(originally published in Quartz on February 28, 2013)
I am a 60-year-old child of the 60’s who never gave up on the idea that I can save the world—even after three decades on Wall Street.
That is why I enjoyed the piece by William MacAskill, To save the world, don’t get a job at a charity; go work on Wall Street.
The problem is that this is more easily said than done. Most people working on Wall Street can make ends meet while a small few can make vastly more money than they need. The trick is to make sure that the process of making money does no harm.
Answer: More than they have ever made.
The real opportunity to do good on Wall Street is to reform it from within. But to do the right thing you have to be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong, and then you must be able to say “no” when ordered to do the wrong thing.
Here is my advice if you want to come to Wall Street and do good:
- Have a strong moral compass and a thick skin. Practiced righteousness about what other people should do isn’t the same as being in the right. You’ll need to recognize when you’re ordered to do the wrong thing, and you’ll need to not do it. Time spent not facing these issues does not prepare you for the time when you will have to.
- Be independently wealthy when you arrive. Doing the right thing might require you quit your job (or lose it) and perhaps never work in the industry again. You might be different from everyone else, but I doubt it. If you are still paying off a student loan (or a mortgage, or your kid’s college bills, or saving for retirement) then you will find a way to rationalize bad behavior rather than refuse to do it.
- If you have the moral compass but lack the funds, then whatever you do, live very modestly and save the difference rather than give it to charity. That money might come in handy some day when doing the right thing requires you to quit and go the regulators and the press. If you make it into old age with a pile of dough and a clear conscience then you can give it to charity—or better yet, get creative and be charitable with your time and money doing things other charity mongers haven’t thought of yet.
- Make sure you have an awesome in-demand skill and be the kind of “resource” people jockeying for resources will fight over. People will put up with you being good if you are good at something they need desperately.
I wrote a piece for my Physics major son and his cohorts that was published by Science magazine called, What Not to Do With Your Physics Education. My advice is that they not join me on Wall Street because, as I conclude the article, “It’s not that I feel they would not succeed; many will make lots of money. It’s more like how I would feel about sending a poorly equipped son to a dubious war where many generals are in it not for the cause but for the spoils.”
I notice a certain naïveté among some academics, non-profiteers, and people who lack hard skills. They believe that all they have to do is lower their standards just a tiny bit in order to be in high demand on Wall Street and make tons of money. Then they imagine they can make up for it by supporting good causes.
Good luck with that.