Job hunt: Passion for profit
Daniel Ahn is a University alumnus who presents an interesting profile. A mathematics major who described dropping out of Rutgers Business School as "the best decision of his life," he later went to work for Citi as an investment banker after graduation. Below, I asked him to justify why making money should trump the idealistic career choices many of us find attractive as undergraduates:
Eric Knecht: Dan, I generally wouldn't trust your opinion on subjects that go beyond Immanuel Kant or paintball, but today I'm feeling a bit anxious. Being undecided as to how to spend the next few years — and possibly more — may have been fashionable for the first three-quarters as an undergraduate, but nearly halfway through senior year, it begins to get nerve-racking. Over the past few months, I've felt my stomach sink when contemplating having to work full-time, particularly doing something mind-numbingly dull. Of course, the converse of this is joining the ranks of those who travel for a year "figuring things out" while going massively into debt. But I'm going to be honest — the next time I hear someone boast about their aspirations to work for a non-profit, eschew the materialism of our country, and help those who are in need rather than "selfishly" worry about how much savings they can accrue, I might just pour some steaming-hot fair trade Starbucks coffee on them. At the end of the day, we all just need jobs.
The question I throw to you then, is whether it's worth it to work straight out, make money and sell your soul to the bank; or rather, is the idealism I'm making fun of here really worth a second look? Do bankers laugh at everyone who thinks they can make a difference without a dollar in their savings account, or do some of them regret not having tried their hand at something off the beaten path before locking themselves to a desk? In the spirit of debate, I expect three independent points of analysis as to why you chose to head straight for Wall Street.
Daniel Ahn: Eric, I think the question you really asked is: "Because I'm scared and confused about graduating and having to join the real world, should I just find a nonprofit that needs warm bodies and will take me?" The first thing is to drop the "right now" attitude and realize that it takes a lot of hard work to get anywhere worth going. Ask yourself what's more useful: the civil engineer with 20 years of experience who can go to a third world country and help build wells and irrigate farmland or the college graduate without real motivation who can lick stamps for fundraising letters? With that said, three points as to why Wall Street was the best option:
1. Motivation rarely matches idealism. It's easy to be idealistic — it doesn't require much thought, it's popular among your circle of friends (since you likely hang out with people who share the same general beliefs you do) and rarely do you find yourself truly committed to an ideal for the long-term. I wouldn't say motivated people laugh at those who aren't, but there is a difference between those with the drive to reach their aspirations and those without, regardless of profession. Why does the Wall Street professional with millions in the bank still work? Because the work is challenging and interesting. This doesn't mean you can't take time off to find out what interests you or otherwise broaden your horizons, but it does mean you should understand whether you choose something because it's easy, popular and makes you money, or because it interests and challenges you. Everybody is challenged and interested by different things, and that challenge often drives your motivation. Your reasons for working at a nonprofit shouldn't be to avoid materialism and the rat race — there's no draw then, only a push from the other side. Like I said, regardless of profession, the combination of motivation and idealism can exhibit itself in wonderful ways.
2. Greater impact of contributions. There are rare cases where jumping straight into the world of nonprofits out of college can be truly impactful (and by that, I mean it would be hard for another person to replicate your contributions). But look at all the major nonprofits: Who sits on their boards? Who makes up the executive management teams? Forget the funding aspect of it, since arguably the extreme concentration of wealth is what's causing the extreme levels of philanthropy, but look at who provides the manpower for these organizations: lawyers, MBA grads and typically personally successful and motivated individuals. Who is more impactful: the scientist with a lucrative research job who is donating some of his time to nonprofit AIDS research or the intern who picks up the coffee? The consultant who made his money and now helps design the Teach For America training methods or the college graduate without motivation or the attitude to succeed? Not to say that they don't play their roles or to underestimate their importance, but, for the latter group, unless they have the right motivation and attitude to make their current position the first rung in the ladder, what's their lasting impact?
3. Selfishness is good and natural. This isn't meant to be some ludicrous Ayn Rand rant, but an appeal to the way humans behave. Tragedy is more relevant when it's closer. An obituary is nothing but an obituary unless you knew the person. If the apartment you lived in with your parents was on fire, you'd make sure they were safe before you went back for the neighbors. You fight for universal health care in the United States when millions of people still suffer from iodine deficiency (I mean, really! How much does it cost to distribute salt?). What do you think about professors during the Vietnam War who gave As to otherwise poor students to keep them out of the draft? What's wrong with making sure you have enough to provide for your own before looking out for others? This is natural, instinctive behavior. I knew one individual whose pay easily puts him in the top 1 percent in the U.S. He also donates not only money but significant amounts of time to charitable organizations. He loves his job and can support his family. If the pay wasn't there, I can't see him changing jobs (although he might not dedicate as many hours). I can't find fault with what he does.
Eric Knecht: You present the dichotomy of wealth and passion as being largely overlapping, as if to suggest that bankers join firms because they are in love with Excel documents and PowerPoint presentations. And do bankers really work long hours so they can save the world later on, rather than simply to buy themselves an unnecessarily expensive ride to work? In reality, when deciding what path to pursue, the thinking calculus is very rarely "How can this career put me in a position to make meaningful contributions to society 20 years out?" On the contrary, careers are usually a deeply personal choice where you have to decide whether you can ever be content doing the work for a protracted period of time. If you cannot, it is unlikely that you will endure the job long enough to do anything impactful anyway.
Moreover, for most people, finding something that intersects their passion with profitability is so rare that they are forced to make a decision one way or another. If everyone was as passionate about financial statements as you, this would not be the case, but for the average person they are left with a stark choice: money or contentment. Acquiring wealth doesn't appear so difficult if you can coerce yourself to pursue corporate law, but teaching American history to high schoolers is fulfilling and quite fun as well. Under your analysis, one should always opt for law given these two options, with the understanding that they can have a larger impact in the long run via financial contributions, or possibly just a technical skill set. But if they can derive greater happiness from teaching, and make a meaningful — albeit smaller — impact on the lives of individual students, then I'm not sure the path of wealth is the obvious choice. With that said, if personal happiness is the primary determinant, then who is to tell the overzealous undergraduate who wants to teach English in Zimbabwe that he or she is making an unwise decision? Even if they are only able to donate one dollar to AIDS research, that should not be an argument for them to work in a job they are unsatisfied with.
I should point out, however, that with a jobless rate of over 10 percent, it wouldn't be difficult to convince myself that just about any job is meaningful these days.
Eric Knecht is a Rutgers College senior majoring in economics and history. His column, "Unfair and Unbalanced," runs on alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Ahn is a Rutgers College Class of 2007 alumnus and former investment banker for Citi. He currently works at an asset management firm in New York City.