Harvard MBAs: ‘Professionally Miserable’?

An HBS alum says many of his former classmates are stuck in jobs that are unfulfilling, tedious or just plain bad

After earning his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2003, Charles Duhigg took an entirely different path than most of his classmates. Instead of landing one of the more lucrative and sought-after jobs at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey & Co., he joined the Los Angeles Times as a reporter. Since then, he has spent nearly 11 years at The New York Times, authored a book and won a Pulitzer Prize.

But when he attended his 15th year MBA reunion at Harvard last summer, Duhigg was shocked to discover that a good number of the school’s gathered alumni were simply miserable. A good number of them were making millions of dollars a year, yet they expressed profound regret and disaffection with the way their professional careers have turned out.

“Many of my former classmates weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives,” writes Duhigg in a provocative New York Times essay published today online (Feb. 21). “In fact, they were miserable. I heard about one fellow alum who had run a large hedge fund until being sued by investors (who also happened to be the fund manager’s relatives. Another person had risen to a senior role inside one of the nation’s most prestigious companies before being savagely pushed out by corporate politics. Another had learned in the maternity ward that her firm was being stolen by a conniving partner.”


Journalist & author Charles Duhigg graduated from Harvard Business School in 2003

Duhigg’s essay, entitled “Wealthy, Successful & Miserable?”, will appear in this Sunday’s NYT magazine in an issue devoted to the future of work. Many readers are unlikely to be sympathetic to anguished professionals lucky enough to have a Harvard MBA on their resumes and six- or seven-figure incomes. But what this privileged class is feeling would likely resonate with many in today’s frenetic and hotly competitive world of work.

What he discovered, after all, may not be all that surprising. A relatively recent survey of Harvard MBAs during their 25th reunion showed that 38% believed their personal lives were harder than expected, while 30% thought their professional careers have been harder. Some 47% of the Class of 1986 said they had been involuntarily dismissed from a job, while 13% said they have been fired twice and 4% reported having lost a job three times in their 25 years since graduation (see Love, Sex & Money: A Revealing Class Portrait Of The Lives Of Harvard MBAs).

Sure, the HBS-educated journalist concedes the examples he provides are extreme. “Most of us were living relatively normal, basically content lives,” writes Duhigg, a Yale history major who worked in private equity before going to HBS. “But even among my more sanguine classmates, there was a lingering sense of professional disappointment. They talked about missed promotions, disaffected children and billable hours in divorce court. They complained about jobs that were unfulfilling, tedious or just plain bad. One classmate described having to invest $5 million a day — which didn’t sound terrible, until he explained that if he put only $4 million to work on Monday, he had to scramble to place $6 million on Tuesday, and his co-workers were constantly undermining one another in search of the next promotion. It was insanely stressful work, done among people he didn’t particularly like. He earned about $1.2 million a year and hated going to the office.”


It gets worse. Duhigg quotes the man who obviously wished to remain anonymous saying that he felt trapped by a lifestyle that he could not give up. “‘I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he told me. ‘When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.” He recognized the incredible privilege of his pay and status, but his anguish seemed genuine. “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says,” he told me.

“There’s no magic salary at which a bad job becomes good. He had received an offer at a start-up, and he would have loved to take it, but it paid half as much, and he felt locked into a lifestyle that made this pay cut impossible. “‘My wife laughed when I told her about it,’ he said….I’m jealous of everyone who had the balls to do something that made them happy. It seemed like too big a risk for me to take when we were at school.’”

After digging into the research on job satisfaction and engaging in more conversations with his classmates, Duhigg came to believe there were several common reasons for the disenchantment: “oppressive hours, political infighting, increased competition sparked by globalization, an “always-on culture” bred by the internet — but also something that’s hard for these professionals to put their finger on, an underlying sense that their work isn’t worth the grueling effort they’re putting into it.”

At his reunion on the Harvard Business School campus, Duhigg was reminded that some of his former classmates were, in fact, quite happy with their lives. But then, the journalist says, he quickly came to the realization that many of them had something else in common. “They tended to be the also-rans of the class, the ones who failed to get the jobs they wanted when they graduated,” observes Duhigg in his NYT piece. “They had been passed over by McKinsey & Company and Google, Goldman Sachs and Apple, the big venture-capital firms and prestigious investment houses.


“Instead, they were forced to scramble for work — and thus to grapple, earlier in their careers, with the trade-offs that life inevitably demands. These late bloomers seemed to have learned the lessons about workplace meaning preached by people like Barry Schwartz. It wasn’t that their workplaces were enlightened or (as far as I could tell) that H.B.S. had taught them anything special. Rather, they had learned from their own setbacks. And often they wound up richer, more powerful and more content than everyone else.”

Duhigg calls himself an also-ran who was turned down by McKinsey, a private equity firm, and a real estate conglomerate. “I didn’t need any courage in making the decision to go into the modest-paying (by H.B.S. standards) field of journalism,” he writes. “Some of my classmates thought I was making a huge mistake by ignoring all the doors H.B.S. had opened for me in high finance and Silicon Valley.

“What they didn’t know was that those doors, in fact, had stayed shut — and that as a result, I was saved from the temptation of easy riches. I’ve been thankful ever since, grateful that my bad luck made it easier to choose a profession that I’ve loved. Finding meaning, whether as a banker or a janitor, is difficult work. Usually life, rather than a business-school classroom, is the place to learn how to do it.”


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