Maria Bartiromo shares how CEOs and business schools are changing the way they define success… and why you should do the same:
I recently gave a talk at Wake Forest University to students about to graduate from business school. During the discussion period, one student said, “I’m not sure what I’ll do. When I decided to go to business school, everyone was telling me it was such a good idea, that it’s the path that will take you to where the money is. Until the recession hit last year, I expected to start earning a high salary right after graduation. I need that salary because of my student loans, and I deserve it because of how hard I’ve worked. Now what am I supposed to do?” I felt for the guy. I’m sure he was very bright and capable, but I also saw him as a clear example of many students today who have lost their way. They’ve been following someone else’s playbook for so long that they don’t know how to think about their futures in anything other than monetary terms.
My first job out of school paid $18,000 a year, and it wasn’t that long ago. My peers and I didn’t expect to make big bucks right away. What we dreamed of was the chance to get a foot in the door, to make a start at following our dreams. Today’s students have very high—and sometimes unrealistic—expectations for how they deserve to be compensated as soon as they graduate. But no one is “entitled” to make a lot of money.
After my talk, I sat down with Steven Reinemund, the former CEO of PepsiCo and now the dean of the Wake Forest business school. He told me how difficult his job was because the primary way the university attracted new students was to show how many graduates landed high paying jobs with top firms. Students thought solely in terms of the potential compensation. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a lot of money, but its role has become far too important in the way people think about or define success. At the time of my speech, many of the top firms weren’t hiring. The well had run dry. I interviewed PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at the university, on stage in front of students. She was very candid. I asked her what her advice was for students trying to find their way in this environment. She said it was a major opportunity.
When else would you have the chance to follow your heart and take money out of the equation? She said it was time for people to look at the world, find the needs, and try to give back, and she encouraged the students to use the first year or two out of school to do good for someone in need, to volunteer, or to travel. In other words, to use the tough job market as an opportunity to stretch themselves.
Steve Reinemund was also very thoughtful about the business environment and the implications for the university. He said to me, “Business schools need to change. Currently, the best gauge we have for how well we’re doing is when recruiters offer our students the highest paying jobs. It occurs to me that this is the wrong gauge. We’re encouraging students to want the most money instead of pursuing jobs based on what they love, what they’re good at, and what could have a beneficial impact on the country and the world.” This gauge was partly responsible for creating the bubble in financial services that burst in 2008. Talented MBAs came out of business schools, and instead of choosing careers in a variety of sectors that form the underpinnings of the economy—manufacturing, health services, technology, and the like—they headed for big money at Goldman Sachs and private equity firms like the Blackstone Group. Why? Not necessarily for love, but for money.
We began to discuss what it would mean if the measures of success for a university were tied not to how much money its graduates earned but to something deeper and more lasting. This was already beginning to happen to a certain extent, with universities like Wake Forest encouraging students to get involved in programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps as ways to build their résumés. Career counselors at schools could play an important role by helping students explore career options outside Wall Street.
I asked Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, what advice he would give to students coming out of school today that would set them on a course for success. Nouriel is incredibly astute. A full two years before the financial collapse of 2008, he predicted that the United States was headed for a major housing bust, an oil crisis, and a recession that would create a seismic shock in the world economy. Few people gave his predictions credence. The New York Times nicknamed him “Dr. Doom.” Today Nouriel has been proved right. While his message isn’t always easy to hear, he’s one of those rare people who has his finger on the pulse of the economy. Nouriel believes that students shouldn’t go into finance, but instead should share the wealth of their knowledge and experience in other fields. “I think this country needs more people who are going to be entrepreneurs, more people in manufacturing, more people going into sectors that will lead to long-term economic growth,”he told me. “When the best minds of the country are all going to Wall Street, there is a distortion in the allocation of human capital that eventually becomes inefficient.”
Nouriel’s point is crucial: We must reevaluate what success means and how we talk about success, especially to the young people who are making decisions about their futures. Over the past twenty-five years, the financial services arena has grown in importance, becoming a dominant part of our economy. It has a tremendous allure, with most of the talented people coming out of business school headed into financial careers where they are very highly paid. They were no longer considering the broad scheme of the economy and looking at careers in manufacturing, biotech, and other bedrock industries. Now we’ve had a shock to the financial system. The allure is gone, and so are the jobs.
I always tell students, “Don’t go into an industry because you feel that you’re going to get rich from it. Don’t take a job because you think that’s the best money you can make. Always take a job because you love what you do. The money can follow, but if you don’t love what you do, you’re going to be miserable. And if you’re not happy, you’re not going to want to work.”
And now I challenge students to take it one more step: “Imagine if all jobs paid the same. What would you want to do with your life?”
I invite you to ask yourself that question now. Be honest. If you took money out of the equation, what would be your ideal profession? If it’s different from what you’re actually doing or training to do, you face a serious dilemma—a conflict of self-interest. In that case, measure the distance between your aspirations and your reality, and start taking action to narrow the gap. How much are you willing to sacrifice to do the work you love? It’s fine to have aspirations that include financial success. After all, a key premise of capitalism is the opportunity to prosper, no matter where you start out. On the other hand, if you study the backgrounds of the most prosperous people in society today, you’ll see stories of achievement from the ground up. Oprah Winfrey started out as a local radio reporter in Tennessee. Steven Spielberg began his career as an unpaid intern at Universal Studios. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina worked for years as a secretary at financial firms. Warren Buffett was an investment salesman in Omaha. Ron Meyer, now the head of Universal, started out as his boss’s driver. There are hundreds of similar examples. Today, because their lives seem magical, it’s easy to forget how they got there.