I was the research assistant for a New York Magazine package on the real scoop on making it at Stanford called A Cynic’s Guide to Stanford (here) that focused on tech and a follow-up that focused on the rest of campus (here). The package is a tongue-in-cheek plan, from the perspective of a hypothetical cynical person, to get every single thing they can out of the place. I wanted to write down some more freeform thoughts (these views are my own).
Most people at Stanford have earnestness and deep ambition. These are not inherently bad traits to have! And the latter one is very useful to becoming successful.
When you take thousands of people who are like this and put them together under the umbrella of a university, the ecosystem that emerges from that is going to have emergent properties. These emergent properties mainly exist due to one of the most powerful forces in the world, the network effect, where adding an additional member to a network increases the ‘value’ (in all senses of the world) of that network.
This effect is most vivid in the technology aspect of campus. Silicon Valley has a famous network effect where entrepreneurs, existing companies, and investors exist in overlapping economic and social circles, and they all need each other, and the cycle of growth would collapse if any one of them were to falter. This is the reason Silicon Valley, despite its global ambitions and rhetoric, is located in such a small swath of California. Stanford is the top feeder university into this world because it played a big part in creating it, and also because it is literally located in the middle of it.
What does this mean in practice? It means that after you take like three CS classes companies might already start to send you recruiting emails, that you can take classes where the end project you frantically threw together during a couple of all-nighters could get an acquisition offer from a multibillion-dollar corporation, that random extracurriculars that have nothing to do with programming (a student newspaper? Social dance?) could end up providing that crucial referral to your next job. And while most of the rhetoric around technology is not as we-are-so-amazing triumphalist as it was in, say, 2014, the student body has continued to respond to this ecosystem, switching over to the CS major and going into careers in Silicon Valley at a very high rate. The pay is great and no one will think you’re wasting your potential.
When you exist in a sphere that is being drenched in money, where the average person ends up getting a six-figure job and every few months someone seems to rocket into being a billionaire superstar, the cost of inaction becomes really, really high. Did you think of college as a place where you could take a couple of years to explore academic interests, read some books, maybe screw around? That’s interesting, because while you were doing that, someone in your dorm met a VC in one of his classes, shot his shot and pitched a company idea, and is now gonna spend the summer at LightSpeed Summer Fellowship getting paid, filling his contacts list with investors and founders, and maybe even prepping a Series A. You might think this is the wrong way to go about your education, but are you going to deny that he’s killing it?
Complicating this is that there is a vast gulf between people who come into the university with social capital and people who don’t. Under the network effect, your access to information determines whether you know how to make the connections that lead to the extracurriculars that lead to the internships that lead to the jobs that lead to the respect of the people you care about. If your parents went to Stanford for college and you went to Harker for high school and you have friends who are seniors who can tell you about which clubs have the inside track, which Greek organizations feed where, which internships people prize, you can get started right away. If you’re a first-generation college student and your high school didn’t have AP classes and you’ve never heard of “private equity,” you lived in a different world, and now that you’re on the same campus, good luck catching up on information that travels through offhand conversations between those who are in the know and those who are about to be.
My immediate instinct with such a system is that it should all be written down, and possibly blown up. Yeah, you worked hard, but so did most everyone- what really made the difference in getting that internship, getting that investment? The people who don’t know the tricks deserve to know them, because they are operating at a disadvantage, so much so that they might not realize what is happening until it’s senior year and somehow everyone else seems to be working at one of, like, eight prestigious companies. The people who come in blind deserve to have just as much of an opportunity to work the system as anyone else.
As to whether they should take that opportunity, that’s up to them.
Hollywood has very progressive politics, but that hasn’t stopped it from being brutally exploitative towards its underclass. Having egalitarian political sensibilities hasn’t mean’t anything in the face of capitalism’s incentives. And I’ve found that something analogous is true at Stanford, a university full of, as Jake Dow put it, genuinely friendly and kind students who take no prisoners about dragging themselves to the top of any heap in which they find themselves (I include myself in this camp). On campus it’s a commonly heard sentiment that a lot of tech companies might do sketchy things, that consulting firms might not actually give great advice, and that Wall Street might be downright evil, and yet, every year, a solid majority of the student body goes into one of those three sectors. And the people who don’t often have a similar disposition anyway.
It’s an instinct that’s been honed through the college application process and refined on a campus in thrall to that mentality. I was a student peer counselor at The Bridge; I saw some dark stuff that I will never forget. And virtually no one seems to expect principled leadership from the administration (see Jackson Beard’s anecdote towards the end of part two for a particularly vivid example of that expectation being fulfilled).
I did interviews with people who loved tech and thought it had been polluted by insincerity, people who thought startup culture was the gold standard for improving the future, people who had burned out and just wanted to live quietly, people who felt like they had achieved a good balance of pursuing their interests and also pursuing business ethically, people who felt like they had wasted their time and should have majored in CS for the money. They all had their opinions about how the campus should be and how people should approach college. Some of them spoke passionately about their activities on campus and others were eager to give dirt on the things they’d witnessed. Some of them were proud and some weren’t. Almost all of them felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the campus and its gravitational pull, and though they had a myriad of concerns, like how ambition seemed to shade into cynicism under the pressure of a fountain of money and power, they felt love for the place and what it had given them. I appreciated their time and their candor.
Adam Elkus says, “one definition of cynicism is when you know it’s flimsy, but go along regardless because you would be alone and isolated if you did anything else, but you personally use your own self-awareness of the flimsiness as a way of protecting your self-image. I think many people have this kind of relationship to many contemporary American political, cultural, social, economic, technological, etc institutions and conventions. You’re caught between your desire to avoid the oblivion of abandoning the world you fit into and the need to still preserve your idea of someone as a savvy person that knows how things ‘really’ are.”
I loved my time on campus, loved the friends I made, loved the faculty I met and the courses I took (if you’re reading this as a high schooler, consider a program called SLE, which for me was the best part of all) and, of course, appreciated the career opportunities. I wish the best to the new generation of students in CS and BASES and SWIB and Greek life and to the students who aren’t in any of those things; they all have things they care about and dreams for themselves and others. And I hope they’re not more cynical than earnest. For myself, I’m working on it.