Dec. 08, 2023
By: Larry Dong
It was 1 am, past midnight on Saturday at my dorm’s study lounge. My friend and I had just finished a project, and we were ready to take a break after our exhausting work session. Our choice of leisure? Looking at people’s LinkedIn profiles.
“This guy’s so smart—he’s working at X company this summer!”
“This girl has leadership positions in these clubs and organizations. She’s for sure going to recruit well!”
People still hard at work in the lounge were now finishing up and leaving. We scrolled through countless profiles as the lights in the corridor gradually shut off and the last people packed their bags. Soon, our voices were the only ones that could be heard as we found ourselves admiring the achievements of our peers and upperclassmen. I was inspired by seeing their success but also worried about my own destiny.
Courtesy of Larry Dong
Since the beginning of my freshman year, I remember the ambition almost all of us shared as we first stepped foot onto Gould Plaza. My new friends whom I met through our cohort shared our interests and aspirations, whether it’d be “getting ahead of the rest of Stern” or “networking with the people at Goldman Sachs.”
However, things would soon change as I got to know more about what it takes to be successful. Whether it’d be applying to selective clubs and organizations on campus, networking with professionals, preparing for the next interview, or searching for the next internship opportunity, there was always more work we could do, and more avenues we could take to set ourselves apart and stand out. Because of this, in pursuing success and prestige, college students often find themselves walking a tightrope between ambition and burnout.
Picture this: you've got academics, leadership roles, and job applications all stacked up, and the pressure to shine in every department is, well, a lot. The academic and extracurricular scene is like an expensive all-you-can-handle buffet, and everyone is trying to get a bite. The constant chase for gold-star excellence might feel rewarding, but it comes with a hefty side of stress and anxiety. It's like we're stuck in this loop of never feeling good enough, no matter how hard we hustle, because there’s always someone who gets higher grades, has more work experience, and is better at networking.
While our ambitions were fueled by genuine desires for personal and professional growth, the external factors, especially marketing schemes that stir our fears up, shape our perceptions of success.
We all have needs that we strive to fulfill, and marketing influences us to recognize those needs in a way that can be profitable for our companies. Psychologist Abraham Maslow categorized these needs into a hierarchy, which classifies them based on their necessity to our well-being. At the bottom of this hierarchy, and fundamental to our survival, are physiological and safety needs, including food, water, and shelter. However, above these two categories are needs of belongingness, ego, and self-actualization, which could be almost essential to our well-being as well.
Enter LinkedIn, the digital arena where accomplishments are showcased, and comparisons are inevitable. The platform subtly markets an idealized version of success, fostering an environment where one's achievements are meticulously curated for public scrutiny. This makes people think that their needs on multiple levels are unsatisfied, as people seek acceptance from others for belonging, prioritize prestige to fuel their self-esteem, and ultimately feel as if they haven’t reached their full potential. As we scrolled through profiles that night, LinkedIn's influence became palpable. It wasn't just about celebrating success; it was about presenting success in a way that triggers comparison and often, self-doubt. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, a study involving 5,000 participants revealed a correlation between increased social media usage and self-reported declines in mental and physical health, as well as reduced life satisfaction.
Moreover, LinkedIn uses this fear of potentially losing out on job opportunities when marketing LinkedIn Premium. For example, users may get messages like “hiring managers are noticing you” and “achieve your goals faster with Premium,” which are prevention-focused marketing strategies that incite the urgency of slipping opportunities. Those who purchase Premium will have access to better networking perks, an abundance of statistics and insights, as well as other work preparation tools that could potentially be beneficial. Furthermore, LinkedIn highlights that there are “millions of others” that use Premium, which also contributes to social pressure and the fear of missing out. After all, no one would want to lose out on a potential career or networking opportunity right? Not only can the meticulously crafted profiles leave us subtly anxious about measuring up, but they can also sell another product that takes advantage of it.
Courtesy of Larry Dong
As we navigate this chaos, trying to juggle ambitions and our sanity, it makes you wonder: is it really worth it? The college journey is supposed to be about growth and having meaningful experiences, not a relentless pursuit that leaves us feeling burnt out. Is it time to rethink the game?
From my experience, the answer to that complicated question is “yes, but no.” Some may suggest that wealth and material possessions can bring us joy. In contrast, Buddhism and Stoicism suggest that the chase for external goods will always feel underwhelming, while happiness can be more easily cultivated from within, by erasing attachments to material possessions and developing a mindset of acceptance. Whatever might seem more appealing, the answer for most is likely somewhere in between.
So why do so many people still strive for material possessions? The quest for external validation, recognition, and success mirrors the consumerist culture perpetuated by societal pressures. Platforms like LinkedIn can take advantage of this and continue to create stress, bolstered by their marketing strategies. The pursuit of the next big achievement – these are not just personal battles but reflections of broader societal narratives. The reality is that the pleasure of fulfilling our desires is often fleeting. Imagine this: every waking hour is dedicated to relentless work, fueled by the imagination of success. When that success finally materializes, there's a fleeting moment of euphoria, a day at most. As success becomes increasingly anticipated, the prevailing emotion is often one of relief rather than genuine happiness.
The question then becomes: can we redefine success in a way that aligns more with internal contentment and personal growth and escape from the fear marketing of platforms like LinkedIn? To truly understand this, it is crucial to understand two important concepts.
Firstly, the pleasure resulting from pursuing goals isn’t necessarily attributable to the destination, but the journey. Psychologist Richard Davidson, known for his work on affective style and the approach circuits of the front left cortex, distinguishes between two types of positive affect: "pre-goal attainment positive affect," the pleasure derived from progress toward a goal, and "post-goal attainment positive affect," characterized by contentment and a brief sense of release when the left prefrontal cortex reduces activity upon goal achievement (qtd. in Haidt). Because pleasure is derived from progress, it’ll likely be more fulfilling as we work towards our goals as opposed to when we’ve accomplished them.
The next important concept to understand is that we tend to overestimate our satisfaction from positive situations and underestimate our ability to adapt to negative circumstances. In the realm of the best and worst scenarios, winning a $20-million lottery jackpot or facing paralysis from the neck down encapsulates extremes. The lottery signifies liberation from concerns, opening avenues for dream pursuits and comfortable living. Conversely, paralysis introduces severe constraints, reliance on others, and the potential sacrifice of life goals. While the prevailing notion suggests a preference for death over paralysis, the reality is more nuanced. Adaptation, often underestimated in affective forecasting, plays a crucial role. Within a year, both lottery winners and paraplegics tend to return to baseline happiness levels, showcasing the human capacity for adjustment. Lottery windfalls bring temporary joy but fade as new comforts become the norm, and relationships may suffer. Paraplegics experience an initial happiness decline but, being more responsive to changes than absolute levels, adapt and find satisfaction in the progress. Thus, if we were to let opportunities slip away because we didn’t purchase LinkedIn premium, we’d likely find ways to adapt. Just because we don’t have access to the best insights or we lose access to some profiles doesn’t mean the end of our careers.
With that in mind, we get a better understanding of what actually matters, and subsequently, how we can be happier. Perhaps pursuing creative projects and hobbies, fostering new and old relationships, or dedicating ourselves to a cause or belief system that we resonate with could be what gives us purpose. The ambiguity lies in the uniqueness of each person's journey toward happiness, acknowledging that what works for one may not necessarily work for another. Embracing this subjectivity allows individuals to craft a happiness narrative that aligns with their authentic selves and help escape the trap of fear marketing.
Courtesy of Larry Dong
While the allure of finding that dream job is still there, why not enjoy and trust in the process? Working on case competitions with a group of friends, discussing differences of opinion, and witnessing the fruits of our labor materialize onto a slide deck felt more satisfying than actually presenting our case and potentially returning victorious. Spending time with others while mock interviewing each other, having late-night study sessions at Bobst, and having new and exciting experiences as we explore New York City are just a few examples of what we often overlook as we fixate on the next big step in our lives.
Ultimately, the way success is promoted can be both misleading and inspiring. There’s always another more appealing, better-paying job or career path. There always could be a higher number rounded to the hundredth decimal out of 4.00 on the bottom line of our transcripts. Consider defining success by your own standards, beyond the conventional metrics. Maybe it's about the impact you make, the genuine connections you form, or the personal growth you achieve. As we navigate this journey, let's not forget that the most valuable achievements often lie in the intangible moments of joy, laughter, and fulfillment.
After all, it's not about what you have under your LinkedIn Experience section, but the journey it took to get there.
Larry Dong is a sophomore studying Finance and Data Science at NYU Stern. In his free time, he delves into social media content creation and music production, and actively seeks promising Pokémon card investments.