Beware of 'Fashionable Careers'

Jul 18, 2011 -
Back in the 1980s, the hot career was management consulting; so many people chased that particular grail that, not surprisingly, there soon came to be a glut of management consultants. Fashion swung to lawyering… until there were too many lawyers. More recently, the tide turned toward investment banking, and we’ve see where that particular fixation got us. The point is that, even if we follow a rainbow whose color is money green, there’s just no guarantee that there’ll be a pot of gold at the end.

What is “success?”

I think it’s fair to say that we live in a society that is extremely preoccupied with the concept of “success.” We strive for success, we dream of success. We praise, admire and sometimes even fawn over the success of others. Sometimes we secretly (or not so secretly) envy and begrudge it as well. We seem to believe that success necessarily implies happiness and fulfillment, and that lack of success can breed only frustration and gloom. But here’s a question: For all our preoccupation with “success,” how clear are we as to what we mean by the word? My impression is that substance has little to do with our concept of success these days. Rather than focusing on the essence of an enterprise or a career, we focus only on the reward it brings – generally as measured in dollars. To put it another way, we seem to focus on the payoff rather than the process. In fact, as it is commonly used, the word successful has become little more than a coded synonym for “well paid.”

Re-defining success

In my view, success should be defined with reference to the substance of a person’s achievement. What is someone actually accomplishing? Is she helping others? Is he living up to his own unique potential? Is there passion and originality in her approach to life and work? Is there fundamental value in what he’s trying to achieve? I believe that true success comes from within. It is a function of who we are and what we do. It emerges from the mysterious chemistry of our abilities and passion and hard work and commitment. True success is something we earn privately and whose value we determine for ourselves. The outside world can reward us with money, but it cannot anoint us with this deeper and more personal kind of success. The success we define for ourselves is the treasure that cannot be tarnished or taken away.

Success in today’s economy

There is a clear and practical motive to re-define success. We have seen firsthand that success based on money and career advancement can be taken away by circumstance. Markets can crater; companies can fold; careers can stall or vanish altogether. Embracing that version of success is a gamble. Sure, money is nice; a hot career feels good. But we don't really own those things; we rent them, and they can always be withdrawn. Success in today’s economy implies a highly practical shift from things we can't control, to things we can. Thinking more about what we accomplish in the world than about how the world does or doesn't reward us. We can't control the economy; we can control the choices we make. At the end of the day, it's our choices, and the energy and passion with which we follow up on them, that make our lives successful. Young people — many of whom are heavily burdened with school debt, all of whom face a world where a gallon of gas or a cup of coffee costs $4 — have every reason to be pragmatic. If we want our vocations to become our livelihoods – rather than hobbies or vague dreams of things we’ll get around to someday – then the hard and simple truth is that we have to find a way to make them pay. Finding that intersection is one of life’s great challenges. And if we are fortunate enough to locate it – and even more fortunate to be able to earn our livings there – then that gives us our very best chance at fulfillment in our work. Peter Buffett is an Emmy Award-winning composer, musician, author and philanthropist. Buffett is currently on tour to support his New York Times Best Selling book, "Life Is What You Make It." More information is available on his website.