Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Solving the Right Problems

I just finished reading Ready Player One,by Ernest Cline. (Yeah, I pretty much never update my "What I'm Reading" sidebar. I am only marginally better about updating GoodReads...) If you haven't read it, I recommend it highly. It was great fun, particularly for someone who grew up in the 80s, but it also raised some interesting things to ponder.

I don't think I am giving anything away by saying that one of the themes of the book is the risk of having people devote all of their time and problem-solving skills to imaginary worlds in the computer while the real world crumbles around them.

That theme intertwines with some things I have been thinking about recently, prompted in part by Cal Newport's recent post about how so many of Dartmouth's valedictorians became investment bankers. He argues that it is due to our shallow vocabulary around career aspirations, but I wonder if it might be something more, similar to the issue raised in Ready Player One, in which people have disengaged from trying to solve important problems to chase something else- in this case, money.

I think we have lost sight of the purpose of money. So many people seem to use money as a kind of score-keeping system, to track who is "winning" at life. I think that is wrong-headed, to say the least. To me, money is just a tool, a way to secure the lifestyle I want. Once I get that lifestyle, I hope I'll have the sense to realize I don't need more money. (I have a pretty nice lifestyle already- all that is missing right now is the flexibility to travel more. I'm working on that.)

It is not all about having a nice car
Which is not to say that I'd turn down more money if it came my way, just that I hope I'd stop chasing it. And I hope I'd then take the excess money and use it to work on some of the really big problems out there.

This is not intended to criticize everyone who has made a bucket of money and chosen to do differently. Who knows? Perhaps they haven't reached the lifestyle they want, or perhaps they just haven't made the time to use their riches for good yet. But I do wish we'd stop lionizing the super wealthy as the people whose lives we should most want to emulate. Getting rich should not be the sole goal in life.

While we're at it, I wish we'd stop holding up tech entrepreneurs who created a company on their own as embodying the one true way to start a company (and get rich, of course, it is always about getting rich). It is just one way to do it.

I am not criticizing the lone techie entrepreneur, either. I am in fact considering trying to start a company that way! But it is not the only way, and it creates serious limitations in the types of problems the company can tackle. Some undertakings inherently require a large team and a lot of capital: drug discovery and energy innovations are two fields that spring to mind. Companies tackling these sorts of problems need people with technical brilliance, but they need people who know how to organize the work and make sure the team works together to get it done, too. No single technical genius is going to bring a drug to market or fix our dependence on fossil fuels. This realization is one of the things keeping me from abandoning my current career. In some ways, I can work on more important problems as an employee in a company than I can as an entrepreneur out on my own.

Since not all companies can be started by a lone techie in his or her garage, the world definitely does need investment bankers. But maybe we don't need quite so many- and we definitely don't need the attitude that the most important thing you can do with your life is make more and more money. If that's the goal we're all chasing, I can almost guarantee that we're not solving the right problems.


  1. Funny, my cousin and I were just talking about this yesterday, but in the context of how few people of our generation from our culture go into internal medicine / mental health medicine where there's so much need for legitimate experts.

    Instead, we see people in the previous generation going to quack doctors who prescribe medications like they're candy without ever addressing the root problems, and more and more of our generation going into those areas of medicine or money-chasing that are all about the rich and/or easy lifestyle and not at all about the good they could do.

    Certainly not everyone is cut out to be a doctor but it seems like most of the choices being made by our generation (anecdotally) leave huge gaps in the medical and social infrastructure, exacerbating the existing medical and mental health problems that seem so prevalent in our culture.

    1. And then there's the question of how our society has so screwed up its rewards system so that we're not rewarding the people who do the work we need the most... The answer to that is way outside my field of expertise!

  2. I'd be wary of singling out any one career as being all about the money. Financial services do tend to attract talent in part because these tend to be well-compensated careers -- on the other hand, I saw a chart recently showing that the pay curve is steeper in consulting. To be sure, many specialties pay more than primary care, but some of them also offer a much better lifestyle over time -- so that attracts people too. In its basic form, as you point out, investment banking serves a useful role of channeling the capital that's out there in the market toward new businesses to help them grow. It probably doesn't need as many people as it attracts, but some of this gets shaken out -- there have been a lot of layoffs in the last few years. The hedge fund industry (different than ibanking but anyway) is definitely consolidating as the added returns don't seem to be there so much anymore.
    Personally, I think people should do what they want and then try to find ways to be well compensated within that field. After all, the income associated with any given field can change a lot. Your specialty can see its reimbursements cut. Bonuses can go down. Etc.

    1. I don't mean that all investment bankers are necessarily in it solely for the money- just that the field seems to attract a significant portion of the people whose goal in life is to make money. I'm sure there are some investment bankers who genuinely love finance. But then there seem to be people who went into that field because that was where the money was.

      And it is not unique to investment banking. We're even seeing it in tech- people going into tech with the sole goal of getting rich. Not to build something cool that people love or build something useful that changes the world- just to get rich. And then they get rich and the money just piles up. They buy stupidly large houses and ridiculously expensive cars, but then what? To me, those people have lost sight of what money really is, or at least what I think it should be.

  3. Same with the medical field. I keep hearing from med-school friends that they don't want to go into primary care simply because specialists pay more. Many want to go into dermatology because it's highly lucrative. While I know that dermatology is important, it seems like we have many skilled people choosing this field and focusing on cosmetic side of things, when other needs are greater. It would be interesting to hear from med-school students and doctors on this.

    1. I met someone once who transitioned from ob/gyn to dermatology. She did it not for the money, but for the predictable hours and lower insurance burden/risk of being sued.

    2. Dermatology has become so terrible I'm afraid to go to a dermatologist. In my old town the dermatology offices were run like spas, and they were all about cosmetic procedures. I have a family history of melanoma and need serious care. It freaks me out to think I have to fend off someone wanting to get rid of my wrinkles in order to get my moles checked! (I end up searching out drs who have done fellowships in cancer etc.)

  4. Alexicographer8:58 PM

    I've been struck by this sort of thing, too, but at a somewhat different angle, by the PF bloggers who are of the "retire early" stripe. For them it doesn't seem to be about "as much money as possible," but rather about "enough money," but also (often) about "quit your day job!" Now I have nothing against the quitting of day jobs (or retirement, or having enough money, however much that may be), but I do wonder a bit at the implication that ... your job (any job) is not worth doing if you don't need the money. You rube!

    I assume that some of these bloggers are in fact putting their time to good use in non-paid manner. But it still makes me sad that one way to read their message is that no job is worthwhile because -- um, no. Sure, there's idiocy and overconsumption created through our paid workforce, but there's also a lot of utility in the Millsian sense of the word (and that's true whether we're looking at drug development, home health care providers, road crews, park rangers, or teachers.)

    (Also, while I'm absolutely in favor of volunteering, I've done a bunch of it and a quick observation is that many basically legit organizations make really lousy/inefficient use of volunteers' time and skills. Relying on paid providers, that is, employees, can encourage organizers/supervisors to avoid, or at least reduce this problem. Not all about "volunteer" is good, and not all about "work" is bad, even just from the perspective of getting simple tasks done)

    1. That's a good point! There was a time when I could honestly say that I'd keep doing my exact same job if I won the lottery (not that I ever played...) I can't say that anymore, and maybe that sums up my career angst right there.

  5. I would definitely keep my job if I won the lottery! I'd buy myself out of some teaching, though.

    I think all this stuff about choosing a career that makes you the most money is pretty illustrative of the poverty (poverty of imagination, of the soul if you will) that's at the heart of pure capitalist system. I don't have anything against making money, buying yourself out, or early retirement. But if that were my end goal in life - well, it just feels small to me. But that's what everything in our society points young people toward - it starts in school. You have to go to college to get a job (no other reason!), you have to pick your major that will lead to a lucrative career! (Even though tons of people have graduated with degrees in English and Art History and have been affluent, successive people.) So much is about the bottom line. I guess when you have a society that's stripped away all its social safety net people need to be hyper focused on money? Having money seems mostly about consuming anyway, though, not traveling and living a fun filled life. That's not how I roll. I'd rather sit in a cafe on a sunny afternoon and watch the world walk by. I love my work, but I love my life more.


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