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Can I Be Happy as an Investment Banker? The Difference Between Pursuing a Lifestyle and Following Your Passion

A Nervous Sophomore

The following question came from a sophomore finance major at a well-known state university:

I have read and heard that entry-level investment bankers have to work long hours doing meaningless grunt work assigned by bosses (sometimes portrayed as evil)…How can your career craftsman philosophy be applied to high stakes fields such as finance?

This reader believed in my career philosophy and was perfectly happy to sidestep the flawed idea that he should “follow his passion.” But the option of heading into investment banking — a popular choice for his major at his university — was making him nervous.  The requirements for standing out in this field seemed brutal and he wasn’t inspired by the rewards you can obtain for banking stardom (more respect and money in exchange for more work hours and stress).

I told him not to become an investment banker.

Here’s why…

Lifestyle-Centric Career Planning

The goal of my career philosophy is to craft a remarkable working life. The definition of “remarkable,” however, differs for different people.

One one extreme, it might capture a life of power and respect, where you’re at the center of important matters. While on another, it might capture a life of exotic travel with a minimum of work and a maximum of adventure.

Something most such visions have in common is that they contain traits that are rare and valuable. If you want them, therefore, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. This requires that you stop daydreaming about a perfect job that will make you instantly happy, and instead focus on becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

There are a tremendous number of different ways to build up this career capital, which is why I don’t put much emphasis on what specific job you take.

This being said, however, the example from our nervous sophomore above emphasizes an important nuance: not all jobs produce the type of capital you need.

If, for example, your vision involves working four hours a week from a beach, the capital obtained from an investment bank is not the right type of capital for the career traits you seek.

If your vision instead involves impacting major world events, then banking capital can serve you well.

When I talked with our sophomore from above, I learned that his definition of “remarkable” — which emphasized autonomy — was not easily acquirable with banking capital, which is why I advised him to head in a different direction. For other students with other definitions, I might have advised the opposite.

It might seem like “pursuing your definition of a remarkable life” is quite similar to “following your passion,” but for most people, it’s not. A vision for a life well-lived tends to be broad and ambiguous — touching on major distinctions in lifestyle not specific industries or types of work. These are statements of values not commitments to economic sectors.

The following, for example, fit naturally in a definition of a remarkable life:

  • A desire for time affluence.
  • A desire for influence and recognition.
  • A desire for playing a deep, meaningful role in your family and community.
  • A desire to be known for creativity or to have an impact on the world of ideas.
  • A desire to be free of financial concerns.
  • A desire for adventure.
  • A desire for minimalism (less stuff, less obligations, less mental clutter).
While this list is too specific:
  • A desire to work in education non-profits.
  • A desire to be a lawyer.
  • A desire to be an entrepreneur.

The first list describes general traits of a life well-lived. The second list describes specific strategies for obtaining these traits. My career advice thinks you should be obstinate in protecting the former while not caring much at all about the latter. You need to know where generally you want to go, but you shouldn’t get too obsessed about the uncountably many different routes that can get you there.


For more musing on this topic, see my 2008 post on lifestyle-centric career planning.

(Photo by DigiDragon)

31 thoughts on “Can I Be Happy as an Investment Banker? The Difference Between Pursuing a Lifestyle and Following Your Passion”

  1. Hey Cal,
    Lovely post. I agree with you on this. Currently I study engineering. But I do not have a specific desire. e.g. become an epic mechanical engineer. Instead I follow a desire list similar to your former list. It includes things like – a desire to be ethical, having a meaningful career in terms of advancements etc. So does not having desire for a specific field of engineering matter? I’m still a fresher in the UK so I have options open until 3rd year.

  2. If a list of specific careers is too specific a list for seeing our passions from a dawning perspective, then isn’t telling somebody not to become an investment banker too general a piece of advice? Why couldn’t he look for boutique investment shops, where he could have autonomy of his own, or some other position of that kind?

  3. Banking would give him one type of capital – money. There are people who keep expenses low, save 80% of their income, and retire in five years, giving them high autonomy to pursue whatever they want.

  4. Hey Cal,

    I agree that understanding what you want in the first list is important (I’m a minimalist kind of gal, myself). BUT, as someone who experienced graduating right in the middle of a recession, my career goals suffered (I was unemployed for 2 years) UNTIL the day I figured out what job (specifically) I wanted: in-house copywriting position at a funded ($1 mill or above) startup. A month after I decided that, I found a job that I loved.

    I get what you mean…it makes logical sense to me…but it leaves people in the dark about what to do to get a job when the time comes. It is especially hard for people like me who really could have ended up doing anything.

  5. Cal, I agree with your post. However, how do you know which skills to hone on so that you can become so good that you can’t be ignored (especially as a career craftsman)? The approach here is probably different from that of the Zen Valedictorian…

  6. Great post, but it isn’t only about the early days in your career. I have found as I have moved through all of the various stages of my life that have included starving artist to world traveler, that I am constantly seeking other opportunities. My passion is to do; not to be. The specifics have varied greatly. This year I have started on Medicare and my friends all ask me when I am going to “slow down and take life easy.” I have three active companies, work with homeless vets, travel as much as I want, and I had three discussions this week about new business ideas. I am not driven. I am driving, and I could have gotten here through a number of different paths. Not every step took me toward a goal. Some steps took me to smell the flowers, and some were the hidden gates of hell. 🙂 All were learning points. All helped me define my next step better.

  7. I love your perspective. I write on getting happy and the one thing I try to avoid the most is cliches. “Follow your passion” is one of those. Not everyone has a single passion in life–we’re all different. So finding the right career is about more practical considerations as well.

  8. Hey Cal,

    I found this post to be very interesting and it confirmed by belief that you should decide what exactly you want out of life, whether it is fame, money, freedom, etc. and then line up your actions to achieve that goal.

    However, I find this advice kind of contradictory to another of your articles that I read, “Zen and the Art of Investment Banking: When Working Right is More Important Than Finding the Right Work.” In this article, you talk about Thomas, a 20-something who works in the tech department of an investment bank and quits his job to spend time at a Zen Monastery, only to realize that the job itself was not the problem, but his unrealistic expectations about the job. Furthermore, in the majority of other articles you’ve written that I’ve read, (i.e. “Does a Remarkable Life Require Courage and Effort?” and “Are Passions Serendipitously Discovered or Painfully Constructed?”) you describe how it’s not the job itself that you should be focused on, but the acquisition of useful skills that society will reward you for in turn.

    My question is, given the advice that you’ve given about appreciating whatever job you have and simply focusing on the mastery of specialized skills, why did you not advise the sophomore to continue staying in Investment Banking so that he could find a niche (i.e. M&A) which he could excel at and then get recognition for this talent? Also, given the fact that I am in a similar situation as the student mentioned (I am also a finance major and am interested in autonomy), what other fields in finance did you recommend to him? I’m just curious since I feel that most jobs in finance, especially at the entry level, don’t allow for much autonomy.

    Would be curious to hear your thoughts,


    • James,

      Did you get an answer to this question? Be it from your own research or from the past 4 years of your life since you posted this? I am in this exact situation and would love to get your wisdom if you’ve found it.

  9. I have found your site quite helpful Cal! I think your career philosophy has evolved nicely and this post brings the key ideas together. Despite your posting of lifestyle-centric career planning in 2008 this was not emphasized in The Career Craftsman Manifesto and similar posts that followed. “Not all jobs produce the type of capital you need” is key.

  10. Does any job at the entry level allow for autonomy? I can’t think of an example. My impression is that first you have to pay your dues.

    Like James, I wonder why you didn’t advice the sophomore to specialize and become an expert in a narrow field?

  11. Hi there,

    I love this post. I had once been a sophomore finance student, and the thought of investment banking as the only career worth pursuing also made me nervous, a lot. It took quite some time for me to “break up” from finance and pursue what I really want. I guess allowing yourself to go through a transition, figuring out what you really want and build a bridge towards it is really key.

    I don’t regret having been a finance student because it gives me a lot of transferrable skills that really helps in the transition process. My only advice is stick to what makes you feel strong and follow your heart. Good luck!


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