A Case Against ‘Financial Success’

Our collective vision of success appears to have become intrinsically rooted in big salaries, while ideas about “making a difference” and “contributing to society” have become eye-roll worthy or have faded into the background. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Written by Luiza de Abreu Monetti

It’s recruiting season, when almost every conversation at Stern seems to inevitably include the words “networking”, “interview”, and “resume”.

We see students in steam-pressed suits and elegant heels rushing to another Goldman presentation or the next Deloitte information session. It’s no secret that Sternies often overwhelmingly favor careers in investment banking. It’s also no secret that, regardless of major, we do pretty well for ourselves (job placement rates for graduating classes exceed 98 percent).

But I wonder, how many of us are genuinely interested in our chosen fields? How many of us base our career decisions on a skewed definition of “financial success?”

I often hear students say, “Once I make enough money, I’ll do what I really want to do.” The reality, though, is that few adults with families to support and mortgages to pay off can afford to uproot their professional lives only to begin the process all over again.

So why settle now? In a school that aims to foster independent thought and shape future business leaders, are we afraid to swim against the current? We have been armed with the tools and skills to create real value, in both the world and our individual lives. Why are we holding back?

Our collective vision of success appears to have become intrinsically rooted in big salaries, while ideas about “making a difference” and “contributing to society” have become eye-roll worthy or have faded into the background.

Stern isn’t the problem. I celebrate our school’s competitive environment. I am constantly impressed by my peers’ ambition and desire to excel, not just accomplish. But in our race to succeed, we may have forgotten what it is we should be striving for in the first place.

A study Gallup conducted with Purdue University found that, though business is the most popular undergraduate major at U.S. universities, business graduates are the least engaged in their work .We can do better than this type of success, where bank accounts are well fed but minds are starving for more.

This is not to say that everyone heading for an investment bank is only in it for the money. The financial services are just as important and valuable as, say, entrepreneurship, politics, or teaching. Indeed, there are many bankers who derive real satisfaction from their work.

In a series of articles Joris Luyendijk wrote for The Guardian, none of the investment bankers he interviewed mentioned a paycheck or “upscale lifestyle”. Instead, they emphasized the exciting nature of a competitive, results-driven environment, the emphasis on teamwork, and the personal fulfillment that comes from being part of a meritocracy. These individuals seem to be in it for the right reasons. The problem with investment banking arises when recent graduates focus too much on pursuing a lifestyle, rather than a career that truly satisfies their interests and abilities.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. But this isn’t a war cry for romanticized moralism or for a rejection of our capitalist society. Money, of course, is important and that the happiness we seek is often difficult to achieve without it. Still, could there be a nugget of truth embedded in the tired cliché that “money isn’t everything”?

According to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, beyond household income of $75,000 a year (well below the average salary for an investment banker), money does nothing to increase marginal happiness.

Another study by Options Group, a New York executive search firm, surveyed financial professionals about their satisfaction with their job, firm, pay, and prospects. The results are, at best, disheartening: 50% of them expressed unhappiness in all four areas.

We spend many sleepless nights stressing over GPAs, revising resumes, and preparing applications to secure “the” job –one that satisfies the lifestyle that we believe we ought to have as Stern graduates. Yet, if research shows this lifestyle is likely to disappoint, are we channeling our energies in the right direction?

It’s true to an extent that “do what you love” is privileged advice that ignores the fact that some people work just to pay their expenses, not for personal fulfillment. But, for Sternies, it’s much less of an all-or-nothing game. It’s the choice between a penthouse in the Flatiron District and a six-floor walkup in the East Village.

I’m not suggesting that we can love our jobs every minute of every day. Work is work, even if we (in theory) love what we do. We should, however, strive for more than financial returns. Time is a finite resource and we should make good use of ours. You might argue that my perspective is overly idealistic, and that the old saying “Money doesn’t buy happiness” no longer resonates. But, have we grown desensitized to finding satisfaction in our aspirations?

Let’s not define success based on money or position. Let’s define it by our freedom and ability to live the life we want—and not the one we settle for.

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