Anyone else feels dumb working in finance?

First time posting with this new account but have been in the finance world and on WSO for a while now.

TL;DR: how do you deal with the feeling of not contributing to the society/not doing an « intellectual » and fulfilling work?

I have a pretty scientific background (banks in France really love engineering students) and have been in finance for a few years working at two BB. I actually now feel pretty ashamed of what I do, especially in front some of my friends that are doing research/engineering/teaching/senior public service/CS/bioscience… I have the feeling that I work in an environment where no one is really brilliant. I'm not saying that everyone is dumb, I've found many people very intelligent but I was never really impressed by the intellectual capacity (more by industry knowledge or stuff like that…).

I feel the same way with my consulting friends: we chose a default career path because we were at target schools and it was pretty « easy » especially in engineering where this kind of companies invest a lot on campus event but students are not that interested, but we're now doing job that does not even require college education (you spend you first year basically being a secretary). A lot of people say the job is stimulating, I do not agree. Of course it is very dynamic, there are always lots of things to do but only a few are stimulating and interesting, the majority being really boring and not elevating.

I am now hesitating between following the traditional path of PE (in an industry that would interest me a bit like Energy, metals and mining…) or trying to get a job that is more stimulating (but I have no idea what kind and I feel that I can't do anything that is not finance related).

I know that I am not the only one feeling this way within my friends so I guess some people here might feel that too. I don't think my feeling will pass anytime soon since I've been feeling like that for a few years now.
How have you been dealing with that? What are your plans for the future?

Region

Comments (32)

  • Manager in Risk Mnmgt
Aug 4, 2022 - 2:58pm

Perspective is a hell of a drug. 

First things first, contributing to society and intellectually stimulating are completely different things. Teachers are classically seen as being a fundamental pillar society is built on. Most of the people I went to school with who are now teachers are the kids who did hard drugs and partied instead of learning basic algebra. Working as a quant for AQR has got to be one of the most intellectually difficult and stimulating jobs I can imagine, but will classically be seen as "not contributing to society". 

Second thing, you need to believe down to your core that the work you're doing (at least at a high level) matters. If you don't, you'll burn out sooner rather than later. More importantly, you'll probably feel like shit about your work and get depressed. You might not be teaching the next generation, or saving lives, or putting bad guys behind bars, but you are providing a valuable service. Without IB, securities don't get issued, loans don't get made, M&A doesn't happen, next thing you know the economy breaks down and we're all hunting each other with pointy sticks for food in a Mad Max style apocalyptical wasteland (obviously joking a bit here). In all seriousness though, financial services providers contribute to society, no matter how often non-finance society might tell you otherwise. 

My advice would be to take a hard look at yourself and think about changing your mindset. Or starting to look at exits. The discontent you're feeling right now will only get worse if you don't make a change. 

P.S. If you're wondering what this back office schlub is doing handing out advice, please know that my title on here is wildly inaccurate and I just don't care enough to change it. 

Aug 4, 2022 - 3:20pm
frenchhardo, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thanks for your answer

Yeah I know that contributing to the society and having an intellectually stimulating job are two different things, but I feel like I have none of that and at least one would be nice

I guess I maybe overvalue other job and would probably feel the same way elsewhere, until I find what I really like and want to do long-term. The thing is I don't even where to start to change my mindset and work on that :(

Thanks again for your advice

  • Manager in Risk Mnmgt
Aug 4, 2022 - 3:37pm

There's not a right or wrong answer of whether you should stay in finance (or if there is a right answer, I sure as hell don't have it). I think it is important to know that its possible to work in high finance and feel good about the work you do. 

Its easy to get lost in wasted pitch decks, or the latest round of dumb comments from your MD. In my particular role, probably 10-20% of the work I do ever sees the light of day. Just remember the big picture. You provide a service because people need it. That's 90% of jobs in my opinion.

Believe it or not, I worked with a guy at my last bank who spent 10+ years as some kind of nurse or EMT in the trauma intake of a hospital in a high crime area. He left the medical field because he was disgusted by how taxpayer dollars were being spent, and how people were treated. He felt like he was actively contributing to a broken and abusive system. The grass isn't always greener. 

Funniest
  • Intern in AM - Other
Aug 4, 2022 - 3:22pm

Get your money up not your funny up

Aug 4, 2022 - 3:41pm
s5s, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Don't think about contribution to society. Just think about being in a job that you love. That includes the job itself, but also the people and culture. Take less pay if you have to but don't stay somewhere or with colleagues that make you unhappy. It will affect ather parts of your life and it's not worth it for any amount. I've moved industries a bit and I can promise you, you cannot compare jobs just on pay. But even if you compare on pay, there's plenty of engineers that make more than most financiers when you include their stock options and equity.

  • Analyst 1 in IB - Gen
Aug 4, 2022 - 4:06pm

Go read a book, work on your own startup, code up some apps etc - your job does not define how intelligent you are. My interpretation of your post is that you are more interested in appearing smart to others through titles and roles than actually being smart.

  • 1
Aug 4, 2022 - 9:05pm
frenchhardo, what's your opinion? Comment below:

You're right in the sense that I am sometimes quite ashamed to explain what I do especially when I am with people that impress me with their intelligence or their drive for anything.

The other day a friend working in medicine asked me to describe what I do during a typical day because he was genuinely curious and I felt so uncomfortable describing my work. He did not seem to understand, which made it even worse. This kind of event contributes to shape my perception of my job and my environment.

I feel that feeling this way about my job is a sign that I have to do something about it, either changing my mind or changing my job.

Aug 4, 2022 - 11:39pm
IncomingIBDreject, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Not understanding is a good thing. If he was confused you probably came across as smart lol.

Array

  • Business School in CorpStrat
Aug 6, 2022 - 11:52am

I know many friends who are medical doctors and don't particular like their jobs so it's not like their lives are rainbows/sunshines. Most of them admit they will only continue doing it because it's a nice paycheck. 

Aug 4, 2022 - 5:43pm
TheMalevolence, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Ok, we don't have a tangible scientific output. What's wrong with that? We are literally the economic backbone of the highest levels of business. If we were in the USSR we would be economic planners, who help to efficiently allocate goods and services through our analysis. Fundamentally, we provide capital to companies which provide society with the most competitively priced goods and services that society needs. Do you think the years-long deflationary effects of capitalism which have raised the quality of life of the majority of the world and have brought billions out of poverty would be possible without bankers doing the analysis of company viability and valuation and providing the connection to capital? We who enable economies of scale and who deny inefficient access to capital?

Ok yes I know it sounds like I drank the koolaid, and understand there's a lot of drawbacks and issues with what we do but at the same time we are performing a function which is infrastructural to the global system.

Most Helpful
  • Associate 2 in VC
Aug 4, 2022 - 5:56pm

Have you actually ever worked as an engineer/researcher? Because I feel like you wouldn't be saying any of this if you actually had. 95% of the research being done in labs today is grant-grubbing horseshit that will never move the needle for the benefit of society. I spent about 5 years doing clinical research before transitioning into banking and then VC, and man, if only you knew how useless a lot of "science" is today. The main reason we praise scientists and scientific achievements today is because we're lauding the 5% of research - and I'm being generous by saying 5% - that actually is breakthrough work.

Same thing with engineering. Yes, if you work at NASA, you're clearly doing highly intellectual work that will directly benefit people, knowledge, and commerce within the next few decades. But not everyone works at NASA. Chances are, you're working as an "engineer" at a social media company doing god knows what. It always strikes me when I hear people say, "if you worked in tech or aerospace, you'd actually be contributing to society" when their concept of significant societal contribution is just changing the color of the login button on some website.

I'm not trying to say that high finance is any better: it's not. A lot of the work that we do is random bullshit to keep stuff flowing through the global pipe system. But that's pretty much every possible form of employment. Bullshit that keeps the system moving. Unless you're the sole apprentice of a Nobel laureate or working in some top-priority lab in Langley, I promise you that you're not "contributing to society" any more or less than the 99% of the people around you.

Aug 4, 2022 - 7:21pm
sheldonxp, what's your opinion? Comment below:

But if you look at that top 5%, presumably the top 5% of scientific researchers benefit society more than the top 5% of financial service providers.

  • Associate 2 in VC
Aug 4, 2022 - 7:53pm

Frankly, that's wrong. The top 0.05% of researchers, fine. I think those guys will make life-changing, society-upending discoveries and I am grateful that there are people like that in this world. But the other 99.95% will realistically accomplish nothing. As dumb and menial as logo-pushing and button engineering might be, finance, consulting, tech, etc. all keep the economy moving and end up producing incremental value for others.

No point in talking about maximizing individual "contributions" to society, whatever that means. If you want to do that, go spend 8 years getting your PhD at CalTech, then spend the next 30 years working on some obscure physical phenomenon in the hopes that your research has some relevance in a few decades. And even then, there's a very significant probability that you'll die having little to nothing to show for your work.

Aug 4, 2022 - 10:40pm
sheldonxp, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Maybe I'm naive but to me the difference is that by doing research, there is a chance that you're working on something that nobody else in the world is working on. Maybe the chance you actually make a difference is miniscule, but at least there is a chance. 

In financial services, if you weren't doing this job, the person doing it instead of you would be providing just as much value to society. 

  • Intern in Consulting
Aug 5, 2022 - 8:31pm

Yeah agree with this. The reason Jeff Bezos switched major from physics to EEE was because he realised if you're not one of the top 50 physicists in the world then you're not really doing or contributing anything at all and he realised he wasn't a top 50 physics guy.

Controversial
  • Associate 2 in PE - LBOs
Aug 6, 2022 - 11:42am

Frankly, that's wrong. The top 0.05% of researchers, fine. I think those guys will make life-changing, society-upending discoveries and I am grateful that there are people like that in this world. But the other 99.95% will realistically accomplish nothing.

Frankly, this is a terrible take. 

I assure you the work of more than 0.05% of researchers matter. Plausibly more than 5%. There are an incredible number of subfields where groundbreaking work is being presented and lauded every year. For example, every subfield has their version of Nobel/Turing/Fields, and the research that gets awarded DOES matter. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prizes_known_as_the_Nobel_or_the_highest_honors_of_a_field

Group theory, computational neuroscience, genomics, condensed-matter physics, the list goes on. Now go find the most groundbreaking paper in each of those fields last year alone and count the number of citations they made. And maybe for good measure, count the number of citations their citations made. Science has come far and people build over the work of hundreds of others every single day. Every Nobel winner has read many thousands of papers over their career.

I feel like this idea that "only x% tiny number of absolutely god-tier genius researchers ever have hope of doing anything meaningful" was only true up until the 1900s, or is true only for a very small number of fields.

Aug 4, 2022 - 8:52pm
frenchhardo, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thank you for your answer.

I get the point about the contribution to society and the menial work of 95% of researchers or button engineers and jobs like that.

But I am wondering what kind of jobs are really fulfilling and help you feel « elevated » and not just applying process all day. Even without significant contribution to society, I think that such jobs exist and can be much more exciting than banking which provides some adrenaline but does not help getting satisfied with what you do/learn/achieve.

  • Associate 2 in VC
Aug 4, 2022 - 9:34pm

There's literally no right answer, you're asking a highly subjective question. What I like may not necessarily be what you find fulfilling and vice versa. Fulfillment is a mindset. As few as they may come, bankers who find their work fulfilling do actually exist. So unless you want to start divulging some personal information about the type of person that you are and your past work experiences, I don't think anyone in this forum can determine for you what kind of work you'd really enjoy.

  • Intern in Consulting
Aug 4, 2022 - 6:51pm

As someone who started in medical school but transitioned to consulting after instead I feel like I can offer some insight.

I know exactly what you're feeling and have felt it myself a lot. The way I see it is, like me you seem like you have a lot of varied interests, therefore there isn't going to be a magical career which ticks all the boxes and brings you happiness. Every career will have its pros and cons and its up to you to decide which one is the right fit for you and its totally fine to change your mind. I also feel its pretty to common to constantly feel that the grass is greener (I felt this) for example if I was focusing on consulting instead of medicine I'd think I was missing out and vice versa. So I think don't be too hard on yourself because you're always going to feel like you're missing out in some way.

I also agree with the previous poster that there really isn't many jobs out there that are very stimulating and contribute loads to society. Yeah you might feel like you're elon musk as an engineer but chances are you have just spent a year designing a more efficient headlights system on a tesla. Hardly changing the world. For every software engineer at spaceX or a hot biotech company there are thousands at FAANGs and similar working on increasing the traffic to a certain button on Google maps or analysing data to increase sale conversions on uber eats.

However that's not to say you can't still contribute to society in these fields. You still definitely can but it's not as clear cut as engineering good finance bad.

Back to my own reasoning, I put a ton of thought into it and came to the conclusion that the day to day work in medicine was more interesting and enjoyable, however the work in consulting was more exciting. And for me, the excitement is what keeps you thinking about the job when you aren't working and stops you from burning out. Also for me, mentally having something to always work towards keeps me going and in consulting or any professional service you always have somewhere above to climb whereas in medicine or research or whatever this is less clear cut.

Also another thing is that for career choice you should consider three things: the pay, the lifestyle and how much you enjoy it. And it depends on yourself how much weighting you put on each category. For me the pay and lifestyle was pretty similar for both med and consulting so I was focused on which one I would enjoy the most, but I imagine IB pays a lot more than non software engineering/research.

Aug 4, 2022 - 6:59pm
British Banker, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Not fulfilling, not contributing to society. Maybe its time to have a think 🤔. 

Best advice I ever got. This will stay with me for life. 

"Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you're necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin' houses they can't even pay for, then you're necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin' fair really fuckin' quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don't. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, thats more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow, so fuck em. Fuck normal people." Will Emerson. Margin Call ( great movie, must watch in my opinion) (Not full quote)

That first line, "You really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you're necessary" That has stayed with me since I heard it years ago. I'm choosing to do this with my life, its something I have to do. IB, world of finance not for everyone I'll admit that, I'm just lucky enough that its for me and something I work daily to achieve. 

If you think that its time for a change and you actively thinking about it maybe its time for a change, you wouldn't be thinking about it for no reason. That first line is important, if your no longer feeling like your contributing to society or fulfilled then its something for you to consider. 

Best of luck whatever you decide to do. 

  • Associate 2 in PE - LBOs
Aug 6, 2022 - 11:23am

I chose a path in finance over a path in academic research (STEM PhD dropout) so I kind of understand what you're going through. 

Frankly I agree with you, and my honest take is that the few replies you have gotten trying to dismiss or disagree with your fundamental point are just trying to rationalize their decision to go into finance and/or protect their ego. I won't comment on societal contribution/impact because I don't think it's productive seeing as everyone seems to invent their own notion of a worthy social 'contribution'. But I agree with your point on intellectual fulfilment completely. The average highly-intelligent person is much more likely to reach their full potential for intellectual stimulation in research than in PE/VC/IB/Consulting - this is not a controversial point. Being a researcher and trying to systematically create knowledge that doesn't exist, conceptually at least, is the most evolved thing a human can do. Literally. It is the furthest thing from being an animal or monkey. Even stuff like engineering and teaching is quite down the list. Monkeys make and use tools (engineering). Monkeys teach younger monkeys how to do things (education). And yes, monkeys certainly work within hierarchical social groups, compete with one another to acquire/distribute resources, and try to win the favor of alpha monkeys in order to increase their standing (business+politics). Some things monkeys don't do are philosophize, write poetry, or spend hopeless numbers of hours alone trying to create new knowledge just for the sake of creating knowledge. 

I suppose the obvious point is that even being in a position to seek out the type of intellectual fulfilment I'm talking about is an incredible, incredible privilege. I dropped out of my PhD and went into consulting instead (now in PE). The few of my batchmates who went on to become productive researchers in frontier fields like physics/AI/neuroscience are either wired to not care for money at all, or come from significantly privileged backgrounds so money is not a concern at all. A ton of us finance folk are very intelligent. But admittedly, few of us are at the level of intelligence where our drive to intellectualize and discover new things is an overriding obsession. The reality is most of us can't have it all. We have to pick and choose just a couple things from an endless menu of desires, including intellectual fulfilment, social status, financial independence, stimulation, etc. If I came from generational wealth, sure I'd probably try my hand at being an academic. But seeing as I don't, being in finance is an absolutely amazing 'compromise' to be in, all things considered. 

I hope you figure out not only what you want to do, but whether you are in a suitable position to do it. 

Aug 6, 2022 - 2:27pm
sheldonxp, what's your opinion? Comment below:

What do you think are ways to contribute to overall human intellectual advancement if you're not someone who is at that intellectual capacity to do the research yourself? Speaking for myself here...

Aug 6, 2022 - 12:38pm
throwaway909101, what's your opinion? Comment below:

The reality is that a job is a job. If you don't think finance work is impactful or intellectually stimulating, you won't find 99.9% of jobs are either. I don't know anyone who left IBD to go do more "impactful" work that genuinely feels they now are. Startups make absurd mission statements to hide the fact everyone is just trying to get rich. Doctors hate their jobs. Lawyers hate theirs more. Public service, teaching, engineering - you name it. They are all jobs, some will like them, most will hate them and tell you it's not remotely intellectually stimulating. Grass is greener mentality is a powerful thing.
 

We're a giant mass of mimetic monkeys trying to figure out why we're here and telling stories to ourselves and others to justify our changing beliefs. Try to rise above that mode and you'll be much better positioned to make informed decisions.

Aug 6, 2022 - 9:05pm
Kevin25, what's your opinion? Comment below:

nah, I like it. I like seeing that I work with not the most intelligent people cause I realize it will be achievable to make it to the top and no worries about getting fired. life is really all about figuring out how you can achieve the most by doing the least.

Aug 7, 2022 - 10:55am
bands_bands_bands, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I don't feel dumb on pay day. Did you really pursue this field "to contribute to society"? There are so many easier fields to get into to do that with better wlb if that's your goal.

Aug 7, 2022 - 11:14am
rickle, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Est autem ipsam alias voluptatibus similique suscipit praesentium quo. Porro perspiciatis nesciunt molestiae neque. Soluta assumenda labore repellendus voluptas. Impedit dolores fuga omnis et voluptatem. Sint animi quis consequuntur. Ea quo unde est libero veniam recusandae. Atque labore animi voluptatibus magnam culpa.

Aperiam quidem totam rerum quam dolore. Optio accusamus et eveniet praesentium consequatur tempore consequatur. Libero voluptatem saepe pariatur et in dolor earum debitis. Pariatur architecto et quo dolorem voluptas. Quod amet est facere.

Start Discussion

Career Advancement Opportunities

August 2022 Investment Banking

  • Jefferies & Company (▲03) 99.6%
  • Lincoln International (= =) 99.2%
  • RBC Capital Markets (▲09) 98.8%
  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch (▲03) 98.4%
  • Macquarie Group Limited ABN (+ +) 98.0%

Overall Employee Satisfaction

August 2022 Investment Banking

  • Jefferies & Company (▲13) 99.6%
  • Lincoln International (▲05) 99.2%
  • Greenhill (▲07) 98.8%
  • PJT Partners (▽03) 98.4%
  • Macquarie Group Limited ABN (▲22) 98.0%

Professional Growth Opportunities

August 2022 Investment Banking

  • Jefferies & Company (▲05) 99.6%
  • Lincoln International (▲03) 99.2%
  • PwC Corporate Finance (▲14) 98.8%
  • RBC Capital Markets (▲11) 98.4%
  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch (▲04) 98.1%

Total Avg Compensation

August 2022 Investment Banking

  • Director/MD (10) $613
  • Intern/Summer Analyst (311) $414
  • Vice President (38) $392
  • Associates (207) $257
  • 2nd Year Analyst (126) $164
  • 3rd+ Year Analyst (18) $159
  • 1st Year Analyst (416) $151
  • Intern/Summer Associate (80) $148