Invest in Life, Not Your Wallet


Last year, several of my friends—all intelligent, interesting, and creative people—surrendered to the call of Wall Street. A starting salary of $65,000 a year, they claimed, was simply too good to turn down. As recruiting season reaches a feverish pitch, it’s likely that more of my friends will soon be making the same decision. This year, I’m going to do more than shrug my shoulders. To those who haven’t yet signed away the next three years of your lives: I’m not going to tell you not to be I-bankers or consultants because it’s evil, or because you’re “selling out to the man,” or because you’re participating in a system of corporate global hegemony. Leave ethics out of it. You should avoid these jobs for selfish reasons.

It all boils down to what we learned in Ec 10—the class that teaches us not only how to be more selfish, but how to justify it. One of the first things that the Arbiter of Objectivity himself, Marty Feldstein, taught us was that, in every choice we make in life, we must make a cost-benefit analysis. We make hundreds of cost-benefit analyses every day, weighing options as small as sleeping in rather than making that 10 a.m. section to options as large as going to Wall Street rather than taking a lower-paying, but more fulfilling job. I’ve done the cost-benefit analysis: in the end, Wall Street pales in comparison to doing something you really love. Even with the $65,000 salary, it is economically irrational to become an I-banker or consultant.

Don’t worry. I will clarify—I know this sounds like gibberish coming from a would-be filmmaker who will make $20,000 a year if lucky.

Here goes. There are 168 hours in a week. If we work 80 of these hours, we have 88 hours left. Let’s be generous and give ourselves five hours of sleep per night, which gives us a total of 35 hours of sleep per week. Let’s subtract two more hours per day for waking up in the morning, getting dressed, taking a shower, transportation to and from work, and doing mindless but necessary chores. This means we only have 39 hours left. Assuming we will not take pleasure in the 80 hours a week we spend filling spreadsheets or doling out advice on how to cut costs, the mathematical conclusion is that we have less than 25 percent of our day to enjoy. Forgive me, but I can’t understand how anyone is willing to limit himself to enjoying under a quarter of his life.

There is a strange, but pervasive concept that we are not really supposed to enjoy our work. We create a needless dichotomy between work (bad or neutral) and leisure (good). Too often, we regard work simply as a means to a later goal of leisure, and we view leisure hours as intrinsically more valuable than work hours. By placing a premium on time off, people are willing to spend up to 100 hours a week working at a job they hate, only to spend a few hours partying at the swankiest, most exclusive clubs. This is what I don’t get: how can the four hours we spend drinking $13 cocktails at Pravda justify sitting trapped in a cubicle for the vast majority of our week?

My detractors will argue for quality over quantity: in the few hours they have to party, they really party, and when they do crawl into bed, they’re crawling into a king-size Tempur-Pedic rather than a raggedy futon. They have a point. In taking a lower-paying job, you may have to live in Brooklyn instead of the West Village, drink Miller instead of martinis, and—gasp—cut coupons rather than shell out $50 for Sunday brunch. And granted, this lifestyle will probably be a little bit less fun.

But, in doing something you love, you’ll still have 80 more hours to enjoy every week. You’ll have the possibility of enjoying 75 percent of your life, rather than 25 percent. Personally, I would pay for those 80 extra hours. You could look at passing up Wall Street as taking a pay cut of $45,000 (assuming I forgo consulting or I-banking for a $20,000 job as an assistant to a filmmaker). I actually look at it as paying that $45,000 for the privilege not to spend 80 hours a week in a job I hate. This may be the easiest cost-benefit analysis I’ve ever made.

Now, if you actually do have a passion for crunching numbers and coming up with corporate solutions, then go right ahead. Some people love making multi-million-dollar corporations even richer; some people get a rush when they instruct companies to move jobs to Mexico. And, realistically, the world needs more I-Bankers and consultants. After all, what would poor Phillip Morris do without its thousands of economic advisors, who courageously keep the company afloat in an age of endless anti-smoking legislation? So, if you are in this boat—if you cannot be happy unless you work for Goldman, or if you are simply a concerned citizen who wants to do your part in helping corporations stay competitive—then ignore this article completely and continue to pursue your dreams. Just like I believe every professional athlete who says, “It’s not about the money,” when he abandons the home team for a larger contract, I believe you, too.

However, if you are doing it for the money, don’t. You don’t have to be Marty Feldstein to realize that it’s just not worth it.

Sam Graham-Felsen ’03-’04 is a social studies concentrator affiliated with Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.