“I’m really smart. I’m talented. I work hard. Heck, I’m graduating from Harvard. So why isn’t the world making way?”
Those were my thoughts nearly twenty years ago as I prepared to embark on my life as a Harvard graduate. I had done my share and now it was time for the world to do its share. Wasn’t that the contract? I excelled in my education. I worked hard. I strived to do better. I even graduated from the world’s top university. In a world that promised to reward brains, talent, and hard work I was supposed to be home free. Someone, somewhere was responsible for carrying out the world’s end of the bargain and hand me the roles and jobs that I craved. I had earned it. I was entitled to it. No?
No, I learned. The world tarried. No one called. No one knocked on my door. No message had come demanding my immediate presence at the helm. It took me five years of running spreadsheets in consulting and investing to realize that I had fallen victim to the malady that was contracted by so many of our youngest and brightest: The Red Carpet Syndrome.
The Red Carpet Syndrome is the sense of entitlement that comes not from wealth or lineage, but of merit. Yes, even merit can lead to entitlement.
I had fallen pray to the belief that brains, talent, and hard work would naturally lead me to occupy the roles and places that I thought I merited. I believed that once I had completed my duties to the gods of merit – good grades, good schools, hard work – they would roll out the red carpet for me. I would then walk it daintily, landing softly into the couch of my dream job.
It took me five long years to snap out of it. And I am one of the lucky ones. Others are not so fortunate. So many spend a lifetime waiting for the red carpet to be rolled out. They wait for the phone call that never arrives, for the invitation that never comes, for the note that tells them that the world has taken notice and is now prepared to give them their due. Over time they become bitter adults. They stand by as they witness a bunch of bozos (in their view) assume the roles of Senators, Congressmen, Fortune 500 CEO’s, movie stars, and best-selling authors. The more these “bozos” ascend, the more those plagued by The Red Carpet Syndrome retreat into their sense of having been the victims of a grave injustice. Like Esau, they feel they have been robbed of their rightful bequest.
Others wither slowly in jobs and careers they never chose, simply because those were the only places that rolled out the red carpet for them. I do not know a single teenager who dreams of becoming a consultant or investment banker. I doubt there is a single teenager who knows what consultants or investments bankers do. Yet, out of my graduating class of sixteen hundred at Harvard College, eight hundred had applied to consulting firms and investment banks. In a school that prides itself on diversity, this makes no sense, unless you are aware that consulting firms and investment banks are the only ones that do roll out the red carpet. They wine and dine the students. They tell them how great they are. The students only need to apply. And, so thousands of students from top universities across America seek jobs they never knew they wanted, only because they do not know how to get the ones they have always dreamed of. Decades later they wake up, withered inside, having spent a lifetime doing what they never wanted to do; their teenage dreams and ambitions all but a sad memory.
The lucky ones snap out of it. They learn that in this world, and in this life, no one invites anyone to anything. They realize that the jobs worth having, the roles worth playing, the places worth leading do not roll out the red carpet for anyone. These places don’t know who you are and they don’t care. There are no rules for success, no trodden paths to the top. Unless your goal in life is to become an upper middle class professional, nothing is guaranteed. Anything worth doing requires risk, misery, repeated failure (of the real kind, not the fake kind your write about in your college application essay), and humiliating self-promotion. You might even run the risk of regretting not having taken the safe path – but you will be alive.
So snap out of it. Forget the red carpet. There is but one rule for living your own life, and no one else’s: If you want to attend the party, crash it. I did.