Most Likely to Succeed
MILLENNIAL INTERVIEWS (with Tamara Day) JACOB
Jacob grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Southern California. He was a popular child, curious and creative, who loved figuring out how things work. A self-described “tech nerd,” he spent his time outside of school exploring a multitude of hobbies: tinkering on the computer, playing video games, making music. He eventually taught himself coding and, in seventh grade, started a web design business with friends. “The Internet was so new, and I spent so much time playing games and then time on the Internet looking for info about the games, it was only a matter of time before I started thinking, why couldn’t I make a site? Six months into it, I realized, I had built a site, module by module. Eventually I stopped using the templates and just started from scratch. Coding is like language. I never sat through a traditional coding class. It was a really organic process that came from asking myself, how can I figure this out?”
Jacob attended the local public high school, where he excelled academically. He got good grades, was involved in extracurricular activities, and took all but two of the AP courses his school offered, ten in total. College was always a priority—to both him and his parents—and he saw it as the first step to the life path he had clearly marked out.
Despite his entrepreneurial spirit, his plan for the future was clear and predictable: work hard in high school, get into a good college, study
finance, and get a job in banking. From there, he would make a successful career, earn lots of money, and, for all intents and purposes, be living the dream. Finance was the safe choice and the sure bet, something he believed he could count on to lead him to the successful and lucrative lifestyle he envisioned. He described an exercise from his senior year of high school that encapsulates his thinking at the time: “In our senior English class, we were talking about boiling literary works down to their one truth, and that all of these authors have one truth that they want to communicate. Our teacher asked us, if you could boil down your one truth, what would it be? I, being seventeen and super naive, wrote up on the whiteboard, Money CAN buy happiness.”
After working hard in high school, earning a 3.7 GPA, and getting a 1340 on his SATs, Jacob was accepted to the University of Washington. He was starting three quarters ahead from all of the AP credits he had racked up. As an incoming freshman in 2005, he felt himself one step closer to realizing the bright future he envisioned. The only problem, in his own words, was that “the world doesn’t work in straight paths anymore.”
Jacob graduated in 2009, a year after the financial crisis, with a bachelor’s degree in Finance. The industry that once seemed like the safe bet was suddenly in turmoil. “We were studying the impending collapse before it happened,” he said. “Then it happened and our professors were like, ‘Well, we were hoping this would hold until after you graduated, but it didn’t.’ ” Not surprisingly, the job climate, especially for a recent graduate, was grim.
The university’s Career Center mostly focused on placing graduates at large local companies: Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon. So on his own, Jacob attended job fairs, contacted banks and other financial institutions, and searched the Internet looking for positions in his field. Nothing panned out.
Not one to give up, he adjusted his plan and decided to move back to Los Angeles and find a job in entertainment. His uncle was in the industry and he thought he might have better luck there. He leveraged every tech listing service he could find: LinkedIn, Indeed, Career Builder. He emailed friends, cross-referenced mutual contacts and alumni networks, and spent days searching Craigslist and job boards. He pictured getting his foot in the
door with a junior position and then working his way up through the ranks, just the way he’d heard a career trajectory was supposed to work. Despite his efforts, though, finding even an entry-level position proved to be incredibly difficult. Two of the top talent agencies had just merged and there was an abundance of talented people with years of experience looking for work. He considered going back to school in order to postpone the job hunt for a few more years, but his parents wouldn’t pay for it. Not wanting to take out loans, Jacob accepted an unpaid internship and moved back home.
After nine months of internships, during which time his parents generously supported him, Jacob finally got a break, even if it was not the one he had been waiting for: He took a job delivering mail at a talent agency for $7 an hour. The college degree, which had once seemed like the key to his success, was beginning to seem more like a joke.
Five years out of college, Jacob has worked his way up from the mailroom and is now a successful talent manager in Los Angeles. He has changed jobs a few times, making his way laterally to different positions within the industry and figuring out how things work along the way. Just as in his earlier days of coding, he never formally studied the work he does but rather picked it up by an organic process of trial and error. He attributes his success to grit and perseverance, and his willingness to work hard. He observed, “It’s interesting because our parents, and this is the first time in history really, had no business whatsoever giving us advice. And they didn’t know this and were trying their best, but the world has changed so much. We were really guinea pigs and the last generation that can remember life before the Internet.”
We asked Jacob if he ever uses the skills he learned in college in his current job. “I have used my degree skills exactly once, when creating a funding proposal for a film.” More often, he said, he utilizes his natural creativity and entrepreneurial skills. Reflecting on his course of study and degree, he told us, “I have a very expensive degree from a pretty great university that I use as a coaster. I had a horrible time finding a job in my degree field, and eventually went into entertainment, where my degree is absolutely useless.”
Ironically, he had briefly considered majoring in film in college, but
after enrolling in a film course and realizing that it was all theory and that he would never get to make an actual film, he decided to stick to finance. Jacob told us, “I’d 100 percent have not gone to college if I could do it all over.”
That’s not to say that he didn’t find certain aspects of his college career valuable. The socializing in particular was important to him, and he made sure to stress that he is a supporter of his university and believes he got a good education. But his experiences have made him question just what exactly it was he went to college for.
We asked him if he values the credential of a college degree in others. He told us it depends. “USC has one of the only master’s programs in the country for film producing. It’s called the Peter Stark Program. It’s very prestigious, very difficult to get into. If I meet someone who’s twenty-three and never worked a day in the industry and they’re in the Peter Stark Program, to me that’s code for unemployed: ‘I finished undergrad, I couldn’t find a job, so I went to film grad school.’ That’s great, but there are so many better ways to learn about film producing, like mainly going out and producing a film. But on the other hand, I just got a director yesterday who’s twenty-three years old who’s in the Peter Stark Program and has managed a budget and crews of up to thirty people, and to me that’s super impressive.”
Today, Jacob adheres more to a “learn by doing” philosophy that harks back to his earlier days of tinkering on the computer and making music. We asked him, if he could give advice to his younger self, what his formula for success would look like. He said that he no longer believes there is a set formula that will allow someone to succeed. He would simply recommend a “balance of hard work and socializing, with a little more emphasis on socializing. Knowing thyself.” Instead of rushing to check boxes, he loves the idea of taking a gap year. “Go and expand yourself. Travel, sign up for volunteer programs, something like that. Really get out into the world and figure out . . . your passion. When you have to stop and think about those things it’s impossible, but when you come across something, if you find that thing where you can lose hours in it, that’s your passion. Go for it.”
Jacob wishes that his formal education had focused on more practical areas like financial education, writing skills, and computer skills, things he uses at work every day. He is at the same time both skeptical about the value of his college degree and loyal to his alma matter and his own college experience. He also knows how fortunate he was to have parents that were able to support him financially, something that is not true for many of his friends.
He reflects on education and his own experiences a lot, and believes something needs to change: “In finance, you are taught to value things in concrete terms based on what you can measure. When people talk about the value of a college degree, they are really talking about all of these other things like ‘success’ and ‘your future.’ They are really asking, how much is your future worth? Of course the answer is an infinite amount, so people will pay an infinite amount of money for it. But how high can tuition get before people start to say it’s not worth it anymore? This is not a hit on my school. I’m a supporter of my university and think I got a good education. This is a systemic issue. This is an America issue.”