Never take a job for the ‘Prestige’
“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige.” – Paul Graham
The Grizzlies have lived, and very nearly died, chasing prestige. For much of our lives, we chased prestige and that ever present companion – money. We went to prestigious undergraduate universities and did very well, which enabled us to move onto even more prestigious graduate schools. After school ended we took jobs at the top of their fields. Mrs. Grizzly in Law. Me in a top consulting company. We worked for companies with names that ‘everyone’ at the finest cocktail parties and events would know and respect.
As Mr. Graham said, we were baited by the hook and fell for it spectacularly. We found ourselves ten years into our careers making high salaries, but toiling for companies we did not respect and for causes that we found marginal at best, deplorable at worst.
The promises of prestige are many. The first and the most obvious is money. Take the job with the big law firm, or big bank, or massive tech company, and you will be richly rewarded. Other paths are less certain or offer but a pale comparison to the sheer amount of riches foisted upon you if you choose these schools and these jobs.
The second is respect. Everyone will know that you are to be admired and trusted. You have very clearly ‘made’ it and will be afforded the dignity that comes with your high position. Men and women of a higher station will seek out your advice and counsel. Those more junior will listen with rapt attention due to the names on your resume.
The third is security. Take the prestigious road and you will never lose your footing, never stumble. Your name and your reputation will proceed you, and should you ever falter there will be helping hands to lift you up. Why wouldn’t they? You’re so valuable. You will never want for work, and your path will be easy and straight.
The fourth is riveting work. You will work on the biggest, the most interesting, and the most important matters of the day. You will speak before federal judges and have the ear of CEOs. Your work will drive the decisions of nations and move massive companies to change course. Your work will drive life and death decisions – you will hold the fate of millions in your hands!
Most of this is complete and utter bullshit.
Money is the one and only promise that is actually kept. Yes, we have been richly rewarded in our jobs. But at what cost? Is an extra $50k worth 10 years of your life? Is an extra hundred a bargain for your integrity? Mrs. Grizzlly would like nothing more than to work as a public interest attorney. I would like nothing more than to build furniture and houses with my father. We will probably do both of these things when we leave our current life. Was the ten-year detour worth a few hundred thousand? I don’t think so.
Respect. This is a funny joke. We have been covered in shit by our employers more often than a plumber. If you want a job where you are treated like dirt for about 100 hours per week then law firm associate is the job for you. If you want to be scoffed at by incredulous clients for what they think are idiotic recommendations then big consulting is right up your alley. True respect for a job well done is rarely found in these jobs and it is fleeting.
Security. A pyramid structure of up or out promotions does not make for a secure job. And even top companies can have layoffs of which junior members are usually the first to go. We have seen both. And we have seen friends get kicked to the curb after their usefulness had elapsed. These prestigious jobs have another commonality – they are mercenary. Most of their employees are also focused on chasing prestige and money, and nearly everyone will be willing to throw you under the bus if it benefits them. Trip you up if they think you might be the one to grab the brass ring instead of them.
Riveting work. How does a contract dispute regarding some arcane language buried 150 pages deep in the 16th paragraph of one clause of a contract sound? Or maybe leading a team doing just one more net present value model after 10 previous ones for a due diligence on a small coal mine in west Virginia. If this sounds like fun then I wish you luck.
These are all false promises. Prestige is never a guarantee that you will find any of these things, and often the jobs that hold the most prestige do not have to offer them. Prestige is enough to get well meaning and intelligent fools through the door. Once they’re in it’s much more difficult to escape, the hook is in their mouth and all that’s left is to reel them in.
What should you look for
If not prestige then what? I don’t have perfect answers, but I will tell you what the Grizzlies plan to look for in our future endeavors either paid or unpaid.
Take the professor, not the course. Whatever role you take on in life, the primary determinant of both your enjoyment and your success will be the people you work with, work for, or supervise. Find those you respect and that respect you. Build trust with them. Look for bosses that will pound the table in support of you and back you up when things go wrong, which they inevitably will. Look for employees who want to learn and believe you can teach them. Look for partners who could be your best friend if given time. Optimize for people and all of those promises of prestige really will come true.
Time is finite, you never get it back. Whether you want to pursue financial independence or plan to stay in the workplace, never trade time for money if you have a choice. Optimize for a life you want to live. Vacations are meaningless if you arrive too exhausted and bitter to enjoy them. Don’t sacrifice time with your family for accolades at a job. The saying is cliche but it is true, at their deathbed no one ever said they wished they spent more time in the office. If you can afford it, your life should not be something that is lived in the few small hours around your job.
Find work that is meaningful. I will not say find work that you love because they are often not the same thing. Loving your work implies that it is a joy. Meaningful work can often be arduous and difficult. I did not love my time in the Army while deployed to Iraq. Some mornings I woke up sore and exhausted, drained from the previous day and dreading the next. It was not a joy. But it was meaningful. It made a difference, and I am a better more compassionate person because I had that experience.
Summing it up
People, lifestyle, substance. Three little things that I would pound into the head of the younger versions of Mr. and Mrs. Grizzly as they left college so many years ago. Unfortunately, they took the baited hook of prestige and have paid for it over the years. But now is the time to remove the fishhook and start living.
Great post! I found your site through MMM and am really impressed with the content you’re putting out — you’re addressing lots of aspects of early retirement/FI that go beyond the ‘hows’ by also looking at ‘whys’. Love your work.
Thanks! That’s what we’re going for. I think too many people just focus on the money, while that is important I’m not sure how much better my life will be if I end up ‘retired’ but still focused on maxing out my net worth.
Nice post and enjoying your blog. Can relate to you guys on a lot of this. One comment to your post on prestige – on the flip side, if you both hadn’t sought prestige, you might not be in a position to leave your jobs as soon as you’re planning to! Just curious what your thoughts are on chasing prestige vs reaching financial independence as soon as possible, especially since the most prestigious jobs tend to pay the most.
It’s a really good question! And one were actually planning on talking about in a later post. I’ll address it in two ways. One from my perspective and one from my wife’s.
For me. I think the premise is actually incorrect. If I had left the army and immediately gotten a job in SF instead of going to business school I would actually be further along on the path to FI then I am now! The difference between the two scenarios is almost $600k. I.e. we would have been retired about a year and a half ago. Sure my max salary is probably higher now, but I have no interest in maximizing my salary when I’m 50 years old. I want to spend time with my daughter.
For my wife its a bit different. For her it’s probably true that going to law school boosted her into a much better position career wise. However, the big question is WHICH law school and what job. Even once we ‘retire’ she still wants to work for a public interest legal shop. She actually had an internship doing this one summer when I was back in the army in Kansas. If she had simply gone to KU Law school she could have had a full ride and graduated with no debt and started on her chosen path about 10 years earlier.
Great article. I’m now 2 years removed from a 6-year stint in big law, and I no longer regret the time I spent in law school and big law chasing prestige. I’m proud of what I accomplished. I think it set me up for a life time of financial security, and my background got me into a small niche practice, which is slightly less lucrative than big law, and significantly less prestigious, but also significantly less stressful and time-consuming. I think you guys did everything right, including the years of suffering!
I think it’s nuanced and depends a lot on what you want with your life. For us, we very much view the ‘years of suffering’ as a mistake, largely because we now see paths that could have avoided a significant amount of it. For me, it’s skipping a prestigious business school. For Mrs. Grizzly, it’s going to a lower-ranked law school that she got a full ride scholarship too.
I think people often look at their lives and assume the only way to get to the position they are in right now would have been to follow the same path. I think that’s incorrect. There are MANY ways to wind your way through the world, and my contention is that a smart, dedicated person will get to financial security even without the detour through ‘prestigious’ jobs.
Oh man, I’m glad I stopped caring about the prestige. It’s funny, when you’re in law school, prestige is the only thing that you care about. Who’s going to which firm, who’s on law review, who’s clerking for which judge, etc. etc. Then you get out of the real world and no one cares at all about any of that stuff. Regular people have no idea what these big law firms are or whether any particular job is a “prestigious” job or not.
I did my time in biglaw and am happy I got out of there. I definitely couldn’t have crushed my loans as fast as I did without the gig. I think alot of other young lawyers need to remember that big law isn’t forever. Treat your time in biglaw as a time to pay off your loans and then find out if you really want to stick around.
We were always surprised when no one had heard of our AMAZING firms in the real world – particularly when I went home to Kansas.
really enjoying your blog – started following the day MMM posted and check in daily. My husband and i are expecting our first (baby girl) in a few months. he’s in grad school and we’re both excited to figure out how to retire within the next 5-8 yrs. I also fell for the prestige line, even for college searches i was so focused on Ivy League that i passed up full rides elsewhere. Meanwhile, we’re planning out for our kid (+more) to go to public university :)…. Anyways, really appreciate the effort you put into your blog, it’s very thoughtful and informative !
That’s really where we think the biggest difference for us would have been as well. Most people who are able to get into the very top universities are also able to get big scholarships to ones with slightly lower ranks. If we went back, we would always choose the later. All the ‘opportunities’ available from highly ranked ones aren’t worth it.