‘How would that make me change?’, asked my favorite millennial in a buzzing French bistro in Mexico City’s midtown while talking about the new chapter of her professional life. A long strip of deep sounding yet barely coherent ideas came out of my mouth. Later, I thought about it more because it is indeed important, you know, the way we all change. So before you forget about this old investor writing about millennials, I have one last piece of advice to share about the journey ahead.
If you don’t change and develop, you get stuck. You get left behind with yourself. — J.H. Prynne
‘There is no reason not to follow your heart’, famously recommended Steve Jobs. It’s very difficult to fault Jobs, however I’m afraid things are a bit more complicated. Not only for the immense courage it requires to pursue your passion but because it may lead you to roads that end up changing your character. It’s no news that our “gut” feeling sometimes cheats us, directing us in the right direction until confusion sets in and changes course. Often times, life gets us disoriented and our overthinking only makes things worse. In my experience of making mistakes and seeing people go wrong, I believe our archilles’ heel, even if you think you are following world’s favorite founders’ advice, is falling prey to money and success.
Beyond the caricature that paints greed and vanity as rotting good souls, the gold rush and the race to the top may change you before you have even finished counting the bounty.
Indeed, these man made motivations change you in that all your next decisions -what you fail, what you build and what you learn — will either get you closer to your special you or separate you from your essence. A great life may slowly start drifting somewhere very crowded but utterly empty.
Don’t go for gold
After a few years working in retail as I was starting my MBA, I discovered finance. I found it to be as objective as economics and math, yet ambiguous and practical like business. I loved the intellectual challenge and found myself enjoying poring over financial reports to the point that I seriously considered the idea of becoming some sort of banker. I did my homework and started conversing with classmates and professors about my potential carreer switch. None of those conversations helped me conquer my indecision as much as short trip back to Mexico in the summer of 2003. I was having lunch with my former boss next to a group of investment bankers. A pack of financiers is hard to miss when it’s out in the wild.
They are like a matryoshka doll, from older richer banker to younger somewhat rich banker to baby banker. All male, all overdressed. They spoke for two hours about one thing and one thing only: money. They displayed the passion of undergrads solving world problems from a liberal college cafeteria. Of course, no life changing conundrums were solved during that lunch, except maybe my career. I don’t know how much money I was leaving on that table but I realized I did not want to get into a profession that would add dollar signs to my conversations, my friendships and my dreams! I probably took that episode too much to heart because at the end of my graduate program, I took a marketing job in Spain or what must have been the lowest paying job of my MBA class.
Gold has the power to change humans. Nowhere is it more clearer than in Sapiens, a popular book about the history of our species since our hunter-gatherer days and wars against the Neanderthals. It turns out agriculture is the root of some of the world’s biggest ailings. Once wheat and sheep were domesticated, humans started building cities, idolizing gods and buckling under the oppression of the elites. To the extent agriculture started a downhill road for humans, it’s not until we found gold and invented money that humanity began its true descent. Despite all the good it did for commerce and innovation, gold replaced the gods and money started slowly killing our spiritual life and connection with nature. Indeed, money ‘required no technical breakthroughs — it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists in people’s shared imagination.’
But you don’t need to know the history of mankind, to understand that money can take you down a slippery slope. You already know gold is one of the most over rated assets in life. We are part of the lucky few on earth, a billion people or so, that enjoy freedom and opporunity. And once you are above a certain economic threshold by virtue of where you were born, because you are healthy and maybe just maybe because you work hard, wealth is a cheap ideal. Undeniably, our relationship with money is a constant tradeoff. It inevitably sets a price on everything we do and what we don’t do. When you choose a path for cash, you are implicitly assigning a monetary value to your time, your career choices and even your relationships. And how you discirminate riches from beauty will ultimately define you.
By now, you must be thinking that I’m not the best spokespersons for money’s frivolity. After all, I am a VC investor that should be expecting big checks coming his way sometime soon. You’re half right. As I see it, money can be a fancy consequence of your impact. But impact should always come first. Once you have enough to live comfortably, travel, pay down your student debt and save a little, you should just ignore money. Yes. Ignore it. Instead of chasing riches, reach for impact. Instead of filling your vaults, count the people you help.
Success: friend or foe?
When I was 12, my mother published her first book, a compilation of her best critiques of the Mexican elites. It was an instant success; beyond anything anyone expected, editors, friends, family and certaintly her. Her career took off as fast as subscribers to a new hot youtube channel. She went from mother of three with a half time fashion PR position to a public figure in a matter of months. I remember that nothing apparent changed within our family. It was subtle, deeper. The galaxy of planets that had up until that moment ruled my mom’s life — her kids, sisters, friends and colleagues — began to start revolving around her, the new star.
Imagine what the sun felt when humans finally realized our planet turned around it! And what humans understood when they grasped they were made of atoms, suspended in space.
Ever since, conversations at home were rarely about anything but her success and how people reacted to it, mostly about the bad reactions. Our lives revolved around her. Her fame consolidated through hard work and courage. She was still funny, generous and wickedly smart but just different — there was only light for one star to shine bright in our home. For this supporting actor, life kept at it, at times more independent, at times more apprehensive. Decades later, she is still at the center but her personal galaxy is a bit smaller: some planets are no longer around whilst others are just farther away.
Success will not bring you happiness. It may bring you many other things like fame or wealth, but not happiness. It is one of the conclusions that researchers like George Vaillant have reached after running the longest-running studies of human development, the Grant Study.
It has followed 268 Harvard graduates since 1938. Despite being originally designed ‘to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging’, the study also described life’s struggles and changes in seemingly natural personality traits. Interviewed after publishing Triumphs of Experience containing the conclusions after directing the study for more than three decades, Vaillant’s key takeaway was: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ” But I digress.
As easy as money is to convey and understand, even in obscure cryptocurrency terms, success is much harder to describe. It is a basket of achievement, recognition, power and money. First, despite the insisting that success is attaining a personal or collective objective, it is generally relative and temporary. It is defined by others.
Not only because we often borrow society’s concept of achievement but because it requires public recognition to be validated. You don’t have a say in what constitutes real success at any given time. It’s a dull moving target. To borrow from Paul Sartre, “l’enfer, c’est les autres”.
Secondly, becoming a rock star is good but working in an awesome team is simply magic. There are no teams in I. Instead of focusing on collaboration and mutual growth, we end up transforming allies into foes. Thirdly, success is insatiable — no matter the magnitude of blood, sweat and tears it took to getting you where you are now, it will never be enough. A bigger, better and bolder objective will always rear its head, making you just as unsuccessful as when you started. It’s a constant state of insatisfaction. Finally, as you will soon realize, success often involves being at the right place at the right time. So it’s a waste of energy really to think too much about it.
Just as failures have many often unexpected gifts, success carries many hidden costs. Moreover, success changes you in part because you start paying too much attention to yourself. So instead of competing to win, go for meaning. Instead of getting ahead, bring your village.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. — Oscar Wilde
So after taking my low paying marketing job that summer of 2004, I’m probably still in the lowest percentiles of my Stanford class net worth. I know that because some of my current MBA students earned more than I do now already back at our graduation. Yet, I feel one of the luckiest alums of all. I don’t know if others will consider me successful or if my hard work will be rewarded with cash. What I strive for now, in the two decades ahead of me, was better explained by one of Grant Study’s subjects when he described what he wanted to be able to say at the end of his life: ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’.
Naturally, all these stories and pieces of advice about gold and winning do not mean you allow your employer to give you a lower pay because you lack the college pedigree or because you come from an island. It does not mean you let a promotion slip because it’s a freaking boys’ club. You don’t. The world needs to be changed and you should go for that.
But it may mean you refuse that un refusable big check and you join the team with small means but big dreams. It means your energy is charged not with recognition but with helping others succeed. It may require you being greedy with learning and experiences. It implies you may be misuderstood by most for ignoring the riches you are entitled to. It may lead you to do the foolish and choose to fail big rather than take home the shiny prizes. And when you do, when you go for impact and meaning, you may very well change the world.
But if you fail, it won’t matter, it won’t matter at all.