A friend of mine just started work at a major consulting firm, and he wasn’t on the job two weeks before he pulled his first all-nighter. Speaking as somebody who has never performed that quintessentially collegiate feat, I think the number of hours investment banks and consultancies require from associates is ridiculous. Arguably, it is an efficient setup since the workers are willing to show up for work and the firms are willing to beat the drum and sign the pay checks. However, an inefficiency is present deriving from the stupidity of the average 22-year-old. As a stupid 22-year-old, I think I can speak as an authority on the matter.
Prior to employment at the Bank of AccentureGoldman, any motivated student-turned-associate has devoted much of her life to productive use of what little leisure time she has managed to find. Most of what she has done has had future value — value either for obtaining employment or admission to higher education. The end result of this mechanism of time allocation is that our newly minted college graduate probably does not have a good idea what she would like to do with her life aside from work. Well, good news! She can limit the specter of unfilled and unproductive leisure time by working an inhuman number of hours.
On the face of it, the marginal cost of working 70-90 hours each week is fairly low for our new associate, who wouldn’t really know what to do with that time anyway. But in reality, the marginal cost of working those hours is far beyond the few extra thousand per year an I-banker or consultant gets paid. By choosing to work so much, our associate friend is missing out on the opportunity to figure out what her interests and desires are outside those dictated by the rat race of achievement that dominates high school and college these days. And even if she didn’t study too much in college, finding out that she likes to get drunk doesn’t count as figuring out her interests. I also maintain that there is some valuable growth to be had outside of the university context.
I concede that there are many intangible benefits to be derived from working so hard at prestigious firms — resume value, experience, etc. I’m not sure that I’m persuaded, however, that this value far exceeds that which could be gained from a job requiring only 50 hours per week. Once you have passed 60 hours per week, you have essentially surrendered the possibility for a meaningful life outside of work and accepted that most of your life’s meaning is going to be derived from TPS reports. Additionally, to work for resume value is to perpetuate the focus on the future value of present actions.
The view is great from up here on my high horse. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that I haven’t chosen to do the same thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that I work just as hard as my consultant friends. Worse yet, “$50K” to them refers to pre-bonus salary; to me, it means annual living and tuition expenses. So how do I reconcile all this and manage to live as an intellectually and philosophically consistent person? Well, I’m pretty sure I don’t.
I have made a few decisions, however. The first is that I’m not going to look to money as the guiding focus of my professional life. If that means I can’t buy a fourth yacht, then so be it. There are a lot of people these days with more money than they possibly know what to do with, and it isn’t imperative for me to become one. The marginal benefit of money once you’ve hit $10 million declines precipitously, yet many CEOs continue to work themselves into the ground because they have no other means by which to satisfy or approve of themselves.
Additionally, I’m going to do all that I can to make sure that I derive value both from within my employment and apart from it. I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a significant pronouncement to the more enlightened of you, but I’ve always figured that it was inevitable for me to work long hours in a job I didn’t like. I’ve recently — yes, only recently — realized that this is inevitable only if I allow it to be by not making a proactive decision to prevent it. If you are intellectually and emotionally satisfied by life inside and outside of work, the amount of money you have beyond subsistence level becomes pretty unimportant. Especially if you have rich consultant friends.
Nick Caton is a first-year student at the Law School.