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Falling off the conveyor belt

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MAY 05, 2016

UC Berkeley has made me a very nervous person.

For my four years in college, I have felt as if I’ve been trapped on a moving conveyor belt. All the people in my life — my parents, my teachers, my peers — are just workers on an assembly line, which is supposed to slowly sculpt me into a finished product: ready for nine-to-fives, board meetings and dreadful commutes.

And I feel like, if I ever mustered up the courage to jump off the conveyor belt, then I would just wake up and find myself trapped on yet another assembly line, one for the defected products that are destined for the bargain bin. Any ostensible act of free will just brings me back to my starting point. My life is a bizarre, dystopian cross-over between a Franz Kafka novel and “That’s So Raven.”

For instance, I was once on the assembly line to become a lawyer. That conveyor belt started whirring as soon as I stepped into the residence halls.

After all, if you have any interest in the humanities, it’s exhausting to be bombarded with questions such as, “What are you going to do with that?”

When you’re a freshman, you meet so many peers who’ve fooled themselves into thinking that they know the answer: “I’m going to work 80 hours a week at Goldman Sachs and develop a cocaine addiction. Then I’ll retire when I’m 35. It’s going to be great.”

You already know that there are better things to do in college than to get so ahead of yourself — to read great books, to drink too much coffee, to hike to the Big C and talk about these great books with people you love, as you stare off into the serene midnight view and realize that all the buildings look like little stars from up there.

But, you feel silly for enjoying those things, and you feel pressured to speak the language of your peers, so you pick up some career gimmick instead. I picked up law school.

I sure fooled everyone for a long time. I even joined a pre-law fraternity, which has been one of my most formative experiences at UC Berkeley.

Law school is a great aspiration because you can still dream of changing the world — as an environmental justice lawyer, as a humanitarian judge, as a politician for the working class. Yet, the assembly line extinguishes this idealism in its early stages. I watched many members of my fraternity get shipped off to big corporations such as Dropbox, Google, Goldman Sachs and Altria — the tobacco company, for Christ’s sake.

If you are more stubborn, then the assembly line boils away your idealism very slowly, as if you were a lobster in a pot. You eventually become a corporate lawyer to pay off your catastrophic student loans.

During spring break of my sophomore year, my family sat me down to draw the timeline for my last two years in college. We planned it all out: internships, LSAT preparation, the best semester to study abroad. I was supposed to go to a Top 14 school right after college.

I told my family that I wanted to take a year off. My older brother told me, “That’s what your study abroad semester is for.” He said that I should get that wanderlust out of my system as an undergraduate.

I lost my appetite for seeing the world. The concept of study abroad — the promise of exploration and new vantage points — had ironically turned into another segment of the assembly line, in my eyes.

After that, I couldn’t help but notice whenever a Facebook friend stayed in Paris and posted the exact same profile picture of the Eiffel Tower — perhaps with a baguette and a bottle of wine. Paris seemed like a manufactured conspiracy.

So, I freaked the fuck out, and I hopped off the conveyor belt.

But, as soon as I hopped off, I somehow found myself in the Haas School of Business. The gears started whirring again.

I applied to Haas for the worst reasons. Many people do. Many people are drawn to Haas because the application process looks a lot like the process of getting into college. It feels very comforting to be in familiar territory. To be honest, the big investment banks snare bright-minded students with the same kind of resemblance. These firms are arbitrarily ranked, like the elite universities on U.S. News.

Haas marked one of the most unhappy periods of my life. I didn’t learn anything in business school, except for certain buzzwords such as “efficiency,” “innovation” and “disruption.” Yet, whenever I thought of quitting, my parents would tell me on the phone, “You only have one year left.”

Last semester, I got fed up when a Haas professor told an awful joke. He laughed at the idea of an employer who prioritizes the well-being of his employees. Obviously, according to him, the goal of a company should be to maximize profits. I left the room, amid a lukewarm sea of uncomfortable courtesy laughs. I dropped all my business classes soon after.

You must be thinking, “He really regrets going to UC Berkeley.” Don’t get me wrong. I made some of my happiest memories on this campus. For instance, I fell in love. That relationship is in the past now, but my ex-girlfriend is still one of the closest people in my life. I couldn’t imagine my college experience without her. To be honest, if I were 18 again and had the magical choice to pick any college I wanted, I would do UC Berkeley all over again.

I think that it’s silly to regret past decisions. After all, if anything about my past were different, I would’ve become a very different person. And, I’m happy with who I am today. Now, I waste my time exactly how I want to waste it — with the dream of becoming a writer.

Now you must think, “Wow, this pretentious prick. He thinks he’s better than everyone else.”

Well, I absolutely love my family, and I don’t blame them for hoping that I can have a stable career. And, many of my closest friends are in my pre-law fraternity — yes, including the people who work at corporations. In fact, I met my ex-girlfriend at one of our Meet the Chapter events.

I don’t resent that professor who told that stupid joke. He’s not the first person to invent the concept of maximizing profit. He was just doing his job.

I think it’s immature to categorize people in your life into two groups: “for you” or “against you.” No one is plotting to get you. We are all unwittingly contributing to the assembly lines of the people around us. I have probably accidentally pushed someone else into applying to law school.

I’m still not exempt from the assembly line, either, as an aspiring writer. Sometimes, I read through professional album reviews and notice that five music journalists have used the exact same metaphor to describe the sound of the drums. It’s extremely hard to write anything original. None of my thoughts in this column are very original.

But, even if I can never escape the assembly line, I have learned to love the thrill of the free-fall, as I plummet from one assembly line into the next one. I try to slap efficiency in the face, whenever possible. I set aside time to waste time. I waste my time with useless activities that won’t get me any closer to a stable career: I read books, drink too much coffee and spend time with the people I love.

Sure, I could have written about the good times in college, but I decided that it’d be more helpful if I wrote about all my failures. I hope that at least one reader finds these stories relatable.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go drink my third cup of coffee.


Contact Jason Chen at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @1DirectChen.

MAY 25, 2016