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Elite Disillusionment (saffronhuang.com)
106 points by apsec112 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments

I didn't do University until late 20s. And it was a C level state school. But darn it, it was the best 3.5 years of the best bang for buck dollars spent. My major was pure math. I loved it. No boss. No office BS. Just me and my homework. I came to love English the subject I sucked at throughout K-12. I'm forever grateful to Judy Newland (if memory serves that's her name) for holding the line on writing. She told me my semester English paper was a total F. Thank god by my 20s I'd matured enough to stop making excuses. For the first time I took the criticism and asked how can I fix it? Five drafts later I got a C and improved from there in time and more classes. I aced literature classes. I still remember laughing out loud during an Enlightenment Lit final about a quote from Voltaire (satire, "Candide"). Folks, second chances are great. I needed it. And when you're ready to grow Harvard may be great but so are many state Universities too. That's why I tell my older son who's in university now that it's more like a mirror. If you're on fire it'll reflect that back to you. And if you're just passing through uni will be a ok Las Vegas weekend at best: in-out-done as there was no long term vision anyway. I'm less and less convinced that human organizations can light kids up. We gotta come lit up and some hard knocks often helps get that fire started.

There's something you capture that I find interesting about the university system.

> She told me my semester English paper was a total F. Thank god by my 20s I'd matured enough to stop making excuses

I remember being laser focused on grades, so concerned about my ability to deliver on the assessments that sometimes (Especially in those high credit load semesters) I would completely shirk the academic duty of seeking understanding if there was an easier equivalent to get the same grade. It became "I can read half of three books and synthesize a passable Frankenstein's monster".

It wasn't often that I sat down and focused on why this type of self-improvement (I was a good student, but not the greatest), the type of self-improvement which is only motivated by someone actually saying "This sucks" to your face and you trusting that they are telling the truth. I think the only saving grace was my lack of vision [0], ironically, as it forced me to do way more work which naturally forced me to apply myself more vigorously.

> I'm less and less convinced that human organizations can light kids up. We gotta come lit up and some hard knocks often helps get that fire started

For me, it was often my peers that aided in this. I took a few classes where it was much more focused on working as a cohort [1], and those situations connected me far more intimately with the material. I think one of the greatest parts of university that many of the incoming cohort will miss initially is the ability to form the type of peer groups in classes I was able to, which proved to be hugely impactful on my ability to learn the knowledge [2].

[0] two majors, done mostly sequentially in my 4 years at state school

[1] No curves are one example of the type of policy that facilitates this

[3] Or get research jobs, extracurriculars. Especially as as a first generation student who had no clue what they were navigating and a familial support system that did not have the expertise

> I would completely shirk the academic duty of seeking understanding if there was an easier equivalent to get the same grade.

This is rational behavior in mass education systems where grades are important for future success. It's an example of Goodhart's law in action, I suppose.

It was only in my late 20s that I came to understand the true purpose of writing essays, and why essays are so frequently used as a form of assessment. All through my actual education I focused on maximizing my grades while minimizing the effort I expended.

I've been meaning to write an essay on this subject for a while.

But grades aren't important for success, they're important for opportunity. The student with lower grades may lose out on some opportunities, or only get access to them later, but if they've gained better understanding (while a student) of the material, they'll be better off in the long run than the person acing every test and homework, primarily by cramming and forgetting in a week.

Once you get a job, your grades barely matter anymore. And after several positions and a few years in the field, no one is likely to ask for your transcript.

> But grades aren't important for success, they're important for opportunity.

A fair distinction, yes.

> The student with lower grades may lose out on some opportunities, or only get access to them later, but if they've gained better understanding (while a student) of the material, they'll be better off in the long run than the person acing every test and homework, primarily by cramming and forgetting in a week.

I'd like to believe this, but I don't think it's true. Prestige, connections, and opportunity costs are too significant to ignore.

> Once you get a job, your grades barely matter anymore. And after several positions and a few years in the field, no one is likely to ask for your transcript.

True, but at a large enough company you'll participate in a performance review system in which you'll regularly be given a literal grade which influences your career trajectory. Goodhart's law comes into effect again.

Goodhart's law comes in because students who do not deserve good grades still can get them via other means besides than the professor intended. Hence grades become less trustworthy (they might lack understanding but "hacked" their way through via cramming etc). However understanding the material also leads to good grades. It's not like there's a trade-off there where students must choose one and thereby lose the other.

Opportunities are very often just thresholds you have to cross. Once you get a job, not only your grades barely matter anymore, but also most of your knowledge and experience. Companies are very bad at evaluating individual contribution, so it's much easier to stay in than to get in.

Or, in picture form: imagining you start on the left of the graph and can move along the curve to the right, reality isn't like this:

   ^            -------
   |           /
   |   -------/
   |--------------------> Salary
but rather, it's like this:

   |           /\
   |   -------/  \------
   |--------------------> Salary
And that little fence to cross is mostly looking at your grades, not actual understanding.

It’s all about the opportunity. If you are competing with someone for a promotion, the easiest way to win is to deny them the opportunity to excel. Have seen this again and again. That is why there are always battles for projects.

"Candide" is bizarre, surprisingly many laugh-out-loud moments in that book.

It's especially apt today, because we are living in the best of all possible worlds.

Would have been a game changer I’d I didn’t start college until age 25 when the male brain is fully formed. Pros and cons, since you do delay 7 years of entry level earning but it would have been a very different experience! Perhaps even just 1-2 yr gap year gets a similar affect!

What did you do after?

I find a lot of the skepticism and disillusionment rather unwarranted and whiny. I went to a well regarded public college for Undergrad. I am now at one of the most well regarded private colleges in the country. I can absolutely see the difference in the quality of instruction and opportunities afforded to Undergrads here compared to my public college. A lot of this seems to be much ado about nothing.

To add some context, I'm an immigrant to the US. I came here for opportunity. A lot of people are uncomfortable with what that means. It isn't some Eddie Murphy "Welcome to America" kumbaya, happy-go-lucky thing. I came here with my family to out work and out compete everyone for the shot at a better life. If you look at any STEM class, as opposed to any non-STEM class, the makeup of people in those classes in both Undergrad, and especially Graduate levels, is much closer to being representative of people who look like me rather than the general public/college demographics. In immigrant populations there is no disillusionment with the elite institutions in America, and more broadly, the American Dream.

The experiences of the author are not "unwarranted", they are as valid as yours, and their intention to change the world is a noble one and doesn't discredit your path. The author mentiones how the environment at Harvard may tend to limit options in the students' lifes and noted how the "Auckland kids" back home started companies (among other things), i.e. one of the best ways to achieve the classic "American Dream", particularly for immigrants.

Similar scepticism is expressed in many other articles and blog posts these days, questioning the value of traditional and often expensive university education.

But wouldn't you think an "Auckland kid" would fair better as a "Harvard kid" given the same ambitions with better opportunities and greater access?

Ivy League affiliates enjoy the privileges of being branded Ivy League all their lives. And the schools are pretty great to boot.

To me the original article was asking the following questions:

Did I have to come to Harvard to do what I want?

Why don't more people make use of their Ivy League privileges?

Why isn't Harvard doing more good for society?

Which does sound a bit whiny, I would think, especially to an Auckland Kid. The takeaway for me, was that there should be more Auckland Kids at Harvard, and that OP here is more of an Auckland Kid. He's saying there is little to complain about if this is what you came for, and that it should have been.

On the other hand, the author of the article presents valid criticism about Harvard Kids and Harvard, but appears also to be closer to the Harvard Kid than the Auckland Kids she seems to admire. Sometimes it takes one to know the others and where you are at.

But at least there are some Auckland Kids in the Ivy Leagues. And I would bet you there are some Harvard Kids in Auckland too that never made it to Harvard.

I think Harvard kid vs Auckland kid is a false dichotomy. The article makes the argument that there is no difference before college. Harvard takes in kids who would have been Auckland kids and changes them into something else, and that's a problem.

Anecdotally, I've seen similar at the top private school that I went to. I had to give up on idealistic things I did in high school, and would have otherwise continued doing in college, because of the workload I experienced at school.

The "Auckland kid" is the entrepreneur here. And no, I don't believe Harvard would ruin an entrepreneur that would have succeeded otherwise. And they would have attractive alternatives.

Everyone changes, especially in college. Regardless of the school, one can easily assess them the blame, but some of it has to be on you, especially at an age when you should stop making excuses.

With that said, the work load can be absurd, some peers are arrogant and elitist, some teachers are total assholes, and not everything is fair or makes sense. Although, that's true at varying degrees at any school.

You're fighting tooth and nail for that shot at a better life and that's admirable. But I think the author has different aspirations. Those ideas of "changing the world" are perhaps born out of the privilege of at the very least getting to call a first world country their home, but I think they're still worth discussing - though any changes proposed must not close doors to people like you.

With all due respect, while I know that you didn't mean to come across as such, some may find those comments a bit patronizing. My "fighting tooth and nail" isn't complete when I went from a 3rd World existence to a 1st World existence. I'm very much here to win "in the big leagues". Without trying to sound too much like a Bond villain, I too am seeking to change the world in ways that I think are meaningful, without giving a damn what others think. I too have aspirations of being at the top of the world and molding it into the way that I think that it should be. I find the ideas of people who approach the world with this discontentment, which seems sophomoric to me instead of insightful, to be rather milquetoast. The elite are disillusioned because they're comfy. They convince themselves that they need to derive more meaning and get caught up in the performative nature of their life which is directly a result of their privilege. Most people who actually do change the world, at least in a capitalistic manner, bring an edge and killer instinct, often refusing to accept that they're not the best, or even if they aren't that they are required to act differently in accordance. This whole story came across to me as someone who folded at the first sign of any self-inflected psychological query. Much of the rest of the world would kill to get to Harvard, whether for the pure reasons of seeking knowledge at the world's most renowned college, or to play the game of life to get ahead.

I want to also bring up one more observation that addresses the psychological aspect that the author addressed when he said elite colleges close doors psychologically, by describing manual work as beneath them. I've gotten to know some people who come from the world of the elites, and I've found it farcical and disturbing how often people do performative bullshit like send their kids to work construction jobs in the summers before college to learn about things like "the meaning of hard work". If I was to send my hypothetical children to work in construction, it'd be to learn construction with the view of deriving real world capitalistic value from it, not as some performative mind-body exercise.

John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, said:

"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

This quote illustrates to me perfectly why wealth is typically destroyed in 3 generations, or at least why that stereotype exists. The rigor and knowledge disappears as the elites become more concerned with the optics of what they are doing, instead of the actual work at hand. It's precisely why I brought up my lens of being an immigrant. My future kids will probably never have the hunger and edge with which I work, but I hope to distill in them rigor, and hope that they can bring that intensity that I still lack today.

You're right and I apologize for my comment.

Hey! No need to apologize! Just wanted to offer you a different perspective.

Gotta like a guy who's present, working, driven, and competent. That'll deal with the first 65% of the issues (security eg. housing, food, decent education for kids etc). But that last 35% is very different kind of tough and it does not succumb to "work harder bark louder." For an interesting example in film consider [0] with HG Wells and P. Newman. Ultimately the son is accepted by the father, but at what cost? Balance is ... the toughest master of all.


One of the issues this piece gets to is so big it is easy to miss. Kids, essentially, are getting walked through the accumulated written knowledge of humanity (well, large chunks thereof since the whole written knowledge is rather large).

And on the one hand it is good to do that before they are 25 because their brain will still be developing and it is a great time to be pushing in new knowledge. On the other hand the school system is so large and slow the good students probably don't have a lot of real-world grounding to figure out what they are interested in or what the education is useful for and it is much easier for a more mature student to enjoy an education and think critically.

Also; this article doesn't mention debt. That is linked to these people taking high-paid, low risk jobs. I had a friend who went to Harvard and the costs sounded crippling.

More than half of students are on financial aid and the average aid at Harvard is $53k per year. Only the really wealthy pay full sticker, so I don't think debt at Ivy Leagues is generally an issue. It seems they are really best-placed to take risks.

I like your point about required maturity. Certainly many of my texts read in high school English need to be revisited. Maybe students should be cycled in and out of formal education.

And Harvard doesn't even need to charge tuition with its endowment.

Elite University is not about the learning for many people, it's the networking and jumpstart up the ladder? If you want to learn, even pedestrian University and community colleges can do what you need but sometimes what you buy is not education but a 'foot in the door'.

The point of the article is that Harvard and other such universities do get your foot in some special doors, but that those doors are mostly to self-serving jobs that enforce the status quo. Noam Chomsky was right to constantly point out that it is elites who are most “indoctrinated” in the sense that they have to be taught to disregard the general public interest.

I went to Harvard in the early 90's. The difference between the diverse interests and ambitions of entering freshmen and what 90% of my classmates ended up doing with their careers (law, medicine, some kind of asset mgt, academia) is profound.

Harvard is as much of a safe space as taking an obvious career choice.

I was expecting a mention of Peter Turchin, though I guess this is a more human approach. Huang's mention of exclusivity for some reason jumped out at me. So much of the college experience seems to be designed around a false scarcity be it pointlessly exclusive clubs, waitlists for seats in corona induced remote learning, semesters as the only amount of time you have to understand a subject or even the idea of grades as proxies for understanding. And it's strange how much fuel this provides both sides of the political aisle...

Even in the comments to this article, I'm seeing both populist right anti-elite links and populist left analysis framing the college experiences in terms of class...

Not sure I'm making sense, I'm kind of just writing this out as a form of thinking out loud...

> So much of the college experience seems to be designed around a false scarcity be it pointlessly exclusive

Exclusivity is a hell of a drug. It's what gave in big part the large initial push to Facebook (being first available only to top universities in the US and then expanding).

It's also what luxury brands try to communicate (even though in reality they also try to be as massive and non-exclusive as possible, all the while staying very expensive).

Exclusivity drives FOMO.

> People get there, and realise that they’re not the best, the smartest, or the most hard-working anymore.

At USNA, we said: "You're always someone's boy", meaning: "No matter how great you are at X, there is always someone who can school you."

I dont understand why anyone would foster that defeatist message. Sounds as hollow as most us vs them mantras.

Success and opportunity is not as likely to depend on what metric someone is "best" as who has the right opportunity at the right time while having a broad set of skills (almost any level of expertise).

Less “defeatist” and more “humbling”.

Nailed it.

"If you're the smartest person in the room, find a better room" is popular in my circle :)

Based on the title I was expecting an essay that honestly examines the root cause of the anti-establishment, anti-intellectual and anti-elitism slow-rate backlash we are experiencing, and I am not entirely disappointed with this.

Saffron is still in school. This is patronizing, but she doesn't know anything about real disillusionment yet.

Real disillusionment comes after the elite education.

The stuff that crushes your spirit comes later when you go to work at a FAANG and realize that the modern tech sector is fueled not by lofty ideals of innovation and altruistic visions of technological utopia, but by the same cynical profiteering, exploitation and rent-seeking as every other capitalist enterprise.

Your attitude changes once you understand that the high-paying tech sector jobs you spent years of your life training to perform all require you to compromise your beliefs about what is good/fair/just. The jobs require you to build things which hurt people for people who only care about money. Imagine working 40-60 hours a week to make good money doing something you know is at best a complete waste of time and talent.

Real disillusionment comes after you've lived in San Francisco for a while and you realize everyone you know also works in tech and thinks, looks and talks the same way you do and likes the same things you do. And maybe on your way to work at the glossy tech campus that gives you free lunch that your coworkers are always complaining about you pass a tent city littered with needles and human shit.

Eventually you realize that an enormous number of the public figures who went to your university and succeeded in "changing the world" didn't change it for the better. And you may wonder if a lot of the things you've been told about meritocracy and the virtues of intelligence and achievement and wealth accumulation are true at all.

> The jobs require you to build things which hurt people for people who only care about money.

Can you please elaborate on this bit more? How is FANAG hurting people?

Eroding privacy, driving "attention economy" addictions, promoting the shallowest content, influencing politics, devastating small businesses, and ruining mental health mainly.

Well everyone I knew at Google saw those problems and explicitly worked to improve those things. I didn't see a single message or objective to hurt those things. So I don't see how you have to compromise your ideals to work there, most people don't and Google encourage people to work to fix those problems so Google gladly welcomes them.

I'm not suggesting that people at any of the FAANG companies do those things on purpose. Those aren't the company goals. Even I wouldn't go that far. I'm saying that those things are outcomes of building systems to do mass surveillance to drive advertising or sell phones or broadcast information.

People at FAANG companies may well strive to minimise the negative impact of their activities but it clearly doesn't work very well given, well, /me gestures broadly at the tech industry.

In a coal power corporation, you will not find anyone who actively promotes pollution. It is merely a side effect of their normal business.

Some people take longer than others to fall into disillusionment. Some never do. The people who work at a place are generally the ones who survived this selection process. The disillusioned have all walked away from Omelas [1].

[1] https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf

But Google tracks people - their primary business is to identify individuals, and follow their activities online and in the physical world.

This information is then used to judge, to predict, to sell and more.

Their profits are enormous, so useful new services are created, but coincidentally they involve new ways to track.

I think this makes it worse.

You have companies full of smart people working hard who want to make the world a better place -- and the result is still eroding privacy, driving "attention economy" addictions, promoting the shallowest content, influencing politics, devastating small businesses, and ruining mental health.

Not because that's what some of the people working there want. (In that case you could at least think "OK, I'll work extra smart and hard, get to the top, and change things for the better.") But because that's what the system as a whole produces, even when the individuals in it don't want that.

See also: Slate Star Codex's "Meditations on Moloch", https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/ .

This sounds like it is written by someone who has never worked at a large tech company, and understands them primarily through the FUD spread about them by other large tech companies.

Not in my experience. Modern “tech” companies are underpinned by advertising. It has a corrosive nature which rots the very core; employer and employee alike.

It really doesn’t. It sounds super detailed and convincing to me, somebody who knows nothing to prove or refute GPS comment. If it’s a lie, god damn it’s a good one.

All of the large tech companies create valuable and beloved products, and most of the people workings at those companies are working on improving and maintaining those beloved products.

This is not my view from the outside, not even close. Perhaps it’s a perception issue.

Which part do you disagree with? The fact that the products are beloved, or the fact that people are working to improve them?

I've worked on beloved products and I also disagree. These orgs are full of cutthroat psychopathic politicians much more than people who care about the products. They often run on their monopoly status and fail to create any new value.

Does it? How so?

If you're unsatisfied with the state of the industry, do better.

Pretty remarkable that the "elites" are still demanding pity (or at minimum asking people to discuss their "disillusionment") but there's nary a peep for people like me who didn't have the privilege of membership in elite institutions.

What do I get? All I see is constant disrespect from society and from places like HackerNews. Where's the sympathy for a state school grad like me struggling to get a top job, or struggling to be taken seriously?

I don't see anything about "demanding pity" in that article? The gist of his argument is that, instead of using their incredible accumulations of wealth and talent to change the world, elite schools are mostly churning out options traders and management consultants whose careers will be spent squeezing 0.1% extra profit for some even richer dude, and that's a pity (for the world, not the well-paid people doing the work).

I'm a state school grad without much desire for a job at a prestigious FAANG company. I do not feel any disrespect from HN or from people I meet on the street. Is that really your constant experience?

I work at a FAANG (albeit the least respected one) and yes, I do feel this way.

Consider switching. (Maybe even just within your company, if you like the place)

Working at FAANG as well, for ~10 years now, and nobody has ever given a lick about my degree. Good thing too, because I don't have one :) Neither do plenty of colleagues. There are plenty of colleagues from state schools too. AFAICT - nobody really cares, so it's not discussed that often.

It's not a big question when evaluating interviews or hiring, either. (I've seen by now a high three-digit number of interviews)

And, seriously: Get rid of that handle. You're telling yourself a story every time you see it.

I think it's fine. I just think since I make 80% of what an equivalent Googler makes, I'm probably valued at 80% or less as a human.

Realistically I don't think many people care deeply, but the folks I'm being surrounded by definitely didn't go to Ivies. I think they're just fine and I don't mind working where I work, but it's clear to me that I'm not regarded highly (or as intelligent) as a person by society. The worst part is I feel stuck and trapped by my own inherent ability as a person.

Mate, please seek help. This will eat you from within and you will suffer even more later. It pains me to imagine that. I also see your username is in the same vein as your message. The more you talk to yourself in that manner, the more it becomes your reality. I sincerely hope that you find a way to break out of that cycle of thought and I hope you find a fulfilling path forward.

Pls get help from a therapist. This is a story you’re telling yourself and it is toxic. It is not grounded in the external world. And this is not something which can be exited without someone else’s help. I’ve been where you are.

With all due respect, your accomplishments even before college (since you went to Cornell) were far more significant than my own (and almost definitely more significant than mine will ever be). I’m not sure how I can use the help of a therapist if the cause is just a lack of actual accomplishments.

Please allow me to address that in a different way: How do you intend to make such accomplishments come true unless you permit yourself to have a mindset which enables you to believe in yourself and work towards them?

The multiple replies you have here are well meaning and are trying to say that you need to at least be able to look at things from another perspective.

As for how a therapist can help: a good one is trained to allow you to see your own thought process and ask yourself questions about them. A good therapist has also probably seen many cases and has some education, training and experience in how to help people break out of some unhelpful cycles of thought. It is not an easy job and not every therapist suits every patient. Nevertheless, with the right therapist, if one is committed to improving one's own health, things can start getting better.

Please don't give up and have faith in yourself. I can not deny what you see as problems. However, please allow me to question if the way you are looking at them is unavoidable and whether it helps you find a path to somewhere else (figuratively speaking) where you'd rather be instead.

...80% of what an equivalent Googler makes...

This is still pretty OK, when compared to the average human being.

The point that stuck out to me which I haven't seen people comment on is the difference noted between those who stayed close to home vs. somebody who travels across the world for prestige. It's a fact that dependability matters. Somebody who will leave you or your community for something that seems 'better' to them is a constant issue in our culture.

Interesting thought about closing doors rather than opening. With Elite schools it is almost a burden that everyone gets a choice of great 6 figure jobs on graduation. Its the guys that dont get those have the most freedom to do real innovative stuff.

Anyone who needs a job in a capitalist economy is by definition not elite.

This article is weird. It was published in six months ago, but the author recently expanded on the argument in a piece for Palladium[0]. Palladium of course being the Thiel-funded long form magazine co-founded by alt-right anti-semite Jonah Bennett[1], who has since moved on from the magazine. What's interesting is that while the blogpost feels like a more personal narrative about disillusionment with a specific institution (Harvard), the Palladium article concludes with a much more concrete point: "Elite stagnation," "institutional decay," etc.

Which is to say, fair cop. HYP+MS produce too many consultants, finance bros and tech PMs is not exactly a unique POV. What is interesting to me is that Palladium has seemed to have cornered the market on "Student/new grad disillusioned with <elite institution>" articles[2].

Apsec112, is there a reason you decided to post this older blogpost rather than the more recent publication?



[2]honestly too many to list: https://palladiummag.com/2019/08/05/the-real-problem-at-yale..., https://palladiummag.com/2019/01/07/western-academias-activi..., https://palladiummag.com/2020/06/18/the-new-managerial-class...

This is an interesting, thoughtful and highly relatable read.

But I can't help thinking that the title should, more accurately, be "Elite Illusionment" :)

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