Seeing Double: Escaping the Rat Race

Seeing Double Columnist Thomas Brodey ’22 discusses pressure for career advancement, noting that it is in fact possible to romanticize the mundane.

When we graduate from Amherst, the college promises us one thing above all: that we will succeed professionally. Some students use their degrees for wealth or status (almost a third of graduates immediately go into either finance or consulting). Others seek to have the greatest possible impact on the world, through what a recent series of columns described as “changemaking” jobs. President Martin endorsed both approaches in her 2021 commencement address when she told graduates: “I know you will advance every institution or cause you take up.” Yet far from expressing the infinite possibilities of the Amherst degree, I think the college’s promises have the opposite effect.

Amherst funnels students into a few high-performing fields while discouraging us from taking jobs perceived as inconsequential or unworthy. Yet, after four years at Amherst, I feel a deep hunger for something different. I have accepted a two-year spot in the Peace Corps, volunteering in Madagascar. I am not alone; I’ve known a number of students who have rejected traditional post-Amherst career paths for jobs like the merchant marine, retail, food preparation, or construction work. Taken together, these might be described as mundane jobs — work that is uncredentialed, unglamorous, rarely lucrative, and which lacks the opportunity for “advancement” described by Biddy.

Amherst hard-wires us to disregard mundane work. After all, many of these jobs don’t even require a college degree, let alone a degree from Amherst. But I think this kind of thinking reveals a collective bias. We see the world in credentialed terms, as though Amherst is a kind of fastpass, permitting us to skip the boring life paths. We assume that certain jobs are “right” for Amherst graduates, which implies that other jobs are “wrong.”

But for me, mundane jobs have a profound appeal. Amherst presents students with a cloistered life of privilege. Many students have known nothing else. I myself grew up in a college town with a prosperous, upper-middle-class family. Working full-time in a mundane job means becoming a part of new communities, gaining new perspectives, and (to borrow one friend’s term) seeing the world through new epistemological paradigms.

Yet while my own attraction to mundane jobs comes from my life of privilege, I think the impulse extends still farther. Consider the vast popularity of games like “Animal Crossing” or “Stardew Valley” that offer the player the chance to fulfill mundane tasks in a predictable world. In an ever more complex world, it’s only natural to seek out simplicity.

At the same time, mundane jobs can improve the mentalities of many alumni. Many aspects of the Amherst experience, from admissions to academics, encourage students to cultivate a toxic form of all-consuming ambition. We tend to define ourselves in terms of the school we go to, or later on, in terms of our careers. In that way, we mirror our wider society, where a successful career is the ultimate triumph. Yet ambition (at least as defined today) too often leads to disillusionment, stress, and burnout. In 2021, a shocking 52 percent of U.S. workers reported feeling burnt-out. You might blame that on the pandemic, except that the pre-Covid number was a still-stratospheric 43 percent. Of course, mundane jobs can also be stressful, but for Amherst graduates, they also offer a reprieve from the corrosive mentality of eternal advancement.

Taking a mundane job doesn’t mean giving up forever on living an impactful life. Many great thinkers have spent long years working in mundane careers. An entire generation of academics participated in World War II as soldiers or factory workers or mechanics. The work wasn’t an interruption of their academic growth, but a transformative supplement. If you choose to return to the world of competitive high-flyers, working mundane jobs can enrich you and prepare you for a greater impact.  

But I think there’s an argument to be made for mundane jobs as an end in themselves. Amherst teaches us vocational skills like biology, writing, coding, etc., but it also teaches us how to be aware of those around us, how to be part of a community. In short, Amherst teaches us how to be a good person. These skills are at least as applicable to a mundane job as they are to a fancy gig in New York or D.C. In fact, the more focused you are at using your vocational skills, the more likely you are to see the other aspects of college as just incidental experiences, rather than lessons. By removing the temptation of burying yourself in vocational skills, mundane jobs provide an opportunity to tap into the humility and empathy college also taught you. Thus, a mundane job is not a betrayal or dismissal of your college experience, but a culmination of it.  

I know that mundane jobs aren’t for every Amherst graduate. I’m not even sure mundane jobs are the best choice for me — undergraduates look at every job, mundane or otherwise, through a romantic lens. But regardless of where each of us ends up, we must never define the lives of our peers in terms of careers. When we all reassemble on campus for our fifth, 10th, or 20th-year reunion, I have no doubt that comparing jobs will be a hot topic of discussion. But let’s approach our classmates with some empathy, and accept that everyone walks their own path. What could be more Amherst than that?

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