Renaissance or Bust
I'm selling my Harvard diploma // Beware the prestige industrial complex // The future is glorious, and the good times shall roll
The third decade of the twenty-first century is going to be a wild ride. There will be bad with the good—standard procedure here on Earth—but the pandemic and its concurrent demons have unwittingly provoked a backlash of human ingenuity that’s cracked through the ossified strata of work, technology, and more. New ways of living are possible not just because of accelerated tech adoption, but (perhaps more importantly) because the Overton window on how we arrange our lives has widened, at least for a brief moment.
You might even call this the roaring twenties, but instead of dumping your drink out in the plant during a prohibition raid you’re putting your plant out in the plant. The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?
And certainly one thing that hasn’t changed is the prestige industrial complex, that clot of secondary schools, post-secondary institutions, and brand-name corporations that Caitlin Flanagan and William Deresiewicz have already written about so well.
These are your Harvards, your Yales, your many consulting firms and law schools, and certain tech firms, among others.
They promise to identify and actualize the best and the brightest for fulfilling lives, but inevitably turn out legions of box-checking, rule-following, optionality-preserving, insecure, risk-averse, depressed, boring adults who just happen to control a good amount of the money and power in society.
But, the previous paragraph aside, this essay isn’t about burning the system down, because that’s a fool’s errand. It’s about freeing some of the people within it, because this marvelous decade is not the time to have one’s soul in a vice. I don’t seek revolution, but rather renaissance.
That’s why I’m auctioning off my Harvard diploma.
But before I get into the details of that, a story:
I went on a date with a nice-enough man after I moved to New York City in 2019. He’d gone to one of the fancier Ivies, and now worked for one of the fancier consulting firms in the city. After discussing his work for a bit over coffee, it became abundantly clear that he didn’t really like his job. But it was fine, he said, because it paid well and could set him up to work client-side in the future if he wanted to.
But what would he be doing client-side, I asked.
Internal consulting and strategy work, he said, without a hint of self-awareness.
But why didn’t he try to figure out what he actually did like, or like well enough, and do that instead, I asked.
He would do it eventually, he said.
Is that before or after he worked years at his current job, and then worked more years client-side, I asked.
Eventually, he insisted.
There was no second date.
Reader, he is still working that same job years later, with no sign of leaving. I would be shocked at his lack of urgency in finding a life worth living, especially with his advantages, if I hadn’t seen the same thing play out a hundred times already. Hell, I know tons of people with nice diplomas and curve-wrecking incomes who’ve been planning to leave their jobs for over a decade.
They don’t leave because, at the end of the day, they can’t allow themselves to risk their acquired prestige, which is another way of saying: they can’t risk losing external validation, the driving force of the prestige industrial complex. After all, prestige is nothing but the collective esteem of a certain group of people (and based on what people tend to find prestigious, they’re not very good at matching prestige with virtue or honor, or even intelligence).
The more closed-door conversations you have with these kinds of people, platonic or romantic, professional or casual, the more you see their impotence. More than just golden handcuffs, they’re living out Midas’s full horror while insisting that they can survive by eating gold alone.
But aren’t they supposed to be smart? One wonders. If they’re really the best, as their diplomas and incomes claim, why can’t they escape? Why can’t they carve their own path? Why don’t they even try? With all their ability and accumulated status, why don’t they work to end or reform the cultural systems and institutions that keep herding smart, ambitious, young people into dream lobotomies?
The answer varies by individual and context, but some of the principal reasons: moral cowardice, lack of imagination, the psychological conditioning of the prestige industrial complex, and some version of “you cannot make a man understand something his paycheck demands he not understand.”
But let us now return to the business of me selling my Harvard diploma.
First, I’m selling the diploma because it’s a way of standing up to be counted. A declaration of intention and affiliation, not to the institution that issued it or its brand, but to the ideals it’s supposed to have represented.
Second, it’s a renunciation of sorts, of the larger prestige industrial complex and what it does to people, how it deforms them while warping the larger world.
Once you’ve run into enough Harvard alumni (although you can substitute any number of institutions and companies here), you realize that the diploma is not a reliable indicator of quality, not only because its issuer admits individuals who aren’t academically rigorous, but because the institution itself incentivizes graduates to lower their own intellectual and personal quality by submitting to the narrow requirements of the prestige ecosystem.
And once you’ve realized this, the diploma starts to resemble Monopoly money. You have to start evaluating people on a case-by-case basis, instead of using the degree as a reliable proxy. Any solid currency can withstand a certain amount of counterfeit or devalued coins in circulation, but only to a point. And the prestige industrial complex, Harvard included, has been cutting its stock with cheap metal for a long while.
You want Elle Woods, but you get Warner Huntington III.
And finally, it’s a beacon to others of like mind, or those who might be. Life is more beautiful than I ever thought it could be growing up. Dreams more vivid, philosophies more enlightening, agency more invigorating. Heaven? No. Give me Earth.
But legions of you are trapped in lives that no longer inspire you, and you’re hemmed in by man-made psychological incentive structures that you accept by default. The light has gone out of your eyes, and—worse than giving up on changing the macroscopic world—you have given up on your individual world, your own happiness. If you’ve descended to the stage where you think “happiness” is a naive aim, you are possibly too far gone. For the rest of you: you’ve likely never known the full flower of radiant human joy, although you are intimately familiar with the sharp, brief highs of competitive victory in a game defined by others.
If this picture is foreign to you, then go about the life you enjoy and be well; I’m not trying to convince you that you hate your life if you don’t. But to many of you I am saying: at some point in your life, prestigious and high-paying as it might be, you will have a dark night of the soul. You will know it when it comes: you will resent your work, you'll question the whole system and wonder why humans should be made to live like this, and you’ll wonder why your coworkers—who do not enjoy their work—pitch it as an excellent career choice for others. You’ll wonder whose duplicity you despise more, theirs or yours.
When that time comes, know that you are correct.
You are having a proper reaction to your experience, an immune response of the spirit, because the system really is that bad.
You are not insane (rather it’s the world that’s gone mad), but you will be alone. Everyone around you will disproportionately tell you to deal with it, that it isn't really that bad, that the benefits are worth the costs, that you can leave in a few years if you want (but look around and see who really does, and in which manner).
Witness this, and see how far your ambition has truly fallen.
Many people, when they enter the world’s most prestigious schools and acclaimed companies, envision new and different realities, or at least a better life than the one they came from. They allow the social system and its incentives to carry them, and the result is so predictable as to be virtually inevitable. Those who were once capable of the most vivid dreams find their imagination and curiosity destroyed, and their expectations of joy replaced by the lukewarm gruel of prestige and zero-sum victories.
This essay isn't an explanation, it is an appeal. To whom? To those who recognize their own circumstances reflected back at them. Life can be otherwise. You can be happy and content, you can surround yourself with others who are happy, and the world can be made better for us all. How to do that is particular to each individual, but it’s been done reliably and repeatedly. The particulars are discrete, the methods general.
For many in my intended audience, the first key is setting yourself free from your credentials and meeting others who have done the same. Possessing a prestigious degree or a sterling resume can place a voice in your head that constantly asks, “I have a [name-brand pedigree], what will other people think if I [...]”, and it never gives a charitable forecast. Further, it punishes curiosity, independence, and a beginner’s mind by whispering, “If you try something new and fail, then what does that say about your pedigree? You aren’t really that great, are you?” It’s a procrustean path dependence that only permits you actions approved by the mob, that great generator of prestige.
But this is a call to renaissance, not revolution.
As I mentioned above, I’m not primarily interested in tearing down the prestige industrial complex. Why?
It’s too embedded in society (and human nature) to be done away with. To remove it fully means changing the set of psychological and economic incentives that make participation in it worthwhile. The visible organs of the complex—the schools, the universities, the companies—are only part of the picture.
I don’t think going to a fancy school or working for a fancy company is inherently right or wrong; our world is filled with compromised and less-than-perfect institutions. This doesn’t mean you stop interacting with the world, but you don’t have to feed the beast. If you find yourself leaning more and more on your pedigree for self worth, and wielding it instead of your own character to get what you want, if you self-censor to avoid risking loss of prestige or standing, if you refuse opportunities because they don’t look like a “step up” in prestige, you’d be correct to suspect that you’re now part of the problem. You are the baddies.
It’s a question of opportunity cost. Why put all the effort into bringing down the system from the outside (something that’s unlikely) when I can put my effort into making myself a better person and supporting better systems from the inside (the competition from which might start to rehabilitate the old complex)? There are all kinds of new systems and groups of people, online and off, that have bloomed since 2020 (my favorite is Anna Gát’s Interintellect), and they’re based on the values that the prestige industrial complex possesses only in theory: curiosity, risk-taking, mutual support, and truth seeking.
I suppose I’m just out here recruiting other defectors of the prestige industrial complex. The system won’t get better on its own, but we can certainly outcompete it in a variety of ways. Let it catch us if it can.
Now is the time to build; “changing the world” is best accomplished by becoming a good person yourself. Why choose revolution when renaissance is right here?
I’ll end with some FAQs I’ve gotten about this whole dog and pony show I’m putting on, but please don’t forget to go bid up the price on a bonafide Harvard College diploma, class of 2014, in government. Slightly used.
Frequently Asked Questions, and Other Things I’d Rather Just List Out Bricolage-Style
But Daniel, don’t you know that selling your diploma isn’t actually transferring the underlying degree? Yes I do know that. The “underlying degree” is less real in many cases than the diploma itself. That’s…the point of this whole thing.
What do I get if I buy the diploma? It’s an honors degree in Government, earned after four taxing years (I even wrote a thesis on secession). If you buy it, I’ll cross my name out and write yours in my neat neo-Spencerian script, and then affix my own signature right below the faculty dean’s. Further other bonus things can be determined.
Isn’t this just a publicity stunt? Well, not just, but yes, it definitely is. I want to bring attention to the ideas I’m presenting (and those I’ll continue to present on Substack), and I want to accrue more social/hard capital to sustain them.
But is it art? 👽✌️🚬 This is performance art, maybe, depending on your definitions and how this all goes down. Art is the conceptual made concrete, a way to transmute ideas directly to another via a combination of intention and medium. But this performance takes two to complete, and I’d love a partner.
It’s an investment: in the ideas that I’ve outlined here, and in me. I’m like this and this and I work on things like this; if you want to see more, you’ll get more. Some people sell shares in a company, I have a piece of paper I think might be of interest.
It’s an outstretched hand: there will come a time in another Harvard (or wherever) graduate’s life when they reach a crossroads. They will realize the world their degree opened to them is lifeless. Everything will be prestigious, and no one will be happy. When that time comes, I hope they remember reading this, realize they’re not alone, and see there’s a better way to live. Earning a credential can be hard work, but the credential should not dictate the course of your life.
It’s a warning: consultants, financiers, lawyers (and others too, STEM and medicine aren’t safe, they’re just not my native territory)—I have gone on dates with many of you, and talked with still more behind closed doors. I am fully aware that many of you hate your jobs, that you don’t like your lives. Worse, I can see how stunted your minds have been by prestige. You literally cannot envision a different way to live; you’d rather suffer an entire lukewarm life than find another way. And you are boring. Like the alcoholic who’s too far gone, your inebriated awareness of the situation cannot save you, only serve as a helpless witness. Your pedigrees are chains: artificial path dependencies that say you can’t do anything that isn’t prestigious once you’ve begun. But the world is larger than that; some bonkers person can even auction off their Harvard diploma if they want.
It’s a celebration: excellence exists everywhere, and because of the internet it’s growing more accessible no matter where or who it is. Elite institutions will continue to be a source for some of it—not because the institutions are superior, but because excellent individuals self-select into them and then generate scenius. But a brighter future exists for a society that lifts up all kinds of talent and virtue, not merely the fiat excellence diplomas often are. In yourself: cultivate beauty and virtue in all areas of your life, not just the parts that earn bonuses. In others: learn to recognize excellence generally without relying on credentials.
It’s for the lulz: life is wonderful in its resplendent variety, in the sheer volume of what’s possible. We’re going to Mars, baby! There are rules, but you can write new ones and ignore others. Why shouldn’t I try to sell my Harvard diploma to make new friends, fuel my present, and change my future? And unlike an NFT, this is something you can actually take home.
When I first thought about doing this, I laughed to myself. How ridiculous! But comedy is tragedy plus time, and the tragedy is what Harvard degrees (and more broadly, rogue credentialism) do to the minds of people who once possessed the capacity to dream. The third decade of the twenty-first century is going to be incredible, and there is no better time to lead a revolt against the old gods.
Yours ever and most sincerely,
Harvard College 2014
Update after the diploma auction: much to my surprise, it was purchased outside of eBay and regifted back to me by a buyer who will, for now, remain nameless. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up to this post sometime, but for now I’ll go on to other projects.
For a sharp critique of the system that feeds the Ivy League, read Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic, “Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene” (from March 2021).
For a recent Harvard graduate’s take on campus recruiting culture, see Saffron Huang’s piece in Palladium, “Harvard Creates Managers Instead of Elites” (from July 2020).
This piece (2008) is the essay that launched a thousand takes: “The Disadvantages of An Elite Education” in The American Scholar by William Deresiewicz is the gold standard in describing the particular thing that ails the top of the pyramid. He expanded it into a book (see below).
The phenomenon I’m describing isn’t new. This piece by David Brooks in The Atlantic is from 2001. Entitled “The Organization Kid,” it paints a picture as accurate now as then.
“Ra” (2016) is some light mythmaking by Sarah Constantin on the nature of certain institutions. The ones that are held in high regard, and yet...
“We’re a Niche, We Just Didn’t Know” (2019) by Anna Gát; if you want to peer into a new (or perhaps a renewed) way of relating to others beyond prestige, read on.
Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives, by Jeff Schmidt (2001). The title says it all.
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2015) by William Deresiewicz.
“Happiness and Other Heresies” (2020) is a story that I wrote that throws the culture of the modern workforce into a different light.