There is a man who runs loose on the streets of New York City. His chest is muscular, toned, and bare, and an acoustic guitar hangs by a star-spangled strap from his neck. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, tall brown boots, and white briefs. He is the Naked Cowboy.
The Naked Cowboy is a staple of the Times Square street performing scene—a tall, brawny, and most conspicuous man who struts around and smiles for pictures in the world’s tourist hotspot. Robert John Burck is behind the character. Burck works hard at his job and does well for himself (the Naked Cowboy’s yearly income averages over $250,000).
Burck’s career as the Naked Cowboy continues to involve bizarre episodes: He became an ordained minister in response to fans who asked him to preside over their weddings, he has an oyster dish that a Long Island oyster company named after his street act, and he opted to run in major political races like the 2009 New York City mayoral election and the 2012 presidential primary. Burck finds time for four hours of reading each day, claiming Nietzsche and the motivational author Anthony Robbins among his key influencers. Burck is energized and optimistic about his career trajectory and believes in his future. "I am going to be the greatest success story of all time," he said in an interview.
When Robert John Burck was an undergraduate at University of Cincinnati, sitting in his graduation gown and waiting to obtain his political science degree, what could he have been thinking about his future? Was he thinking, “When I grow up, I want to play the guitar every day in Times Square in my underwear!”? I don’t think that he was.
The closer undergraduates get to graduation, the more frequently we get asked to state our life plans. Some people have known what they aspire to do career-wise since high school or even before. Others have been diligently plodding through the steps of self-discovery and still have no idea what turn their working lives will take or where they want their careers to go. A significant number of us don’t even know what we want to start working on when we leave Harvard in eight months’ time.
The first week of school this year I had lunch with a friend, also a senior, and we chatted about our summer internship experiences and our thoughts about what might loom in our futures after graduation. My friend said she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She has enjoyed her time at Harvard, made friends, studied hard, experienced growth, but she doesn’t feel that her Harvard education has built toward anything that will help her discover a meaningful career.
Conflicted and frustrated, my friend told me that her strategy is just to play it safe and apply for jobs that will keep her options open—careers that are transferable and relevant no matter what she decides to try next. But, she says, she finds this unexciting and uninspiring. Even since she started to tell me about it, her tone has gotten more serious and her voice lower, as if she’s embarrassed to admit that this is her plan. My friend says that she doesn’t want to go into banking, but at the same time she doesn’t know what other options could exist for someone like her.
Similar to my friend, Robert John Burck probably didn’t know what he wanted his career to build toward when he was leaving college, and if he did I am willing to bet that being Times Square’s Naked Cowboy was not among his stated plans. But unlike my friend, he didn’t decide to play it safe by finding a job that seemed versatile. Burck went into super-modeling right out of school, had trouble breaking into the industry, and ended up street performing instead to pay the rent. He took a plunge in a direction that excited him, took a big fall, then recalibrated.
Taking the plunge might mean trying out human rights work abroad, getting a job at a small startup, or heading to Hollywood. In some cases, taking the plunge can also mean going into consulting or banking. Plunging is finding a path that seems invigorating, challenging, meaningful, and a whole lot of fun. We each have jobs that will fulfill these criteria for our particular set of skills and interests. We can’t be afraid to look for them.
My column this semester will look at Harvard alums who took big plunges after graduation—people who had unconventional aspirations or, in some cases, no aspirations at all. These alums took significant risks in their early post-grad years and periodically throughout their working lives, and they have ultimately found work that suits their passions. They remind us that the working world is far more diverse than we can possibly imagine. We have options. We should commit to searching for them and taking the plunge.
Ginny C. Fahs ’14 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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