FF Insights #658: The paradox of potential

May 25, 2022: Be kinder to yourself; Harvard in India?; Parental review

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Good morning,

William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep is a provocative book. On its pages, he talks about his conversations with students at elite institutions in the US, the kind that many from the upper echelons of India aspire to go to as well. When probed on what careers they intend to pursue, consulting and investment banking are what they desire to pursue the least. But that is exactly what they end up doing on graduation.

“Why do so many elite students end up choosing one of those two fields, and what does that tell us about their peer group as a whole? Greed alone is not the explanation. Remember that these kids have been conditioned, above all, to jump through hoops. That’s what feels familiar; that’s what feels safe; that’s what feels like the right thing to do. In high school, everybody had the same objective, to get into the most prestigious college possible, and the hoops were all lined up to lead you there. But once you get to college, things are not so certain anymore. Directions multiply, and many of the paths are foggy.”

Deresiewicz then asks what may it take to become a social entrepreneur, a politician, a screenwriter? For that matter to get into public policy? And why don’t they get there despite having access to the best education?

“A former student sent me an essay he wrote, a few years after college, called ‘The Paradox of Potential.’ Yale students, he said, are like stem cells. They can be anything in the world, so they try to delay for as long as possible the moment when they have to become just one thing in particular. Possibility, paradoxically, becomes limitation. ‘My friends and I didn’t run sprinting down a thousand career paths, bound for all corners of the globe,’ he wrote. ‘Instead, we moved cautiously, in groups, plodding down a few well-worn trails so as to ensure that two or four years down the road, we could be stem cells again, still undifferentiated, still brimming with potential.’

“That’s the situation that consulting firms, especially, have learned to exploit. Their recruiters descend upon elite campuses in force. They make it easy to apply—but they also make it hard to get selected, which is even better. The job looks great on your resume, and you aren’t foreclosing any options, since you can still do anything you want to after you leave.

“Nor is it consulting firms alone. Most of what is true of them is also true of the investment banks. ‘What Wall Street figured out,’ another student wrote me, ‘is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.’”

Be kinder to yourself

Oftentimes we beat ourselves up over slights we imagined we may have caused others. But do we need to, is a question Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist, delves into in Psyche..

“Suppose you encountered a relatively minor social disappointment, like sharing a picture of friends online, only to find out later that one friend hates how they looked in that shot. In this situation, beating yourself up about it might highlight a personalisation bias (thinking it’s all your fault), particularly if your friend didn’t ask you to get their input before sharing photos.

“Similarly, even the smallest interactions can drive a mind-reading bias. If you ask your server at a restaurant to explain exotic dishes or ingredients, you might imagine that they view you as pushy or uncultured… you might worry that they think you’re wasting their time. In these situations, it’s likely that the other person will actually have a certain amount of patience after numerous encounters with people who are unfamiliar with their job-specific jargon. But if you tend to take things personally, your attempts to make sense of their reactions could distort your sense of what’s actually happening.

“There are several problems with these errors in thinking. The first, of course, is that they’re inaccurate, driven more by feelings, personal histories, ambiguity and conspicuously negative information than by objectivity. Another is that, if you commit to these biased beliefs, you limit your emotional options to feeling sad about your perceived flaws, anxious about your ability to withstand upcoming social challenges, or angry at others for not being nicer. Finally, they limit your behavioural options. If you accept these thoughts as facts, it can be hard to see past giving up, avoiding or lashing out. In short, these tendencies to take things too personally restrict your emotional and behavioural options and increase the likelihood that you’ll struggle with distress or dysfunction.”

Dig deeper

Harvard in India?

In The Hindu, Philip G. Altbach (Boston College, US) and Eldho Mathews (National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, India) look into the idea of foreign universities setting up their branches here. It’s not a new topic. Our former colleagues at Forbes India explored this topic 12 years ago. India has taken some steps since the announcement of the New Education Policy.

Altbach and Methews point to obstacles, and also the possibilities.

They write: “India is seen around the world as an important country and an emerging higher education power. It is the world’s second largest ‘exporter’ of students, with 4,61,792 students studying abroad (according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics). And India has the world’s second largest higher education system. Foreign countries and universities will be eager to establish a ‘beachhead’ in India and interested in providing opportunities for home campus students to learn about Indian business, society, and culture to participate in growing trade and other relations.

“Still, it will not be easy to attract foreign universities to India and even more difficult to create the conditions for them to flourish. Many of those top universities are already fully engaged overseas and would likely require incentives to set up in India. Further, there are smaller but highly regarded universities outside the ‘top 500’ category that might be more interested. Universities around the world that have academic specialisations focusing on India, that already have research or faculty ties in the country, or that have Non-Resident Indians (NRI) in senior management positions may be easier to attract. What is most important is to prevent profit-seekers from entering the Indian market and to encourage foreign institutions with innovative educational ideas and a long-term commitment. Many host countries have provided significant incentives, including building facilities and providing necessary infrastructure. Foreign universities are highly unlikely to invest significant funds up front.”

Dig deeper

Parental review

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.