Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Advice to 18 Year Old Me

I spent some time last week on the campus of my undergraduate alma mater. I marveled at all of the changes in the last 20 years, and yet how much things stayed the same. Students were walking around with laptops (we had pencils and notebooks!) and smart phones (our hall phones were anything but smart) but otherwise, pretty much looked like college students from any time or place. You know, that laissez-faire attitude you can only get when your biggest worries are: English exam at 10AM, what the dining hall is serving for dinner and whether or not you have a date for Saturday's semi-formal.

But what I know now is that despite their carefree attitudes, these young men and women face a momentous decision in something as seemingly benign as choice in a college major. What you choose to study as an 18 year old (teenager!) largely informs your professional career trajectory and largely whether or not women with children remain in the workforce.

What did I study? Business and Economics with minors in Accounting and French. I was going into finance, gosh darn it. Nevermind that I didn't particularly  enjoy the field of study, or know anyone in the industry, I thought it was the "best" so I was going for it!

Fast forward through my early career, Business School, 9/11 and having twins, investment banking just didn't work for me anymore. I wasn't prepared to have two shifts of nannies raise my children, or to ask my husband to quit his job, so that I could stay in a career that I didn't really love.

So I read with interest Manoush Zomorodi's 3 Careers That Don't Work for Women With Children. What was on the top of the list? Investment Banking. Naturally.

While it's not impossible to be a working mother in investment banking, there aren't many role models. You could do it, but there were going to be big tradeoffs. It's just not the kind of job you have if you want to have dinner with your family every  night. It's a culture of face time, internal competition for working the most weekly hours and being at a client's beck and call, largely via air travel.

So what advice would I give 18 year old me? 

  • Find something that you love, and work towards that. You're going to be working for a long, long time, you might as well enjoy at least portions of it. I never loved finance. It's an important skill that serves me daily, but as a career choice it was a disaster from day one from a work-life balance perspective. Even before I was married and had children,  it didn't leave me time for the things I loved: yoga class after work, weekends away, book club. 
  • Find some role models. While I did the "right" thing in pursuing 3 different finance internships as a college student, I never found anyone like me. That should have been my tip off! I never found women rising in the ranks of corporate finance or parents leaving after the closing bell to take kids to soccer practice. Those were important to me, and I'm still looking for those role models to help make this working-parenting dream a reality.
  • Prepare for the trade-offs. Bottom line: the people making the big bucks work the big hours. Six figure salaries largely belong to those willing (and wanting!) to sacrifice a lot of free time for work. Is that you? Awesome, go for it. If it's not, own it, and have a great time at book club!