So many of my friends compare finance to “The Matrix”. It’s warm and comforting inside, but your life energy is being sucked out of you for the mental stimulation you receive. What if, though, finance is the salvation and we’re just grasping at reasons to not accept it? What if we aren’t in the Matrix?
A financial world creates such a conflict simply because people are looking at it as salvation, when it in fact is nothing more than another job. Working in finance will not find you a wife you love, fix your parent’s marriage, forge lasting friendships, or even necessarily make you better off. It all depends on whether you love the job.
But here’s the problem: how would you know if you love the job or not? There is no way college students can determine whether they will enjoy working in finance. Even a litmus test through an internship doesn’t answer all the questions about a career in finance. You may be able to “take” the workload considering how much you know the salary is, but will you give the same response five years of fatigue into the job?
The problem of this problem is that it is simply too complicated. And when encountered with complexity, the natural human reaction is to take the path of least resistance; a path where recruiters have already laid out a clear path for you. Financial service applications are so similar to college applications that the jobs just seems so within reach of students. On the contrary, deciding what you really like takes up too much time. You have to explore different things at the opportunity cost of falling behind your peers in networking and specialization. You also have to spend time actually contemplating rather than working to improve your resume. And the fact that career centers of top 10 universities are dominated by financial firms mean that if you ever want to explore an alternative field, you are completely on your own.
A lot of my friends are really smart. But no matter how hard the math class they are taking, the honors that they receive, the competitions that they win, the internships that they land…they all struggle to fully explain what they want to do with their life, and why they want to do that. I think a big problem of this is difficulty of individual contemplation. Individual contemplation about the vast world of careers is difficult when you don’t have a framework to work within. The diversity of jobs simply means you can spend an infinite amount of time exploring all different types of jobs and still end up nowhere. For most students at least, the unbounded time frame to find which they truly love is too big a cost. I ask a lot of friends who want to do finance the question, “If you want to do finance for the money, why don’t you look into petroleum engineering? They make even more straight out of college.”
I get a variety of answers from, “finance is more ‘interesting'” to “I don’t have the skill-set to petroleum engineering.” But one of my friends was extremely honest: “I didn’t bother.” Ironically, the idea of a liberal arts education is to help you appreciate the intricacies of many different subjects, but many students don’t even bother looking into other industries as deeply as they look into finance. The fact that they have a bounded area to work within simplifies the process for them, and allows them more time to do what they do best: get As and build their resume.
I find it sad the people no longer have the time to contemplate about what they want to do with their life. The decision of where you are heading after college determines the outlook for the rest of your life, yet exams, extracurricular activities and internships suck away all the precious time needed for contemplation. The weight of a multivariable calculus midterm is but a drop in the ocean in terms of how much it affects your life, but picking your career path is something that could completely change your life. However, students still prioritize “getting As” over career contemplation. Our society has screwed the priority of our youth.
Now, many of my senior friends plunging into finance have told me “I’ll quit when I have enough money” or “I’ll quit if I don’t like it.” But the world of finance doesn’t work like that. People are really bad at giving up material goods that they are expecting, so dropping from a $250k a year salary at a bank to a $50k a year salary being say, a wine sommelier will be difficult even though you clearly enjoy one over the other.
And this problem is leaking out of the elite universities and into the world. Schools are giving their youth less and less time to think about their careers, meaning at the end of the day, they have an incentive to take a job from someone welcoming them with open arms and a high salary: Wall Street.
I remember on a Chicago fall last year, in Millennium Park, a young man was playing his violin. He was playing a slow, sad song that really matched the depressing weather of Chicago. He did such a good job I stopped to listen. The cars driving by drowned out the full beauty of his violin, but he still played really hard. He had excellent control of his bow, and a very expressive vibrato. I didn’t have change on me, but I was still tempted into dropping him a $5. I asked him, “Are you studying music?”
He shook his head. “I’m studying economics”, he said.
“What do you want to do when you graduate?” I asked instinctively.
“I’m not from a target school, but hopefully I can get a job at an investment bank or something,” he chuckled.
I smiled and walked away. He continued playing his violin. That sad, depressing song on his violin. I wondered what he loved more, playing the violin, or making models in finance?