Monet to Money: A Promising Artist Becomes an Investment Banker
Yesterday, after accepting a Linkedin connection request from a friend, I found myself perusing the list of “People I may know” that Linkedin automatically populates based on my current connections. As I scrolled down the list and as the people became less familiar to me, I saw a name I hadn’t thought about in years—and I was shocked.
This person was an acquaintance from my high school years whose name I will keep anonymous, but for this post I will refer to as Chelsea. Chelsea went to a different high school than I did, but we knew each other through mutual friends. In her teens Chelsea was an amazing painter. And I mean not just amazing for a high-schooler, but amazing for anybody. I remember being blown away by her talent every time I saw her work. She was brilliant.
So why did my jaw drop when I saw Chelsea’s name on Linkedin? Because underneath her name was the name of her current employer… an investment bank.
How, I wondered, did Chelsea of all people become an investment banker? Or maybe more importantly, why? I felt a tinge of disappointment imagining all of the artistic talent going unused as Chelsea sits at her desk crunching numbers for 100 hours a week. It bummed me out.
Now I don’t mean to disparage Chelsea or her career choice here. She may very well love her job. It’s no doubt a tough job to get, and if she can do that AND paint like Monet she is clearly off the charts multitalented.
I also don’t mean to disparage the idea of working on Wall St. Many of my good friends work on Wall St. and I work in a finance-related consulting job. And even though I have a few qualms about the current wealth disparity gap in the U.S. and some of the poorer decisions that have been made on Wall St. in the last several years, I am certainly not an “Occupier.”
I don’t know how Chelsea’s path led her to a job in finance. But seeing her picture next to the name of that big bank (you’d know it if I said the name) got me thinking about how elite colleges these days have a way of funneling kids into the worlds of finance and consulting. I can’t tell you how many of my college friends came in to school wanting to work in politics or international non-profits or tech startups or medicine or the music industry etc, and left four years later having signed an offer letter with Deutsche Bank or Deloitte.
Why does this happen? On one level it’s obvious. Consulting and (especially) finance jobs are well paid and prestigious. After being an academic star in high school and attending a prestigious university, it’s logical that the next step for a person would be Morgan Stanley or Accenture. I get that.
But on a deeper level it also seems pretty illogical… or at the very least odd. I would guess that about seventy five percent of my college friends (yes, including me) currently work in finance or consulting. Seventy Five Percent! Doesn’t that seem like a lot? I find it hard to believe that many of my friends are truly passionate about investment banking. In fact, I know they are not. And I know none of them wanted to be strategy consultants when they were twelve… or even seventeen. But still, we went to good colleges and then took these jobs because… well I guess it felt like the right thing to do. Maybe it’s not our passion, but it leaves a lot of doors open and is a virtual guarantee of financial security.
But will these jobs make us happy? Will they bring more meaning or value to our lives than any other type of job could? Should we have pursued different career paths?
I wish I could answer those questions. I would love to write a brilliant paragraph or two about how the system is broken and how all the incentives are misaligned. I’d love to say exactly what careers we, as a country should be funneling our best and brightest into. I’d love to present the solution to all of our problems and lay out a blueprint to ensure that my kids and their friends end up pursuing careers they are truly passionate about.
But I can’t make that argument and I can’t write that blueprint. First of all, even trying to do so would feel pretty hypocritical since I too work in the world of management consulting. Second, I can’t claim that taking my job has forced me to give up happiness in exchange for prestige and financial security. I’m a pretty happy guy. And third, even if my hunch is right and the system is “broken,” I certainly don’t know how to fix it, or even what a “fixed” system would look like. I can’t say what percentage of Harvard’s graduating seniors “should” be teachers or doctors or engineers or bankers or writers… or painters. What hypothetical pie chart of career choices would produce the best and happiest society? I just don’t know.
But I do have a gut feeling that whatever system we are currently using is at least slightly out of balance. Should Chelsea have been a painter rather than a banker? Who knows. Maybe she got sick of art and fell in love with pivot tables. Maybe she’ll rise to the top of her analyst class and become the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Or maybe after a couple years she’ll realize she hates it and quit to do something else.
Whatever happens I won’t pass judgment. If Chelsea willingly pursues a career in finance that’s totally OK. Though I still can’t help but wonder what all of the paintings she’ll never make would have looked like.