Finding a career

LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman recently published a book titled “The Start-up of YOU.” It wisely suggests that we should all think of our careers as start-ups. Succeeding in today volatile economic environment requires adaptability, a strong personal network, and entrepreneurial thinking. But how do I choose what my start-up will be about? I have somewhere between 40 and 50 productive years. To be productive, I must focus and pick one thing to pursue. But I have a multitude of interests and hence have a number of career choices. What is my calling? It’s a huge and looming question.

Should I follow my passion?

In America, there is the notion that we should follow our hearts. When we think about our careers, we often ask: “What are you passionate about?” Perhaps it’s a consumerist idea that we should get what we want that has been beaten into us by Hollywood and its romantic comedies. We think of Oprah and Donald Trump, who openly advise that we only ought to do what we want to.

Cal Newport puts it very well in this New York Times op-ed:

The Cult of Passion puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: “Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?” This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.

Despite my Chinese (hence more conformist) roots, I drank the Kool-aid too. As I grew up I came to believe that I should follow my passion. I assumed that whatever I did I must love deeply. But, four years of trying different things during college made me realize that passion can be a fickle and temporary thing. Unlike the studious pre-med student who always wanted to be a doctor, my passions were all over the map. One month I am excited about web technologies. Then I’m excited about some new politician or a new book. I had relied heavily on infatuations to guide my life, but it only made me uncommitted and unfocused. Passion alone is not a good guide for life planning.

Easy mistakes

One easy mistake is to romanticize about a life you don’t know much about I once thought (and still sometimes think) that being a CEO must be really cool and sexy. Consider, though, what the life of a CEO actually looks like. Endless meetings. Very little time with family. Would you actually enjoy it? I didn’t really consider the reality of what running a startup was like until I actually tried to run a startup. It turns out that it really wasn’t very enjoyable for me. Managing a team and negotiating deals were very stressful. I imagine I could get better at it, and then maybe I will start to enjoy it more. But why make myself unhappy for many, many years when there is already something tangible that I’m better at and enjoy more, such as writing and teaching?

Another easy mistake is to confuse being in the wrong industry with having a bad work environment. By work environment, I don’t just mean the culture of your company or whether your workmates are friendly. What I mean is the instructions your bosses give you. As Penelope Trunk describes, good jobs provide clear goals, a sense of control, helpful feedback, and a suitable level of challenge. As Newport elaborates:

The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up.

Does your job meet these criteria? That you don’t like your current job doesn’t mean that you need to move to LA or do something else that is drastically different. You may just need to change up your work environment. Sometimes you’ll be able to find better work environments within your industry or even with the same company. When you find a better environment, you’ll notice that you’re much better motivated to grow and learn.

Now even though meaning and passion matter less than people think, they still matter. I become extra motivated when I do things I believe in and care about. No, you shouldn’t ignore your passions completely. But passion doesn’t solve all your problems either. Even when you are doing things are more interesting or meaningful to you, there are still good and bad workplaces.

A more rational approach

To end up with a job you love, I think, requires a mixture of exploration and reflection. Exploration is necessary to find a job that makes you happy. Without different experiences under your belt, there is simply no way for you to know what motivates you and what makes you happy. This means that you take the risks and try on different hats. Sometimes it means having a discussion with your boss to work out a better arrangement. Sometimes, when you don’t think your job can ever provide you with the right motivations, it means switching jobs. It means overcoming some of your fears of the unknown and failure. It is not always easy, but often worth it.

Reflection is also necessary. What could you learn from trying different work environments if you don’t take the time to process your experiences? During introspection, you might ask yourself: What made me happy today? Am I doing work that I find meaningful? What am I doing well and what I can do better? Reflection requires discipline. To introspect properly, you need to be honest with yourself. What good do you do for anybody, if you lie to yourself about how you don’t mind doing a job that you secretly hate?

When I graduated from college, I had very little idea of what I wanted to do. Finding the right job was, and still is, an iterative process: Try new things, fall in love, fall out of love, fail, fail, fail, – and along the way – introspect, strategize, and find a way to improve. Over time, I’ve been able to find environments where I am motivated and happy. It wasn’t easy. But, at least for me, this more deliberate and rational approach has worked better than simply “following my passion.”

A great essay I’ve read on this topic is this lengthy discussion by Paul Graham. It has many more important points about the things that might derail you from finding work you love, such as money and prestige. As DFW says, I wish you more than luck.

Turning 23

In just a week I turn 23. I look back at the emotional turbulence that has marked the past year. I close my eyes. I deep breathe. Has it been a good year?

There are many blessings to be counted. I graduated from college. I’m making a good wage in a fun and young city. I rented a beautiful apartment with cool roommates. I bought a bike. I made new friends. Obama was re-elected.

There are also many changes.

This year I turned away from pursuing the start-up dream and took a regular job, believing that there were many things in life that I did not want to miss out on. Life at a start-up was too all-consuming, too unpredictable, I thought. I wanted to spend time with my friends, my family, my books, my girlfriend at the time – people and things I loved.

I also moved to San Francisco knowing few people, far away from most of the close friends I had growing up. I’ve wanted to live here since high school. The tech industry was here. Lots of data science was here. I wanted to come out here to be close to what I was interested in.

Then I left that girl I love and miss. We broke up on the eve of moving out to San Francisco together. I just wasn’t ready to settle down the way she envisioned we would, I thought. I was young and I still wanted to see the world. I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted. I can’t imagine trying to negotiate all that right then.

So everything I had been used to changed this year. Career plans. Friends. Love. Four years at college ended abruptly. Two years trying to build up a relationship washed away. I’m back at the drawing board yet again. I had chosen to make these changes, and I may never know if they were the right ones.

~

Friends tell me, now I’m free to do whatever I want. I get a clean slate. Life is a blank canvas for me to paint whatever I want. I should feel liberated, carefree, energized.

As these changes happened, though, I grew more weary of the emotional highs and lows. No longer do I want drama in my life. No longer do I crave to be infatuated.

If personal growth is defined by gaining experiences to guide future decisions, then I have grown a lot this past year. At least part of growing up is discovering that the world needs you to make decisions about your life. The world doesn’t wait nor does it care if you don’t know who you are or who you want to be. So you make the calls, you can’t turn the clock back, and you try to take responsibility. You end up regretting some of the things you did. You begin to live more deliberately. You stop being so willing to throw everything away. Those things you don’t throw away – they will come to define you as a person.

I think about how I’ve felt this year: I’ve labored hard. I’ve been emotionally strained. I asked for directions. And I introspected. But things just feel up in the air. All these big life changes happened, and it feels as though so little progress was made. There is a saying, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” If I had to describe my complex web of feelings to you in one word, “unsettled” would probably be the most fitting.

There’s still the teenage idealism simmering within me. It no longer boils over as it once did, nor am I as blindly optimistic as I once was. I look out to the world and breathe in the monotonicity of a 9-to-6 job. Still, a part of me yearns to be carefree and adventurous. Part of me yearns to throw it all away and move to another country, or join a start-up. Part of me desires to attach myself to some bigger cause, to lift mountains, to save the world. Part of me wants to hold on to that idealism, that higher calling.

So what do I want for my future?

~

I see everyone worshipping a god of their own, be it money or knowledge or pleasure or something else. The truth is none of these gods make you happy. Worship money and you begin to measure yourself in the dollar you make. Worship knowledge and you’ll never be smart enough.

I see both the promise and emptiness of material wealth. I’ve seen the suffering of people moving across countries and away from family to pay bills or mortgages. I’ve seen people struggling to make ends meet or put their kids through school. They have little time left to relax or to enjoy the company of people they love. They become stuck in their career. They take jobs they dislike. Their talents become wasted. I’ve also met bankers and lawyers slaving away for their paychecks, unwilling to give up their high-paying job because they’ve become used to that lifestyle. They don’t find meaning in what they do. They think that they need the comfort. They think of pay as a proxy for value. Their talents also become wasted.

I see the danger of complacency, as well as danger of premature optimization. Choosing the default option is so easy. The mundane demands of daily life come to triumph over their childhood dreams and long term desires. People stay in their jobs too long. People give up their ideals. Yet at the same time, deliberately planning one’s life seems difficult, even pointless at times. Does it make sense to build up dreams around a single career? Does it make sense to settle down and get married yet? How can you try organize your life before you actually know what it’s like?

I see my parents’ generation in their stalled marriages and mid-life crises. They grow old and stubborn in their own ways, no longer willing to change their idiosyncrasies. Marriage becomes defined and inertia simply stops them from being able to love each other the way the other wants to be loved. Their children leave home, they’ve fulfilled their ambitions, and there’s nothing left to keep them together. Some of them get divorced. Some don’t. They are lonely all the same.

I wonder how I might avoid these fates.

~

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is about the true meaning of courage. It is the ability to see reality clearly and to fight against the inequities thereof. It is to make the right choices and live deliberately. It is to consciously avoid the default, even when the choice seems daunting, even when you’re scared shitless of the consequences. It is to persist in your beliefs and your choice even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It is to persevere in your effort against an adverse world.

The next couple of years are an exciting time. I will make decisions about how I want to live and who I want to become. Today I get to choose and I have choices that I will no longer have 20 years later. I’m all too aware of the danger of complacency to simply follow the path of least resistance. Instead I can choose to live courageously.

When I was home in Hong Kong this past summer my parents asked a family friend if she had any advice for me. She paused and tried to recall her younger, more rebellious self. Finally she said, “Oh boy. I’m glad I’m not in my twenties anymore.”

Some day I might look back and feel the same way. Perhaps I will only think of the frustrations, the unsettled feelings, the mistakes, and the confusion of young adulthood. But I want to remember the feeling of still being a boy. Afraid, wide-eyed, excitable, naive. The world is open. Life is open. This is such a precious time. I want to hold on to it. It fills me with hope.

Lessons from Eventplease

For almost two years, I’ve worked on an idea we called Eventplease, an online social event calendar for Harvard three friends and I built together. It’s been such a thrill to have worked on this project with an amazing group of individuals. I’ve wanted to write down the experience in some detail and perhaps our experience will be useful for someone who wants to start a company.

The Beginning and Launch

For me, Eventplease started as a hunch I had one morning during the fall semester in 2010. I was a college junior and had begun thinking about starting a business as my interest in computer science and entrepreneurship grew. The hunch was a result of my frustrations with event organization. After struggling with putting together an event for the cultural student group I belonged to, I wanted to solve the pain of advertising around the campus.

As I began think about event publicity, I found that there was also a parallel pain for students who wanted to attend events. I wanted to help them discover events that were interesting. I wanted to create some kind of directory for events on campus, which I believed would get a lot of traffic.

Soon I began to talk to a lot of people about my idea and began to sketch out what such a product might look like. My dorm room walls soon became covered with paper prototypes. Knowing very little about web development at the time, I looked around for people to help me. Two of my good friends – Stefan Muller and Spencer Chan – signed up, and by December 2010 we began to write code during our spare time. Stefan was in charge of building the backend. Spencer and I worked on the front end.

We did some things correctly from the beginning. For example, we decided to set up a code repository system Mercurial and hosted it on Bitbucket. This helped us keep track of our code throughout our time working on Eventplease. We also applied to and attended HackHarvard, a student-led incubator for campus apps. This incubator turned out to be one of our most productive periods. Fatefully, this incubator introduced us to the student government at Harvard, which immensely helped us publicize the website.

Some other decisions turned out poorly. We decided to write the site in PHP without a framework, simply because we all knew how to do that. In the end, our code became quite messy and difficult to manipulate. Also, we set out to build a pretty substantial product from the beginning, and I believe we completely over-engineered our first iteration of the product.

By March, we had built most of the functionality we had set out to build, which include user login, a form for users to create groups and submit events, and a feed that recommended personalized posted events. Around that time I invited Alisha Ramos to join our group, and she immediately began to help adding style and swag to the site. She edited all the wording on the site and changed our color scheme to what it is now.

We collaborated with the student government for our launch in early April. They passed a resolution to endorse us and then we worked with the student relations committee to publicize the website through emails to the houses as well as to student groups. Working with the UC also led to coverage by the Crimson, the student paper. The day we launched we got about 1000 thousand views. Student groups excitedly signed up. We soon had over 100 events up. We made an effort to publicize during prefrosh weekend as well the Arts First weekend, and our visitor count stayed strong and we got an average of 300 views per day until exams began in May. By the end of the semester we felt pretty good about our first launch and began to discuss how to keep going. We decided to begin our expansion to other schools and celebrated with champagne.

The Hiatus

We made some progress during the summer, but it was slow since we each went off to do our own things. I spent my summer in Chicago interning for Steve Levitt. Stefan and Spencer stayed on campus to do computer science research, while Alisha went to work for a VC firm. We dealt with server issues and making the site ready to be duplicated for other campuses.

I also talked to two people from other schools who were interested in what we were working on, and we began to set up sites for them. It was my first time trying to sell something and I failed terribly. I had no experience selling and marketing things, and being distracted by an internship and a side project I had started with a co-worker didn’t help either. We had the sites ready by August, but unfortunately by that time the interest from the two people had died.

Then September rolled around and school was back. We failed to relaunch Eventplease to the student body, however. We didn’t put in the same effort to publicize Eventplease the way we used to. The UC was busy tending to different business. Traffic was a fraction of last April’s. My attempt at getting the word out to student group leaders at the activities fair went quite poorly. Furthermore, we began to freak out about needing a job for when we graduated, since on-campus recruiting was beginning. For the next couple of months, I had practically let Eventplease languish.

In January, the UC approached us again with renewed enthusiasm for pushing Eventplease back to the students. By then our team hadn’t met in a long time, so basically I was the main person making changes to the site and communicating with the UC. We re-publicized the website, just as we did last time. There was a bump in traffic, but still the website didn’t quite catch fire like it did a year ago. As a team, we met again to decide to simply hand over the site to the UC to administer in the future. We made some cosmetic changes to the site before we did so. By summer, Eventplease belonged to the UC.

Some lessons

When you make mistakes, there’s always the danger of learning the wrong lessons. Here are my lessons learned as I see them:

1. Keep your eyes on the ball. Keep the team focused and moving.

A successful team must have a leader. This person is the cheerleader, the convener, and the person who makes sure everything gets done. It is critical for a team to be led consistently, or else the team will begin to drift and disintegrate. The leader provides the anchor for the team. Being a leader is a large burden and is usually a big job. You have to decide things and put a lot of effort in.

Without a leader a project will not go on. When a leader fails to take charge, the only way for the project to survive is if his role taken over by another. For a very early stage startup, this rarely happens. What stopped our momentum was summer holiday and recruiting, which had caused me, the de-facto leader, to stop doing the things a leader should do. Eventplease became my second priority. We stopped meeting our short term goals. We stopped convening regularly.

To succeed your team must stay focused on goals you set. Set reachable goals and accumulate small successes. Once we stopped doing this, we never regained momentum.

2. Never wait for the customer to come to you.

Technical founders tend to focus completely on building a great product. That’s usually a recipe for disaster.

We made the mistake of waiting for customers to come to us. Well, not quite. We knew that we can’t just wait for customers to come to us, but we never had a focused plan to get in front of our customers. We never made a list of customers to target and persist in trying to sell them our product.

Don’t underestimate the effort necessary to get people to use even a good product. Most of the time people aren’t creatures of reason, but creatures of habit. Most people don’t want to try new things even if they’re better. People don’t go out of the way to learn about the best products in the market. If you’re a developer, you’re probably in the category of most likely to be excited about new gadgets. Don’t expect others to behave like you.

Have a plan for getting your product out early on. Make a list of people you want to reach, and figure out how to reach them. Set actionable goals for sales.

Of course, the product should be friendly to new users too. Make sure the user takes the absolute minimal amount of effort to start using your product, and that you put the product out as prominently as you can! Have viral components.

Furthermore, you should always know what your most loyal customers love about your product. Don’t ever let that love go away. So talk to your users. Find out who they are and what they need. Show them love, and they will love you back.

3. Test your product idea in baby steps until you find its essence.

Your first hunch is almost always somewhat wrong. Looking back, it is clear the initial idea was flawed.

At the time, connecting people with events online mainly happened in several ways: One was in a marketplace for event tickets, like Eventbrite or Ticketmaster. These sites made event organizers happy by saving them the pain of figuring out how to sell tickets online. The other was marketing, like Facebook Events. Marketing goes where the user is – which is why ads work in search engines and social media. There’s also Meetup, which helps event organizers organize and communicate. These products solve real pains.

When I had the idea of Eventplease, I was in a hurry to get it done. I wanted a complete product ASAP. I had embraced my first hunch too fast too thoroughly. People told hz they wanted something like Eventplease. On paper it sounded great to them. But it takes a lot of time to find the pain points. There is probably still lots pain involved in event publicity and discovery processes, but we just didn’t manage find exactly enough pain to sustain demand before we ran out of steam.

So what do you do? Say you have an idea. You should first test the idea, by which I mean you should work really hard to understand the market need that your product is supposed to address. To sell something, you must know exactly what it is that people really want. This demand is often surprising. Think of Facemash or the first Groupon product. These are extremely simply prototypes to build, but their viral growth indicated a demand for something. Billion dollar companies grew out once their founders identified the demand.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the exact market need and you really have to persist. Airbnb existed almost for two years before it began to gain steam. Once you find that demand, you’ve begun to uncover the essence of the idea.

Furthermore, there’s no doubt that we over-engineered our first product. We build too many webpages and we included too many features. When users came to our webpage, the workflow was too complicated. What would have been better is to have a very simple product that did one thing well. If it didn’t work, try a new thing. Iterate until something worked. By building it all at once actually distracted both us and the users from the product’s essence.

4. Obsess about design and user workflow.

I believe we built a decent product with good design and style, but we did not obsess sufficiently about the user workflow. We simply were not sufficiently perfectionist or dedicated to make the user experience absolutely impeccable. It did not wow users to the extent that it needed to. I don’t mean that the website must be sexy, but it should give the sense that something revolutionary is happening at your company. Your product should inspire confidence and love. It should be mindless to use. Instead we kept piling on functionality, which was good but insufficient. Build this kind of company culture and you will appear different to others

5. Take good care of your business partners.

Simple: these people are the essential to your success. Get to know them. Love them, until they love you back.

6. Gimmicks work!

One realization we had along the way was simply how effective gimmicks and traditional advertising were. Postering, flyers, lotteries – these gimmicky marketing tactics proved immensely useful in getting the word out.

7. Use good open source tools and seek advice

Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are fantastic tools out there, so look for them! I wish we didn’t code in pure PHP and roll our own abstraction framework. It was only a year later when I was introduced to micro-frameworks like Flask, and they really do make your life a lot easier. So do some research and seek good advice before you start writing code.

8. Have fun

Seriously, I had so much fun trying to make Eventplease happen. It was tough. I was stressed out. And yes, it was probably a pretty perverted sense of fun. But the high you get from pushing something that is uniquely yours forward in the world is just amazing! So don’t be discouraged by the mistakes you’ll make along the way. Enjoy it.

My Bucket List at Harvard

After four years in Cambridge, I thought I’d make a list of things that I think a Harvard undergraduate should experienced. Some of these things I’ve personally enjoyed. Others I’ve heard are amazing. Anyway, this isn’t the official bucket list, which consists merely of sex in Widener, Primal Scream, and pissing on the John Harvard statue. This list is longer, and hopefully will help you find more adventures during your time at Harvard. Good luck!

First, the Harvard things

  • Skip lecture
  • See the Adam House’s underground murals
  • Copy someone else’s problem set or go to office hours and beg for answers
  • Visit the Sackler on an open house
  • Procrastinate in the D-Hall
  • Socialize / pull an all-nighter in Lamont Library
  • Go to an IOP event
  • Comp an organization you’ll learn to hate
  • Jump off the Weeks bridge into the Charles River
  • Go to a formal dance
  • Write a Crimson op-ed
  • Housing night
  • Streak during Primal Scream!

Also, venture into Boston…

  • Walk around Boston and visit the Commons, Newbury Street, and the Waterfront
  • Run along the Charles
  • Picnic on the Esplanade
  • Kiss someone at night in front of the fountain in the Christian Science Center plaza
  • Sail or kayak on the Charles
  • See a Red Sox game at Fenway Park
  • Spend a summer in Boston
  • Visit the Isabella Gartner Museum
  • See the Slut Cracker
  • Catch a movie premier at a film festival
  • Visit the MIT Media Lab
  • Visit the Harpoon Brewery
  • See a concert at the Middle East
  • See a movie in the Sommerville Theatre and visit the Museum of Bad Art
  • See an independent film at the Kendall Square theatre
  • Get drunk with Scorpion bowls and then cure a hangover at the Hong Kong

And escape D-Hall food!

  • Punjabi Dhaba - another hole-in-the-wall in Inman square serves the best Indian fare ($)
  • Christina’s - ice cream with interesting spices! ($)
  • Jo Jo Taipei ($) - Good Chinese food.
  • S & I Thai ($) - I love this Thai food. Love.
  • The Daily Catch - a hole-in-the-wall in the North End that serves fantastically fresh seafood. This is actually my favorite place for lobster. ($$)
  • The Helmand - Delicious Afghani food. Don’t miss the pumpkin appetizer! ($$)
  • Addis Red Sea - A very lovely Ethiopian restaurant. ($$)
  • The Blue Room - Mediterranean food in Kendall Square. Very delectable. ($$)
  • Hungry Mother - French-style Southern food. A classy but quirky first or second date.($$)
  • The Beehive - A loud and fun hangout spot. ($$)
  • Neptune Oyster - Best Oysters ever. ($$$)
  • Ten Tables - A very romantic venue with delicious food. ($$$)
  • Toro - a tapas place operated by Ken Oringer and the most delicious meal I had in Boston ($$$)
  • Henrietta’s Table - My favorite breakfast place. ($$)

Why choose a Harvard College education

I’ve often been asked by prospective students to offer advice when deciding whether to attend Harvard. This kind of advice is not easy to give. How does one possibly condense the complexity of the college experience into a mere few sentences?

An easy answer is “just go to Harvard”. After all I had a fantastic experience personally. It’s also consistently ranked number 1 or 2 school in the US and the world. You can hardly go wrong. But I’d like to give a better sense of what the life of a Harvard undergrad is like. What does a Harvard education mean? What is it actually like to study at Harvard? Now that I’ve graduated, I had better write my thoughts down before my memory of the past four years begins to fade. So here’s what to expect if you chose to enroll.

The Best Things

The most amazing thing about Harvard is the people. It’s cliche but it’s true. Here you will find people who will challenge, inspire, and surprise you. They may be a professor, a teaching assistant, or a fellow student. The students here have accomplished things that you’d think are impossible. Sometimes their achievements are easy to know about; they may be international math olympiad gold medalists, founder of a company, or a world-class musician. Sometimes their qualities run deeper; they may not seem different, but they will continually surprise with their humanity and their excellence. While at Harvard you will have countless engaging conversation that last deep into the night. By the end of your four years here, you will count at least a few individuals who will go on to accomplish incredible things amongst your friends.

At Harvard, you will also find the most amazing resources in terms of learning, research, and also networking for your future career. If you need to know about a topic, you have the world’s leading experts just a couple doors down; you have one of the largest libraries in the world; you have some of the world’s best research facilities. Our alumni reach far and wide: from Hollywood to finance to publishing to marketing. Almost anywhere you go around the globe, doors will open for you simply because you go or went to Harvard. These benefits are perhaps the most often-mentioned pro of going to Harvard, and they are generally true as well.

Another often-mentioned pro is our proximity to the city of Boston. In truth many Harvard students only occasionally venture into Boston even though it is only a couple subway stops away. What Harvard students will undoubtedly enjoy is Harvard Square, which has enough quirky restaurants, bars, cultural activities, and shopping (though quite over-priced) to keep things interesting. It’s really one of the best college towns ever. I will miss the bookstores and the cafes immensely when I’m elsewhere next year.

Student Life and Culture

From the outside Harvard looks beautiful. Inside, many dorms are rather run down and old, but still quite livable. If you are lucky, you may even get housed in an 18th floor single that overlooks Boston or have a common room large enough to host parties night after night. As I write, the Houses are beginning renovations so they may soon be spanking new again.

Generally students spend a lot of time in dining halls, which not only serves as a cafeteria but also form open spaces for studying and gathering until wee hours of the night. Overall, the dorm food is edible but mediocre.

As a community of high achievers, we are rather unafraid to display our ambitions. My friends at other schools have told me that Harvard students stand out by their confidence and how comfortable they are in their skin. Indeed we take pride in overworking and constantly complain about our overcommitment. On campus, we make few attempts to hide our ambitions in order to fit in. Sometimes we will take ourselves too seriously and sometimes we Harvard kids just don’t know how to have fun. A student culture that highly values achievement can also be rather highly strung. You will most likely feel stressed out by class work for the majority of your time here, because of either your own ambition or your friends’.

Harvard also has less a sense of community pride than many other Ivy League schools. Few of us care much about Harvard’s athletic teams. Only a small fraction of the community participate in intramural sports. Most emblematic of this culture is the apathy of our student community for the weekend on which prospective students visit. At Yale’s Bulldog Days, the Yale community pulsates with excitement; students are ready to show prefrosh a good time. By contrast, Harvard students could care less. Most Harvard students are simply too preoccupied with bigger and better things – be it leading a national organization or trying to discover a better cancer treatment. As a result, Harvard sometimes feels a bit more like the working world than a loving or nourishing community.

Contributing to this culture is the university administration’s desire to prevent students from having too much fun. To them Harvard is a place of learning not enjoyment. The adults in charge of student life have grown increasingly distrustful of alcohol. They have also been traditionally distrustful of fraternities and final clubs, which are not recognized as legitimate student groups. This roughly translates into added exclusivity on the part of these unofficial student groups and less inclusive fun for students.

That is not to say that Harvard kids don’t party. You will most definitely hear loud music blasting across campus on weekend nights and see skimpily dressed girls wandering around even on the coldest nights. Most of the parties at Harvard happen either in student dorm rooms. There are also parties in the final clubs, the frats, the Crimson, and the Lampoon. If you want fun, it’ll be there.

Many Harvard students have a work hard, play hard mentality. Many of us genuinely prefer and thrive in a pressurized environment. We don’t feign enjoyment in our pursuit of excellence, and many students including me would rather be able to freely complain about our work and be forced to focus on our work. It is simply how we function.

Advising

One complaint you often hear about Harvard is that the professors don’t care about the undergraduates. While I can see why such a complaint exists, I think it misses the mark. During my time at Harvard, I have met many professors who care very deeply about undergraduate education. For one of my physics seminar, I had 30 minutes one-on-one feedback sessions with my professor after each of my class presentations. When I spent a summer working in Prof. Hoffman’s lab, I met with her every day to discuss my work.

No, you will not always be able to easily make an appointment with any professor, because some are literally too busy saving the world. Whether you find yourself getting to know your professors depends on many things: your department, your personality, the effort you make, whether you take the right kind of classes, and your luck. But the truth is that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know your professors. Many professors are eager to teach you things. You just have to meet them half way by actively planning and also putting in some effort.

The reason why people might think that professors don’t care about undergraduates is because the advising system at Harvard leaves much to be desired. The college administration often feels like a gigantic bureaucracy that is too inhuman to deal with. Your concerns are easily lost within this bureaucracy. As a freshman, you will hear all sorts of terse general advice, but few adults will actually take the time to get to know you and cater their advice to you. Most adults just tell you to do the things that works for themselves, instead of walking through how you should think about life and career as you grow and learn. If you’re a person not so sure about your direction, Harvard’s advising system won’t help you much.

Instead, the best advice you get will often come from upperclassmen or graduate student that you befriend. They understand your situation much better and are much better suited to give you general guidance. So join communities with people who can help you. If you’re interested in economics, join the Fed Challenge team. If you want to be a writer, join the Advocate. Or just join a sorority to get the supportive community. Without getting advice, a timid freshman will most likely end up wasting time or getting lost. But since Harvard is so full of amazing individuals, these people will change your life when you find them.

Your journey

The typical Harvard experience goes roughly like this:

You arrive as a wide-eye and nervous freshman. Your goal is to find a place for yourself in this huge and intimidating place. You look for classes to take, groups to join, activities to partake in, friends to make – all the while you’re scared shitless because you aren’t sure whether you can compete or what you want to do. You marvel at this new open world. You are amazed by all the things on campus – the speakers that come through, the star professors, your peers, and all the resources in the world. You will be the most eager bunch of people on campus. You will discover the magical social lubricant that is alcohol. You will party too hard. You will be overwhelmed by the difficulty of the homework. You will over-commit yourself. You will make mistakes. Sometimes you will realize these mistake the next morning. Sometimes you won’t realize your mistakes until a year or two later.

Less than half a year after your arrive, you will have to form housing groups and be assigned into an upperclassmen house. For most people, this group will come to define your college experience. A year in, you will have to decide on a major. You start panicing about what to do for your summer. Before you know it, the red bricks will have become familiar to you.

This fast-paced craziness elicits a spectrum of reactions. At best, you seek advice from the right people, find a group of supportive friends, and at the same time have fun with your new-found freedom and new friends. At worst, you hide from the challenges and simply seek a comfort zone. You might get back together with your high school sweetheart or settle into a serious relationship just to have some structure in your life again. You might party way too hard as a form of escape. You might bury yourself in studies. You might work your way up in a student organization. You might just continue to overcommit yourself and burn out.

Slowly but surely, you will gain confidence in what you’ve devoted yourself to. You will have learned how to survive and you will have found a good group of friends. You will finally feel comfortable at Harvard. If you had charted a course that was all wrong, with some luck you will realize it as you enter your sophomore or junior year. You may change your major or your career plans. You may no longer believe in the student organization that you are now leading. You may even realize that you’ve wasted a lot of time. With adequate reflection and perspective about your false starts, you will learn a lot about yourself and you will begin charting a new and better course for your future career. Your mistakes and failures have made you more jaded, more cynical, tougher, and more grown-up.

You will collect many memories that will last you a lifetime. You will fondly remember the debauchery of Housing Night and the Harvard-Yale game. You may take pride in streaking for Primal Scream. You may have a blast hanging around Cambridge for a summer or studying abroad. You may go on spring break to Cancun with your roommates or skip class to do something outrageous. These experiences will be some of the most fun times of your life.

Then you begin to worry about your future after Harvard. You scramble for a junior summer internship. You join the recruiting rush or apply to graduate school come senior fall. You then buckle down to write a senior thesis. Before you know it you will have completed a Harvard education. You spend a week after exams hanging out with the friends you’ve made, reminiscing and celebrating. You pack up your life and you head out to the world having made a handful of lifelong friends, feeling a little wiser, and ready for the next challenge.

Why you might not want to go to Harvard

For almost all kinds of careers, Harvard will be able to open doors for you. But Harvard is not perfect in every regard. There are a couple reasons you might consider going to another school instead.

  1. You have a passion for making things, such art, software, buildings, rockets. This is your calling. You want to do this forever and never look back. Then other places may offer more opportunities for you – e.g. an acting school or a tech school. Harvard is an incredibly cerebral place and is not so good at the hands-on aspect of things.

  2. You know you want to start a company right after you graduate. And no you don’t really want to keep your options open. Then other places like Stanford may offer slightly more opportunities and connections for you. The entrepreneurial spirit and community is growing at Harvard, but it’s still nascent.

  3. You really don’t think you’ll thrive in a stress-filled environment. Mind you, if you’re accepted to Harvard, fun is probably not the only thing you’re looking for; you’ll probably handle a pressurize environment pretty well. Even though the Harvard experience is designed to challenge some of the smartest people of your generation, I honestly believe that very few Harvard admits couldn’t handle the challenge. Still, if you really want a more nurturing and less intimidating environment, go to a smaller liberal arts college instead.

Conclusion

You can’t go wrong with Harvard. At the very least, you’ll have made some smart friends and given yourself some pretty good branding. If you’re not sure what you want to do with your life, Harvard is a good place to explore all the possibilities and I know that it helped me find things I’m passionate about. And when you’ve discovered what you want to do with your life, Harvard will provide you with the best resources to achieving your goals.