Michael Lewis: Do You Want a Job or a Calling?

Michael Lewis, another one of those writers who I follow and will read no matter what the topic is, has a great column up at Bloomberg.com called A Wall Street Job Can’t Match a Calling In Life. It is his reply to a nervous young employee of a Wall Street bank asking for career advice. In it, Lewis distinguishes between a job and a calling and says that each entails different costs and benefits:

The distinction is artificial but worth drawing. A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.     There’s no shame in either. Each has costs and benefits. There is no reason to make a fetish of your career. There are activities other than work in which to find meaning and pleasure and even a sense of self-importance — you just need to learn how to look.     Reading between the lines of your letter I sense that some of your anxiety is caused by your desire for the benefits of each — job and calling — without the costs. Perhaps that is what led you to Wall Street in the first place, and why your mind now turns to Hollywood.

What Wall Street did so well, for so long, was to give people jobs that they could pass off to themselves as well as others as callings. Such was their exalted social and financial status: Wall Street jobs made people feel special without actually having to be special. You never really had to explain why you were doing it — even if you should have. But really, the same rule that applies to properly functioning financial markets applies to other markets: There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks. To get your seat at the table on Wall Street you may have passed through a fine filter, but you took no real risk. You were just being paid, briefly, as if you had.

So which is it: job or calling? You can answer the question directly, or allow time to answer it for you. Either way, I think you’d be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world. Real excitement isn’t just in whatever you happen to be doing, but in what you bring to it.

Tomorrow, I will blog about why I think so many young people have a hard time finding a calling or even a job that makes them happy.

(thanks Maria for sending me this article)

7 comments on “Michael Lewis: Do You Want a Job or a Calling?
  • The column by Michael Lewis put into words what I’ve been feeling for the last couple of months. I’m a sophomore finance major in college who has the hopes of making it big on Wall Street one day. Or had.

    Lewis tied his piece together so well with this statement: “I think you’d be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world.”

    It’s funny that I read this column the night before a phone interview for a possible Wall Street summer internship.

  • Ask me and I would suggest all Wall Street aspirants to begin with some shadow investing and as they gain confidence slowly slip into small time investing (How about a $100 a month each across some of the best performing constituents in S&P 500 index at these beaten down valuations with a wait period of say a couple years?) and see how they perform.

    This will warm them up to the trials and tribulations of investors and blunt their impulse for making misleading forecasts (driven by greed for fee income) or for designing dumber products that lead their clients to financial ruin.

    That way work will never look like one and you hit your calling.

  • There are plenty of opportunities to find your calling, if only you’re willing to put down the joystick and search for them.

    With things crashing down all around us, you can look at groups like Solari which are committed to building sustainable local communities. Does anyone under 40 even really know what a “community” is anymore? Hint: it’s not anything that can be found online. Your 12,543 Facebook friends aren’t worth one real life friend.


    If business is your thang, why not look at a new business model like industry aggregation which is based on collaboration? It calls for the M&A skills mentioned in the article among many others.

    In crisis lies opportunity, as the old saying goes.

    We are in deep doodoo and there are plenty of opps for meaningful work and relationships–if only people will bother to look.

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