A Warning to My Fellow Residents of West Egg

Stanford is new money.  Those old, prestigious elite universities on the east coast?  They are old money.  We are West Egg and they are East Egg.  I have heard this comparison quite often made around campus, and I started hearing it before I was even accepted to Stanford.  The comparison is not exactly difficult to make, especially for those of us witnessing the adrenaline rush that is Silicon Valley at present.  Out here, you can build up a company for only a few years and walk away with a billion dollars.  At no other time or place in American history has a path to “hard-earned riches” ever been that quick.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs wear hoodies and jeans to work–sporting a suit and tie to work on a startup development team would seem almost blasphemous; Stanford students study on lawns under the sun in weather that regularly makes our friends on the East Coast jealous.

Those of us in the techie world hear endlessly from our friends how engineering and computer science are “new money”­–how what we do contributes far more to society than Wall Street banking or Washington politics–and we begin to express those opinions ourselves.  We consider these career options to be on the path of “new money”–making the distinction that we do not fraternize and conspire for riches as our proverbial future Wall Street executive friends at Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Dartmouth do.

Yet, despite all these claims, we still complain constantly about what we see as the annoyingly opportunistic nature of Silicon Valley and those of us who want to capitalize on it as entrepreneurs.  We joke about our revolutionary ideas for new social media websites that will develop new ways for you to connect with your friends online.  We poke fun at buzzterms like “leveraging the cloud” or “crowdsourcing” or, if your startup really wants that venture capital attention, “cloudsourcing.”

We get frustrated by the ridiculous amount of startups created by our friends here where the main innovation is simply finding some way to rehash what someone else has already perfected.  We wonder what all these start-ups actually contribute to society, and after a while we begin to note similarities between our eccentrically entrepreneurial classmates and those on Wall Street and Washington we despise for their opportunism.

This line between new money and old money, between our West Egg and their East Egg, is not drawn by whether or not the riches someone may control are earned or inherited.  Bankers and lawyers very often make their way to the one percent from the ground up: building connections in college and working extremely hard, day and night, for a number of years, rising up through the corporate ladder to larger and larger dividends and holiday bonuses.  Stanford students are not more rags-to-riches than other universities­–we have approximately the same ratio of public to private high school-educated students as does Harvard.

So, it does not seem fair to say that Stanford students are any more worthy of the term “new money” in that context than our friends at Ivy League schools.  No, this distinction between west coast and east coast wealth is not a matter of origin, but of attitude.

Just like our friends at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton we all have to network at some point.  We just as easily come to the sad realization that success is often found through knowing the right people, not doing the best job.  But the differences between us and them appear, at least on the surface, to lie in how we approach those relationships and how we develop respect for those around us.

A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses,” if accurate, offers a harrowing insight into the sort of bizarre compliance with the laws of tradition and the old world that just plainly do not seem to be present here at Stanford–at least not as openly.  I do not think I know anyone who could consider vomiting on another human being for the sake of brotherhood a respectable activity.  I do not know anyone who could take pride in networking with people on the basis that they have both participated in such activities.

Perhaps I am optimistic, but in nearly two years that I have been here, I have never really felt that the students here are out to compete like dogs in the same ways that we hear about across the country.  In my classes I have found it easy to make friends without having to think in the back of my mind that I will be competing with them for a job soon enough.  I have never felt uncomfortable by snarky elitism or excluded by any organizations.

We do not have finals clubs; we do not have secret societies; we do not have eating clubs.  These are among many reasons why I love Stanford.  It is not the lack of greedy opportunism, because greedy opportunism is more than present here; it is not that students here come from less elite backgrounds, because on average they do not.  I love Stanford because the attitude here is friendly and because students here seem more comfortable taking the opportunity to meet people for the sake of friendship and not merely for competition or to gain some sort of societal advantage.

Of course, I generalize.  Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Dartmouth are not necessarily these incredible bastions of highly unsavory competitive fraternization, and Stanford is not necessarily the beacon of cooperation or meritocracy.  But at the end of the day, we will still be making the Great Gatsby distinction because, at least on a certain level, it encourages us not to be East Egg­–not to be mired in old world tradition or kingmaker attitudes towards experiences as simple as friendship.

As we have seen in recent days and weeks, Stanford can be just as harsh towards its fellow students as any east coast school, and it seems to me that the seeds of antagonism and exclusivity have begun to develop, even if for far different reasons.  One of the most important lessons to be learned from Fitzgerald’s novel is that people are still people, and when we begin to expect perfection as highly meritocratic societies tend to, we often throw some of our friends under the bus.  I do not know about you, but that is not the Stanford I know.

So maybe, at the end of the day, we do not have to be West Egg.  Maybe we do not have to bog ourselves down in the entrepreneurial, go-getter muck that can often bear painful similarity to Wall Street or Washington arrogance that we deride.  If we read Gatsby we realize that West Egg is not exactly the pinnacle of human society either, and that while the supposed freshness of our attitudes and traditions may be more charming to us than those on the east coast, we may find at the end of the day that our poolside relaxation may not be as beneficial as we originally thought.

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