The temptations you face when working in finance

Filed in Work by on October 3, 2014 1 Comment

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Michael Lewis writes about the occupational hazards of working on Wall Street. He wonders why so many bright graduates still go into finance and what temptations they face when they arrive there.

The question I’ve always had about this army of young people with seemingly endless career options who wind up in finance is: What happens next to them? People like to think they have a “character,” and that this character of theirs will endure, no matter the situation. It’s not really so. People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment, and often the best a person can do, if he wants to behave in a certain manner, is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on his character.

One moment this herd of graduates of the nation’s best universities are young people — ambitious yes, but still young people — with young people’s ideals and hopes to live a meaningful life. The next they are essentially old people, at work gaming ratings companies, and designing securities to fail so they might make a killing off the investors they dupe into buying them, and rigging various markets at the expense of the wider society, and encouraging all sorts of people to do stuff with their capital and their companies that they never should do.

Not everyone on Wall Street does stuff that would have horrified them, had it been described to them in plain English, when they were 20. But enough do that it makes you wonder. What happens between then and now?

All occupations have hazards. An occupational hazard of the Internet columnist, for instance, is that he becomes the sort of person who says whatever he thinks will get him the most attention rather than what he thinks is true, so often that he forgets the difference.

The occupational hazards of Wall Street are more interesting — and not just because half the graduating class of Harvard still wants to work there. Some are obvious — for instance, the temptation, when deciding how to behave, to place too much weight on the very short term and not enough on the long term. Or the temptation, if you make a lot of money, to deploy financial success as an excuse for failure in other aspects of your life. But some of the occupational hazards on Wall Street are less obvious.

Her lists some of them:

— Anyone who works in finance will sense, at least at first, the pressure to pretend to know more than he does.

— Anyone who works in big finance will also find it surprisingly hard to form deep attachments to anything much greater than himself.

— More generally, anyone who works in big finance will feel enormous pressure to not challenge or question existing arrangements.

Read the full article if you want to see his analysis.

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Fr Jerome Santamaria

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Fr Jerome Santamaria is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia.

Comments (1)

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  1. Tonia says:

    He’s talking about very smart young people. Someone (perhaps their parents or teachers) has set them thinking that Harvard is the place they should aspire to go. Harvard then sets up Wall Street as the destination their top students should be aiming for. It sounds like they’re being sent into a bit of a cesspit; even if it is a well paid one. Hopefully some of these young people are smart enough to maintain their integrity and to choose their own path.

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