I recently attended Brown University's alumni reunion and graduation ceremonies. Over the past few years I've been lucky to a mentor a number of the current students who had been a part of the Social Innovation Initiative on campus, a program I helped launch while a student. For seniors peering over the gates of academia into the real world, many of their questions over the past year have pertained to that fateful question: "What am I going to do?" and "How did you get to where you are?"
I always give this advice to young people aiming to do good in the world but unsure how: develop your kool-aid filter. Every organization you work for, whether it's that tech company you believe will help make the world a better place, or a consulting firm that is going to give you the right businesses skills so you can go start your own venture, or a bank that can teach you the ins-outs of finance: their job is to make you drink the Kool-aid. That business wants you to believe in their work, in their mission. They want you to stay there for years to come. Investment banks and strategic consulting firms had the best brew of kool-aid for years. More recently Silicon Valley has mixed the best punch. But I don't blame them for giving their employees free food, painting the portrait of a valuable mission, and all sorts of other perks so that you will work your heart out for them. It is their job to get the best people. But too often I see folks lose themselves; too many bright-eyed graduates who want to make the world a better place used to end up crunching numbers to improve a Fortune 500's revenue by 3%. Now they sell online ads.
The most import thing you can do in school, and in the process of graduating, is check in with yourself and figure out how to devlop your kool-aid filter. Whoever you go work for is going to try their hardest to convince you they are the best company in the world, and that is not their fault, that is their job, it is on you to know who you are and not develop a kool-aid addiction.
I have one friend who had a strategy for this. She had studied climate change and wanted to work for an environmental social enterprise in business strategy, but many of them kept saying she needed business experience. She decided to take a job in finance because she wanted to learn those banker skills. She said she would only do it for two years, but she knew the stories, and knew herself, and was scared she might never find her way back to the social missions she cared about. So she reached out to someone she knew and trusted, her sister, and made a deal: if after her first two years of banking she wanted to stay in the game, she had to convince her sister that she was making the world a better place, or she would have to quit. They shook hands, and to cut a long story short, I met her at a clean technology company her third year out of school.
So my word to the young who want to make an impact in the world is: stay true, don't let anyone brainwash you with free lunch, fancy dinners, or delicious kool-aid, because the most important thing you can develop is your kool-aid filter.