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Transatlantic Thoughts: Blind focus on work is unfulfilling

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
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Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments @thetartan.org.

This week, I will develop my reflection from two previous articles, published respectively on Sept. 25 and Oct. 9. Indeed, the workaholism culture combined with excessive professionalism in campus activities leads to the glorification of technique over everything else. The processes, meetings, carefully-written statements, and complex organizations seem to be more important than the original goal. The tools have become an end in themselves.

This phenomenon is hard to describe, and I can only refer to little things that seem innocuous taken separately. One club I'm a member of is starting anonymous "performance reviews" to evaluate the work of the managers. Another club I'm a part of keeps repeating administrative meetings every two weeks even though there has been no event related to the club's activity in over three months. Last year, I heard that the student Senate had to redo elections because the people didn't understand the new complex election method they had set up. Every email I receive from the student government seems like a vaguely committed statement of intent that rarely talks about any concrete thing. The fact is that very few people talk about these issues, and that people in the administration seem to care more about it than my fellow students.

I have the impression that this administrative and bureaucratic obsession is the ultimate expression of the Carnegie Mellon culture. The imperatives of formalism, complexity, and performance have overflowed from academic life into extracurricular life. But why is this so? In my opinion, the root of all evil is this false belief that one can use college to only get the specialized education necessary to land its supposedly dream job. As a freshman, entering Carnegie Mellon is a strong financial commitment. But this commitment can quickly turn into a prison: the six-figure tech positions for new graduates become the only way out of the student loans. Because of that, it becomes impossible to freely think about what you want to do with your life. And tech companies are very aware of that: during the recruiting process, you are not required to present a coherent professional plan for yourself. Furthermore, you are often asked to blindly trust the company to assign you to a team that would match your interests, only after they accept you inside the company.

This absence of self-reflection requirements throughout college here at Carnegie Mellon and even in the beginning of professional life is actually damaging to individuals. One of the symptoms is precisely the glorification of technique that I mentioned earlier. Because we are scared of reflecting on what we want our life to mean, academic work, and dealing with complex problems and processes become a mental shelter that is strengthened by the social dimension of the phenomenon: everyone does it, and the recent alumni that come to the Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC) to advertise for their company seem happy, so no need to worry. Worse, there is this mentality that the ultimate goal is to accumulate cash as fast as possible, and then enjoy a hypothetical freedom that would come with the possession of such a capital. But according to people in the administration in contact with recent grads, many of them wish they had done things differently at Carnegie Mellon.

Solutions to this problem exist and are in fact pretty simple: reduce the course load, change the grading policy to stop rewarding only the people that give up on their life to do their assignments, ensure that students get free time at least during a significant part of their curriculum, reserve half a day per week for extracurricular activities (no academic courses during this half of the day), give people a second chance by setting up free-of-charge second chance exams to pass a course if students have a D or less, harmonize the education requirements between the different colleges to ensure all students actually benefit from these policies, stop raising tuition each year, lower the maximum number of credits one can take in one semester, have the course's credit load actually reflect the number of hours students spend on it, have students write a mandatory statement of purpose two or three times during their curriculum to force them to reflect on their professional plan. I know this Santa Claus list contains elements that are difficult to implement, but these are the solutions Carnegie Mellon needs to really tackle its deepest issues.

Now, let us talk about what to reflect on once you've exited the Carnegie Mellon version of Plato's cave. The companies that recruit the most at Carnegie Mellon all want to "make the world a better place." This meaningless motto has been popularized by the series Silicon Valley as the one-size-fits-all ethical justification for every new tech initiative. But these tech companies are increasingly criticized for several factors: monopolistic positions and disproportionate impact of their decisions, uncontrolled spreading of social media propaganda, cooperation with the National Security Agency (NSA) for massive surveillance of the population, collection of private data for targeted advertising of worse purposes, and more. These concerns aren't acknowledged when the TOC comes to campus and the hallways of CMU fill with hours-long lines to get a CV fed into the complex machineries of new graduate recruiting processes.

Carnegie Mellon students are committed to many political issues and social service initiatives. This paper, for instance, takes a stand each week on national-level issues to promote diversity and inclusion. The recent student-led initiatives to help people in Puerto Rico are a statement of generosity and global awareness of the issues. Carnegie Mellon's students want to make the world a better place. But then, how can they forget that their most important contribution to this goal is actually the way they choose to use their intelligence and skills once they're out of the campus?

I am aware of the importance of the financial constraints here at Carnegie Mellon: it suffices that a professor writes a blunt comment about the price of a textbook to see this taboo issue rise violently in subsequent Piazza comments. I know that for many people a six-figure salary is a necessity when coming out of an expensive college, and that you sometimes have to put your convictions aside if you want to actually get a job. While there is no simple solution to this problem, my point is to raise awareness: be careful that your mental refuge of work and bureaucracy does not turn into a trap that prevents you from asking the most important questions in your life. That is the one right and freedom you should fight for. Because making the world a better place starts by its being a better place for you.