The prestigious path is not always the best route

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Last week, I wrote about cooks and chefs.

Cooks copy the path of others while chefs learn from others’ paths to build their own.

Competitive environments (and especially business programs) are breeding grounds for cooks. Our desire to compare ourselves to one another creates a culture where working for big name firms and following “the path” are perceived as prestigious.

Unfortunately, this sentiment trickles down and influences the thought process of younger students. Rather than aspiring to learn as much as possible and build a career path that best fits oneself, students often take a cook’s approach and try to copy the prestigious route of older students.

This phenomenon is painfully apparent at the world’s most elite universities. 70% of the Harvard graduating class applied to jobs in Investment Banking or Management Consulting.1

A handful of years ago, 50% of Harvard graduates took full time jobs on Wall Street.

Even though these jobs offer accelerated learning and career trajectories, I’m skeptical that this was the right career move for the majority of these students.

I believe students would benefit from approaching their career with a chef’s mindset (first principles thinking), rather than molding their career around the prestigious job of the decade and ignoring their true passions. While I will use finance as an example, most professions have its own version of the “prestigious tried and true path.”

Also, a reader mentioned that a big incentive for new graduates to follow the path is for financial stability to pay off student debt. This is a totally fair point that I do not address in the rest of this post, but is worth noting as you figure out your career path.

Below are some thoughts that are a bit contrarian to conventional thinking. If you have a different or similar perspective, reply back and let me know -- I’d love to hear from you.

At UC Berkeley, I met a significant number of students who aspired to work in investment banking -- a prestigious, lucrative job with grueling work hours (often over 80 hours/week).It’s a big commitment. Roughly 8,000 hours of your life over 2 years.

When’s the last time you whimsically committed to something that took 8,000 hours?

Yet when I ask these students (sometimes as young as Freshmen) why they want to work in investment banking, I often hear half-baked answers that signal cook-like career thinking.

Common answers include:

  • “I want to work in private equity/venture capital/hedge funds, and investment banking is the proven path to get there”
  • “I want to attend a top business school in the future”
  • “I want keep my options open -- you can always do investment banking first and anything else afterwards, but not the other way around”

A more specific answer is:

  • “I’m interested in learning about how businesses are run, drivers of mergers and acquisitions, and how to build financial models.

My follow up question is always “why?”

Why do you want to work in PE/VC/HF?

  • Have you talked to anyone who currently works in these industries?
  • What aspects do you like about the role?
  • What experiences have you had that leads you to believe (hypothesize) that this is the right role for you?

Why do you want to attend a top business school?

  • What is your goal after business school?
  • Can you achieve your career goals without business school?
  • What happens if you don’t get into a top business school? Would you go to an okay one?

Why does it matter if it’s harder to do investment banking in the future?

  • Is investment banking a means to an end or an end in itself?
  • If it’s a means to an end and you skip it but get to the same end, why would you want to go backwards?
  • When will you focus on figuring out what you want to do in your career?

Why do you want to learn financial modeling and M&A?

  • What do you find interesting about financial modeling and M&A?
  • How does this skill fit into your longer term career goals?
  • Is this so important to you that you want to optimize the next 8,000 hours of your life around learning the ins and outs of this skill?

These question are often met with blank stares.

Rather than spending time introspectively thinking about the why, it’s far easier to follow the same path as other ambitious students and defer challenging yourself with difficult career and existential questions.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to defer these tough questions for far longer than your first 2 years in an investment banking analyst program.

Investment banking is the first step in the prized 6-year career path called “2+2+2.”2 years in investment banking +  2 years in private equity/venture capital/hedge funds + 2 years at a top business school like HBS or GSB

This is the ultimate cook’s recipe -- akin to a world-class recipe from a 3 Michelin star restaurant. Follow this path and you’re virtually guaranteed to have many lucrative career options.

However, there are many professionals and aspiring students who follow this career path despite lacking a strong passion for finance. It serves as a crutch to avoid asking yourself what you want to do with your career.

Last week, I explained my thoughts on Tim Urban’s tunnel analogy:

“There is a tendency is to purposefully choose a career path that seems like a tunnel.

This means choosing careers where the next handful of years are well defined. These tend to be professions like doctors, lawyers, researchers, finance professionals, etc.

From this perspective, tunnels provide structure to an otherwise ambiguous career path. There’s a sense of security knowing that you have direction in your life as long as you are in the tunnel.

What people think a career landscape looks like image

However, problems arise when you enter tunnels without a realistic understanding of the experience on the other side.”

The real career landscape image

Similar to law school, the prestigious 2+2+2 career path serves as a tunnel to shield you from the chaotic unknown that is inherent in the career landscape.

It’s easy to assume that your career is set after spending a handful of years in the world’s most prestigious financial institutions and earning a top-tier MBA.

But for the professional who was never interested in finance long term, where does that leave them? What do they do now?

I’ve seen this pattern play out multiple times. One 2+2+2 professional told me “I’ve hated every job I’ve had since graduating college, I’m just hoping this next one is something I like.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t end up liking the next job he tried either. And this all happened despite having a resume most business students dream of.

My hypothesis for why this happened is because he didn’t spend enough time reflecting on his longer term career aspirations and didn’t have enough diverse experiences to understand himself.

Realistically, he likely didn’t even have the time to think about this because of the grueling work hours of finance jobs and the allure of chasing the next step in the tunnel.

All of his experience was in finance, despite how obvious it was that finance wasn’t his true calling.

If you spend years of your career chasing the end of a tunnel, at what point do you even question if you’re in the right tunnel?

At what point do you realize tunnels are artificial constructs -- today, careers are too fluid to have predefined tracks.

There’s also this unrealistic notion that getting an MBA or similar graduate degree will solve all your problems. The idea being that once you have a top MBA, you’ll know what you want to do with your career and will be able to walk into any job.

However, the 29-year-old HBS graduate with valuable experiences in management consulting, investment banking, or technology is often trying to figure out her career path just like you are.

After working with professionals with much more experience than myself, I’ve realized we are all more similar than we are different.

Discovering your path is an ongoing, iterative process that deserves deep introspection every step of the way. Unfortunately, tunnels often get in the way of iterative learning by giving people an excuse to defer dealing with reality.

What this means for you

To reiterate, the purpose of this post is not to knock on the finance profession or MBAs. A similar tunnel phenomenon occurs in many other career paths and is worth watching out for.

If you are interested in finance, there may be fantastic reasons for why 2+2+2 makes sense for you.

However, taking the well-paved, prestigious route does not guarantee fulfillment or happiness -- especially when your passions lie elsewhere.

My goal was to show you how things are usually not as simple as they seem. There’s no such thing as a silver bullet career path to greatness. It’s easy to get caught in sweeping generalizations and tunnel-view as a young professional.

As you explore your career landscape, I encourage you to keep an open mind and focus on the skills and experiences of each career path instead of the job title and prestige.

For example, if you’re an undergraduate with little finance or professional experience, you shouldn’t be dead set on investment banking (or any other job for that matter).

Instead, put together a hypothesis of the types of things you’re interested in learning -- it just might be learning how businesses work, the drivers of mergers and acquisitions, and how to build financial models.

Afterwards, seek professional experiences to validate or disprove these hypotheses. You may find that you hate spending hours a day in Excel after your first summer internship in finance.

In the moment you will feel directionless after disproving your hypothesis -- what you thought you liked is no longer true.

However, it’s much better to realize you don’t like Excel before committing yourself to thousands of hours of financial modeling.

By continually collecting experiences and gradually refining your hypotheses, you are learning about yourself at an accelerated pace. Simultaneously, broader your horizons and explore the career landscape by networking and learning the ins and outs of different jobs.

The career finding journey image

And as you navigate this process, dissect the skills, experiences, and culture of a given job and see if they match with who you are and who you aspire to become.

With enough iterations, you will build a sense of conviction in your career direction and will avoid trekking through a 6-year career tunnel desperately waiting for the light on the other side.

By doing this, you will learn to navigate your career with a chef’s mindset, using first-principles thinking to build a customized career that’s best for your unique self.

It all starts with asking yourself “why” at every step of the way.

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