & Mary is a public college. 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.
An Ivy League Education Is No Longer The Golden Ticket
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 had applied, rejecting guys and gals who would run circles around me in school. Although, to be fair, we learn from the Supreme Court trial that Harvard assigns lower personality scores to Asian applicants to justify their rejections, despite objectively higher grades and test score. That’s BS.
Google, McKinsey, Microsoft, Goldman, 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? Do you really want to make pitch books or woo wealthy entrepreneurs all your life?
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.
Be Somebody Instead
The most fulfilling work directly helps someone in need. Compared to someone who works mainly for money and prestige, you will feel less burned out if you are making a difference in someone else’s life.
For example, helping people in need is what Haben Girm, a legally blind (best corrected visual acuity with glasses or contacts is 20/200 or worse) and deaf Harvard Law graduate is doing.
She has dedicated her life to making the workplace, technology, and life in general more accessible to the roughly 49 million disabled people in America (~15% of the population). Respect!
Perhaps being a somebody is being a doctor, a scientist, a NICU nurse, a professor, a social worker, or a firefighter is as well.
The joy I observe from my fellow teachers is next-level compared to the joy and excitement I witness from my finance, consulting, law, and techie friends. I wasn’t lucky enough to realize this truth 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 those people deep in the trenches doing good work. They are the ones who often help the most, but curiously get paid the least, e.g. educator.
If you didn’t get into a school like Harvard, its OK! Once you’re in the vortex, it’s almost impossible to break free given massive expectations.
And if you did attend Harvard or the like, major props to you! Be proud of your accomplishment and don’t let this article o someone like me diminish your achievement. Instead, utilize your intellectual gift by doing something the rest of us could never imagine!
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