What's your currency?

Monday, February 25, 2019 - 8:59am

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Illustration by Christine Jegarl

I had a tough time in business school from the get-go. It was terrifying to walk into the Winter Garden for the first time and pass by juniors in suits passed out on couches or sobbing on the phone after an exam. The relief I felt to finally not be an undecided freshman quickly dissolved during my first weeks. Something about that building and the people in it put tremendous gut-wrenching, hopeless pressure on me.

Mostly, I was terrified because I had never felt so incompetent. As soon as I entered the Ross School of Business, I felt light years behind. Everyone was throwing around words like “beta” and “bonds” while I couldn’t tell you what a stock really was. I had spent the past year pining to get in, and now I wasn’t so sure I had made the right decision.

Somehow, during a time when I was questioning every life decision I’d ever made, I found my sure calling for film. It was a complete accident and one of those life happenings that makes you believe in destiny. I had been cautiously shadowing a friend at the Ross club fair when I decided to walk out of the event. It wasn’t a heroic choice, but more of an embarrassing dash because I was so overwhelmed by the term “alternative investments” and didn’t know what it meant to consult things. Instead, I applied as a producer to an student organization called Filmic Productions, got accepted, and fell in love with the creative world. I felt euphoric for the first time since the school year had started.

For a while, I felt like I was on the right path. I wanted to tell stories that capture the human experience through film. I want to make someone exit a movie theatre feeling a changed person, a better person. Accounting didn’t give me the incredible feeling that making something out of nothing does. It’s so fulfilling to produce unique ideas and channel it into art that affects society and makes people feel understood. So I dove into this world and gained internships in media. I was proud of my black sheep status at Ross and was not going to succumb to traditional career paths. I had found my fate and I was going to keep moving forward.

Inside though, the pressure was still mounting. My decision to go rogue felt like I had swallowed poison. My parents and friends were extremely supportive, but at the end of the day, I felt like I was falling short. While everyone around me was waking up early to make networking calls, studying prep material for cases, running between corporate presentations, and following their 5-year career plans, I was simply enjoying things and it didn’t feel right. I, too, wanted to be exhausted and talking numbers. Corporate sounded fancy and felt like the pinnacle goal. I hadn’t actually gone to business school to have fun, had I? I’d joined for the recruiting rush, the power suits, the perfected presentation decks and the signing bonuses. Movies were what people watched to relax. I yearned to be part of the intensity.

I secretly recruited and got a finance internship at JPMorgan. It caused an uproar with my family and friends. They knew I was just trying to make a point. Now the point had been made and they wanted me to go back to where I belonged, but I couldn’t stop. I wanted to know what it’s like to be among the Wall Street veterans and early morning Upper West Side commuters. Films would always exist no matter what, and business school had taught me that the opportunity to be among the real stars — among highly successful corporate moguls — would be gone in a glance. I had to grasp it immediately before it was too late.

You can already guess what a mistake that was.

I fell into the trap fed to me by the culture of business school on how to formulate the best career. It was exciting at first, wearing my freshly pressed suit, receiving my badge to enter 270 Park, and clicking my heels to the elevator that would take me to my new team. They gave me JPMorgan emblazoned gifts, provided a desk with two (two!) desktops, and set me up for coffee chats. I got to wear my JPMorgan banker bag in the subway, talk about how great Equinox is, and get Sweetgreen with associates.

I was constantly reminded that I was at a top firm and lucky to be in a team where I would do work for Jamie Dimon himself. “We’re the best team on the street”, they repeated. So I filled my coffee cups and finished my Excel sheets. I printed the team agendas and researched the daily investment news. I stayed late just to stay late and I arrived early just to arrive early.

Then at my midpoint meeting, my manager said I couldn’t listen to music at work. I wasn’t on a team where I ever communicated with others, so this confused me, but I obliged. I sheepishly slid back to my desk and went back to my PowerPoint. That’s when it hit me — there was no brain activity going on.

When I wasn’t listening to the Hamilton soundtrack or the latest Director’s Guild podcast, my brain was completely dead. Without the distraction, the work I was doing at my desk was painfully mundane. The summer felt like solitary confinement. I sat at one seat for hours on end, doing mind-numbing work for the higher up who would be sending it to the next higher up, and so on until it got lost in the vortex of useless presentations and files.

The work wasn’t difficult but it was awfully boring, and that I couldn’t stand. I feared ending up like Jackie in the office behind me, who wore the same Louboutin heels every day and who seemed to find the most genuine satisfaction in being able to brag about her Columbia MBA. The seconds dragged to minutes, hours and days until finally my 10 weeks at the bank were done and I knew I would never go back.

When you frame your life decisions with happiness as the ultimate goal, it’s hard to choose to do what makes you happy. In current times, exhaustion is romanticized and risk must always be hedged. We’re told to suffer now and reap the benefits later after setting ourselves up for a prolific long-term career. Even my strategy professor once asked the class, “It’s time to get serious. What’s more important to you, your grades or your friends?”

I think that the best decisions aren’t made based off pure happiness, but what you consider as the best form of payment for your work. For some people, money is the right currency. It’s what they may need or what they truly want, and that’s OK. I do hope these 25-year-olds find joy in $17 cocktails at rooftop bars and weekend trips to the Hamptons. For others, it’s monotony and structured organizations and tasks. I mean, hey, someone has to do the accounting.

My currency is time. I could feel my time left on earth declining with every piece of data entered in excel. I saw the world continue without me as I stared out the same window from which I couldn’t move because it was admirable to not leave your desk. Millions of people walked through those streets while I watched, wondering what their stories were. Sitting there, I realized my time was depleting and nothing I did impacted the people actually making their way through the New York City streets — actually living.

The film industry is notoriously difficult and demanding. It’s horrifyingly low pay and also requires painfully long work days. It takes a lot of grit to move up. The work can be unstable and the culture can be miserable. In my previous media related internships, bosses screamed at me, threw things at me and berated me. If I wanted to be happy, I probably wouldn’t choose a career in film. If I were fragile or wanted work-life balance, I definitely would run the other way. But I choose to do it because I know that the time I put into it is valuable for working toward a larger, more fulfilling goal. The time I spend trying to connect with the world and the people living in it through this creative medium we call film is so rewarding and extraordinary to me.

When I turned my back on corporate, people thought I was so bold. I don’t think it’s that triumphant. My goal isn’t to be a wild card in society, but to be pursuing something that is so exciting, encourage and challenging that I want to invest my time and soul into it and do the best job. I don’t regret going to business school or any of the employment opportunities I’ve taken. In fact, I’ve learned that my personality is exactly in line with business school — high strung and a little neurotic, but insanely efficient, professional and obsessed with Google Calendar. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for yourself —  something this past summer as well as the past 3 years of business school revealed for me.

When my best friend (whom I met at Ross, by the way) was angry with me for recruiting in traditional corporate paths, he slipped me a note during class that said:

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Dear Meesh,

Please stop being dumb and wasting your time. Pursue your passion and ignore the noise.

Regards,

Nick

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It was great advice and though I hadn’t taken it, I hope someone else will. I hope more people will start valuing their precious time. It’s the only thing we can eventually transform into the “happiness” we humans always seem to be searching for. It’s the only thing that we can never really get back.