Snarky Behavior

Doing Good vs. Doing Well

July 24, 2007 · 9 Comments

My friend Robby has pointed out that I’ve been rather harsh on the types of people who gravitate toward the seat of national power (which I will call home for only one month longer). He suggested that “they” — a convenient target of my criticism– might actually be exaggerated extrapolations of “us” — my beloved inner-circle.

I suppose there’s a small bit of truth to the assertion. But moreover, I think that my true inclination is to distance myself (and my friends) from all parties; to paint ourselves as the Swiss neutrals in this hipster/douchebag war.

But why would I want to be the bard, or the impartial observer(s)?

Well, part of me recognizes that I too am an ideologue, and so are many of my friends. But of a different sort. We came to DC for the two-year stay only, and not the lifetime committment. We leaned to the left, wanting to do good. Wanting not to “sell-out.”

But two years out of college, and I’ve barely scraped together a positive net-worth. “Doing good” can be a fruitless and frustrating exercise. At the very least, it’s trying on one’s patience. “Doing good” moves at a slower pace than someone like me, who’s been in a hyperbaric chamber of competition since the age of 13, is comfortable with.

So my priorities, like many of my friends, have shifted to “doing well.” That implies elite education. Professional school. Complex problems and creative solutions, on demand. Long hours. High reward. And high compensation.

It all sounds dangerously close to “selling out.” Compromising my values of leisure, creativity, exploration of intellectual curiousity, etc. for comfort, security, and status. And a big fucking plasma TV.

For two years in DC, I didn’t have to make that decision. But once I signed a promissory note for $50,000 in student loans, I did. And in doing so, I severely limited my professional options.

SIPA is an interesting school. Of the 250 or so students in every class, I would guess nearly half go into the humanitarian/peace keeping/development tracks. This path leads to NGOs and other third-sector organizations that are very rewarding metaphysically, but don’t help much in making those $1000 per month loan payments. The rest of the students go into the security/management/finance concentrations, which result in careers in the consulting/finance/management sectors. And nice suits.

And then there’s me. I still feel like Keeanu Reeves in The Matrix, deciding which pill to take. Sure, I’d like the TV, but I’m going to sweat through the suit anyway… might as well get one on the cheap.

I’m certainly not alone in this. Daniel Brook calls our predicament “The Trap.” The gist of his book? Rising economic inequalities lead to rising inequalities in freedom and opportunity. In the world of relativity, even the uber-wealthy private equity shmucks are serfs lining the coffers of the Blackstone billionaires.

So, without an affordable education, our opportunities are limited. The decision to “do good” or “do well” is often times made for us. Which, you know, sucks. I want to do good, and feel good about doing it. But I’m not sure how soon I’ll be able to.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • AJS // July 24, 2007 at 5:03 pm | Reply

    I was at a conference a few months ago and heard a really inspiring talk about trying to reconcile wanting to both “do good” AND “do well.” The talk was given by a young guy who’s launched a magazine called, simply, Good. They even donate 100% of subscription fees to a non-profit of your choice. Check it out.

  • Serena // July 24, 2007 at 5:21 pm | Reply

    Although I would hate to discourage you on your path to saving the world, I can’t help but feel that you are in a similar position to me. The slippery slope of “doing well” will inevitably be accompanied by convincing yourself and others that “doing well” and “doing good” are not mutually exclusive. Or perhaps you will find that “doing well” might ultimately be doing more good than you think, depending on what theory you belive. This is something that is not exclusive to our generation. Our hippie parents had to make nice with the man too.

  • Jon // July 24, 2007 at 5:37 pm | Reply

    AJS — That’s fantastic. One of my life goals is to manage a “mutual fund of conscience,” funding micro-loans and private equity to small projects for high-risk/low-reward returns, as an alternative to straight aid or IMF macro-loans tied into shady trade agreements. Of course, I have to first demonstrate I can manage a mutual fund, straight up, before anyone invests, even philanthropically. There inlies the problem.

    Serena– yes our parents had to sell out to the man, but they also did so with 10x less financial obligation to finance their educations. And a higher degree was not as necessary for success. It’s the restriction of opportunity that bothers me… doing well and doing good may not be mutually exclusive, but “doing well” is always tied in with education.

  • David // July 24, 2007 at 6:43 pm | Reply

    Serena’s career path:

    1. Join Silicon Valley Based law firm such as Cooley Goodward, directly out of school in order to pay the bills with full intention of quitting after 2-3 years once financially stable to apply education to philanthropic causes

    2. Get worked so hard the first few years that you decide to stay on for a 4th and 5th year in which you work much less for much more pay

    3. Convince yourself that since Cooley Goodward underwrites biotechnology companies researching potentially world-changing drugs that the work you are doing fits the “do well” AND “do good” agenda

    4. Make an impression on senior management and cecome the youngest partner ever at Cooley Goodward after successfully defending one of your clients from hundreds of thousands of patients’ insurance liability by discovering a loophole in FDA regulations for one of the clients’ drugs which turns out to cause contagious impotency amongst men, dooming the human race in North America forever.

    The system works!

  • Rohit // July 24, 2007 at 7:03 pm | Reply

    I say, do what Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, et al., did, i.e., spend your life amassing wealth (often times at the expense of the consumer—see, e.g., every crappy product produced by M$), and then donate all your excess wealth to charity. No one will remember that you ruined a generation of modern computing if your donation leads to a cure for AIDS.

  • Serena // July 25, 2007 at 8:12 pm | Reply

    Jon- Admittedly doing well is almost always tied into education, but there is always the outlier in there to keep the dream alive. Also, as salaries increase, even if you are in a field where half the people take low-paying save the world jobs, institutions can justify charging that much for tuition. Also if we are truly concerned about the cost of education, we need to fund it. Fortunately there are some new bills proposed about funding for students interested in the public interest sector. Ultimately if it comes down to a scramble for resources, you might have a hard sell convincing people that the real people who need the funding are people who are pursuing graduate degrees when many more people are still strugguling to get a medicore primary school education.

    David- I don’t really see why you are under the impression that being partner or being more senior means less work. It is a different type of work, concededly less tedious and hopefully less soul draining, but it is nevertheless pulling long ass hours. Associates work their ass off as scrubs so they can work their ass off even harder as partners. Also, on a less articulate note, quit being a dick.

  • David // July 25, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Reply

    Why Serena, what an ugly thing to say. Does this mean we’re not friends anymore? Because I just don’t know if I could bear it.

    Also, I’m not sure where you got your information about corporate structure, but you’re way off. Business, banking, law, whatever – as a junior employee at any firm, when you have direct superiors to work and report to, you might have a “real” client whether it is consumers or companies, but you’re real client is your boss. Be assured, you’re working much harder than they are. The hardest working senior guy here works a 60 hour week. Long by most standards, but relative to what I have to do, nothing. Additionally, the job of senior management at any firm boils down to marketing, supervision and strategy. A 60 hour week of schmoozing the client, writing performance reports and most importantly, coming up with “ideas” for your junior employees to analyze and then taking 100% of the credit for success probably goes down pretty smooth.

    PS learn to take a joke

  • Thoughts on Norman Mailer « Snarky Behavior // November 18, 2007 at 7:56 am | Reply

    [...] Thoughts on Norman Mailer Posted on November 18, 2007 by Jon My friend Anna has noticed how manic my posts have been of late.  I admitted to her that it’s a reflection of a crisis of confidence: mostly in regards to the internship search that will dictate my career path.  You know… the whole doing well/doing good thing. [...]

  • Jarvis Macdonald // November 12, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Reply


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