The path less followed

June 20, 2024, 1:00 p.m.

I grew up within two cultures that prized convention. Spending the first half of childhood in a large Chinese metropolis, I was presented with a singular future path. I was told that I needed to do well in elementary school so I could get into a prestigious middle school, which would help me get into a prestigious high school, which would help me get into a prestigious university, which, in turn, would help me land a good job and live a comfortable life. This pathway to the “good life” was invariably shared by every child and their parents. Those who dreamed of becoming actresses, athletes or authors were given the reality check and rerouted down the conventional path. 

Moving to a small town on the coast of New Zealand at the age of nine, I experienced a different convention. Here I was not expected to excel academically but instead to be “laid back.” The conventional path for the teenagers in my town looked like finishing high school, finding a job in the area and getting married in your early 20s. “Standing out” or “trying too hard” at school was stigmatized. Tall poppy syndrome is a term often used to describe New Zealanders’ tendency to disparage and criticize those who take the unconventional path or become successful. Those who stand out are cut down like the overgrown poppies in the field and forced to toe the conventional line.

Coming to Stanford, I thought I had finally found a place where unconventionality thrived. I saw that Stanford students held diverse conceptions of what it means to “live well” and “be successful.” We were also provided countless opportunities to pursue whatever we desire in and outside of the classroom. But after spending two years here, I’ve come to feel a powerful current of conventionality. 

Stanford’s convention comes in the form of “productivism.” English sociologist Anthony Giddens defines productivism as a set of values that assume that work “defines whether or not individuals feel worthwhile or socially valued.” This “work” includes solely those tasks that have economic value. All activities that do not have direct economic value are not considered worth doing.

Productivism pervades Stanford’s culture. A large proportion of Stanford students seem to only view activities that improve their resume or lead to a highly-paid internship as worth their time. Applying to the most sought-after pre-professional clubs is a rite of passage for many Stanford students. Every year hundreds flock to ASES, BASES, Stanford Consulting and Stanford Finance in hopes of building economically valuable connections. Those who join less selective clubs, on the other hand, often do so solely in hopes of eventually securing a leadership position they can put on their resume.

The quality of Stanford students’ summer quarters also seems to depend entirely on their level of economic output. Those with full-time internships from tech, VCs, consulting, finance or politics are perceived to have the best type of summer. On the other hand, students doing research, volunteering, part-time internships or helping out with family obligations are seen as having a “chill summer.” Students who decide not to work but spend their summers reading, traveling, doing creative work or just spending time with family — that is, producing nothing of economic value — are viewed to be doing “nothing at all.” In the eyes of productism, non-economic pursuits have no valued existence.

Stanford’s productivist culture also permeates the classroom. Only those majoring in STEM are viewed as doing something actually useful. Non-STEM majors are seen as “daydreamers” who have no useful skills and will become unemployed after graduation — unless they coterm in CS or go to law school. As a result, many students who came into Stanford as non-STEM majors end up majoring in CS or commit themselves early to graduate school 

Even for students who end up sticking to non-STEM majors, Stanford’s productivism continues to influence their learning. Maintaining a high GPA is the primary objective for many non-STEM students, since it is weighted heavily in graduate school admissions. Because of this pressure, students often skip class readings, since they play no role in their grades. Many students view their classes and majors not as something of intrinsic value but as a mere prerequisite to their future educational pursuits. 

The all-encompassing influence of productivism has instilled in Stanford students the notion that the quality of life can only be measured in economic terms, and that the most worthwhile pursuit for a young adult is money. To live well therefore means to live wealthy. This has made us come to idolize the high-paying fields of tech, VC and consulting, as well as to worship those who achieve material success. 

Conceiving of the good life in economic terms is perverse and dangerous. The downfalls of Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried more than sufficiently illustrate why adopting maximizing profits as a guiding ethos is a bad idea. On top of these examples, the productivist philosophy may not even yield the highest economic returns.

Stanford economics professor Caroline Hoxby, one of the world’s leading scholars in the economics of education, illustrates in her work that it is erroneous for students to believe that by choosing majors with the highest average income, such as CS or engineering, they will automatically end up having the most lucrative careers. Such a conclusion completely neglects to take into account any individual qualities. A student who is passionate about and talented within a specific field will certainly earn more in that field than if they had worked in a field they both hated and had no talent for, even if the latter field had a higher average income. Although the average sociologist makes less than the average chemical engineer, the best sociologist is likely to make more than the latter.

Productivism needs to go. And we need to replace it with something better. We need a campus culture that cultivates a more robust conception of the good life. More than material success, to live a good life is to create an impact on the world, experience fulfillment and happiness, as well as learn and discover new things. Such a conception of the good life is unequivocally more enriching than productivism. 

To achieve such a campus culture, Stanford students must begin to embrace unconventionality and recognize the value of non-economic pursuits. We need to stop conceiving of “value” in the shallow economic sense, but rather in a deeper personal sense. Productivism has deceived us into thinking that the value we ought to place on things is identical to their market value. In reality, there exists a fundamental discrepancy between what is of value to the market and what is of value to each of us. The market fails to account for the “intrinsic value” of our lived experiences. Our social bonds, creative and intellectual endeavors and a sense of meaning and fulfillment are all things with irreducible, intrinsic value. We value them not because they are useful in our pursuit of some other aim, but because they are valuable to us in and of themselves. 

Pursuing something a student finds intrinsically valuable often means pursuing that student’s passion. People who take this path are therefore more likely to become good at what they do. The unconventional path also frequently leads people to neglected domains where they can provide the most marginal impact. For instance, a student passionate about Chinese calligraphy would make a much greater impact researching Chinese calligraphy than if they had become a software engineer. As a Chinese calligraphy scholar, the student could produce significant intellectual contributions to a neglected field of study. But as a grudging software engineer in a tech company, the student could do little to impact the world in any meaningful way, and they would be easily replaceable. 

Choosing to take the unconventional path would also enable students to learn, experience and discover more about the world within and the world without. By seeing the intrinsic value of their majors and courses, students would better prioritize completing readings and attending lectures, enabling them to learn more deeply and comprehensively. Those who embrace unconventionality would also become more inclined to study abroad and spend their summers exploring new things and cultivating their passions, giving them a richer set of life experiences. 

The path of unconventionality also ensures that students will experience the greatest amount of positive emotions in the long run. Money can only buy so much happiness. According to a Gallup study, the amount of positive emotions a person living in the U.S. experiences peaks when that person’s household earns around $75,000 per year, with some regional variations. For California residents, this number sits higher, at $105,000, likely due to the higher average salary and cost of living. Given that virtually all Stanford graduates will reach this level of household income by mid-career, we can only derive a higher degree of positive emotions from non-economic sources. This includes finding a career we love, cultivating meaningful relationships and safeguarding our physical and mental well-being — all of which are valuable intrinsically. 

It may be objected that taking the path of unconventionality is a luxury some students cannot afford. Many students feel compelled to pursue money in hopes of improving the material conditions of their family as quickly as possible. These students fear the prospect of being unable to secure a high-paying job after graduation, preventing them from financially supporting their families.

The adoption of productivism by these students is understandable. However, their fear of being unable to find a highly paid job following graduation is unfounded. As Stanford graduates, we will find highly paid jobs, irrespective of our grades and majors. Even though some of us earn more than others, everyone will earn more than enough. The median early and mid career salaries for Stanford graduates with only bachelor’s degrees are $98,900 and $177,500, respectively. These numbers rise to $105,300 and $196,400, respectively, if we also include Stanford’s graduates who go on to earn additional degrees. Students should therefore see themselves as free and able to reject productivism without having to forgo the economic rewards of upward mobility. 

Yes, we are all Stanford students. We all want to live not only a good life, but the best life. However, conceiving of the quality of our lives in purely economic terms is perversely narrow. Doing so reduces each of us to the homo economicus of Econ 1 — a man who always acts to maximize economic returns and takes nothing to be of intrinsic worth. To truly live well, we must see value in  non-economic pursuits, such as the experiences we have and the impacts we make. A life so conceived is infinitely more meaningful and fulfilling. To realize this conception of the good life, we must embrace the unconventional path by rejecting productivism.

YuQing Jiang ’25 is a columnist for the Opinions section for Vol. 262. A Philosophy major from New Zealand, he enjoys waiting in line daily for the Wilbur lunch specials. Contact him at opinions ‘at’

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