3 Things to learn from the crashing careers of the super-rich

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The market crash is going to mean a new era of banking, but it is also bringing along with it a few new ideas about how to manage one’s career. This is not the first sector to experience catastrophe, but it might be the wealthiest one. And we can all learn a little about managing our careers from watching what happens with the super-rich.

1. Use the downturn to figure out where you stand.
Wall Street ticks with rainmakers and math geniuses. Usually these guys (almost always guys) are tough to come by. Everyone wants them, everyone knows where they are and where they are going, and they are so powerful that they usually come and go in teams. So you can probably guess that recruiting this talent is extremely difficult.

I have a friend who specializes in headhunting finance talent, and he reports that it is unprecedented that these guys would all be fired, flailing individually, and available to the next taker. So in this downswing, where investment banking layoffs are fast and furious, the management at the places that can still hire finance talent (true banks, and other corporations that have so much money that they could be a bank, like GE or Harvard University) are finally enjoying a buyer’s market.

My friend’s phone is ringing all day with hiring managers scared that they’re missing out on a shopping binge, all of them simmering in a sick feeling that their competitors might be getting a good deal this week.

There’s a saying on the trading floor that up or down doesn’t matter, because as long as there is volatility, you can make money. And it turns out that this is true of recruiting, too.

So, if your sector is tanking, test your star power. There will be a feeding frenzy for top-talent. Learn where you stand by calling a headhunter. If he or she will work with you, you have star power, or at least you’re at the top of your game.

2. If you’re stuck, become a stay-at-home parent.
Let’s be honest. The hedge fund guys who are out of work are not going to be a big drag on our welfare system. (Well, unless you count the whole hedge fund economy as a welfare system.)

These guys have been bringing home million-dollar checks for years, so there’s likely to be food on the table and money in the bank for back-to-school clothes. And guess who’s taking the kids back to school? The dads. Because all those finance guys who just last month were expensing trips to strip clubs with their clients are now taking kids to preschool and then hanging out at Starbucks talking about how great it is to be a stay-at-home dad. While the markets adjust, of course.

When I was a kid, a latchkey kid, consulting was the new unemployment. Today, in the era of good parenting, stay at home parenting is the new consulting. In the Midwest it happens when you get laid off from your job at American Girl and you realize that any job you could get will not cover childcare costs. In New York it happens when you get laid off from Lehman Brothers and you realize that any job you can get will not feed your ego more than telling people you have miraculously become a doting dad.

Of course, there are people who were born to stay home with kids. Not everyone uses it as an escape route. But everyone can, if need be.

3. Free yourself from the delusion that safe paths are possible.
Here is me linking to the ten billion times I’ve written that there is no more corporate ladder and you should stop thinking that someone will take care of you and tell you where to go next and give you a gold watch when finally you retire at 65. Even still, when I tell people that no ladder means instead that you can be lost while you find your own path, the most fearful of self-discovery balk at being lost and instead go to law school.

Everyone used to think law school was safe, but in fact, it’s not. And it’s not unsafe just because more than 50% of lawyers would not recommend that you become a lawyer because they don’t like it. It’s not safe because you will work really hard in your early career and then get de-equitized in your later career which is the law career equivalent of having the ladder pulled out from under you.

So the last bastion of the fast track to safe money and job security used to be finance. And now, that one’s gone, too. There are officially no more safe paths to money. You have to make your own path. This is a stark, big-bang broadcast that the end of the safe career is here. And that’s great. Because the quest for a safe, beaten path that will work for your own life is an empty quest. We are in a new era of work, and you get to make your own path. It’s exciting. Even in a down market.

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  1. Jim
    Jim says:

    There has not been security in corporate america at least since the 1990’s.

    You and you alone are responsible for your future, your career, and your income.

    I worked at a major finacnial institution for 3 years in the IT group. From 2002 to 2005 I had 6 bosses (1 every 6 months). It got to the point where boss #3 told me I should start looking elsewhere becuase of all the turmiol and no one knew if our group was going to be dissolved.

    I volunteered to go to India to train my new colleagues. I’m glad I went, it looked great on my resume and an all expenses paid trip to the far east.

    I left to go into contract consulting and increased my salary by $30,000 in one move. I have since been at 6 major financial institutions.

    I do have to diligent to make sure I knew where my next assignment is coming from, but the onus is on me. I don’t have to worry about corporate politics anymore.

    I do also have a couple side businesses, it is my leverage / insurance policy against the ups and downs.

  2. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    It is hard to picture that the displaced workers responsible for mismanagement of the financial system are actually geniuses. I hope they are more effective in the new jobs they acquire.

  3. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    This is one of my favorite “Penelope” postings by far because it’s extremely informative and true. I laugh/cry every time a colleague says “cool, a new project, great job security.” I know there is no job security anymore, which is why I beg people to build powerful online brands, so they have the visibility required (and an asset) to protect themself.

    The new career path is to be the commander, the one in charge, the head honcho. No one will take care of you, so guess what? You have to take care of you and be good at it.

  4. Bill
    Bill says:

    Great post, Penelope!

    I think we can all learn a valuable lesson here: when someone is laid off by a company, although it's painful and stressful, it could be the beginning of something new and successful if he/she can learn from the experience, and use it as an opportunity for self introspection and personal/professional growth. Just like the Chinese phrase for “crisis” consists of two characters: “Danger” and “Opportunity”, layoff can be both “danger” and “opportunity” to person who is laid off. It's up to each individual to seize the hidden opportunity.

  5. CodeNinja
    CodeNinja says:

    Great post.

    More people need to get job security from knowing they are readily employable in the market, not by holding a deathgrip on their project du jour.

  6. Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers
    Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers says:

    Knowing that the world of work is changing and that each individual is responsible for his or her own “personal brand” is one thing. Actually acting on it and figuring out what you are good at, what you should be known for and figuring out how to make that happen is another thing.

    You don’t learn how to make your own path in school (although some MBA schools are including personal branding courses as part of their curriculum). Without an incentive (such as a job loss) to do the hard thinking that comes with personal career planning, most people are happy to blithely travel the path they are on.

    It may be a tough pill to swallow (especially for non-fat-cat employees who are casualties of this shift), but hopefully this wake-up call will be the impetus for many who needed a reason to stop and plan their own futures.

  7. Joe Bright
    Joe Bright says:

    I remember a young friend who at 15 regurgitated his father’s view: Get good grades, then you can go to a good, then you can get a good job, and then a good retirement. He was 15! Besides reciting this with all the personality of a dead sardine, he wasn’t even buying it deep down.

    Here’s to hoping that for him, and all young folks out there, that they do what they love doing and learn to explore rather than expecting that golden parachute.

    Great post. Thanks

  8. Jessica Bond
    Jessica Bond says:

    I agree – there are no more safe jobs. Having a personal career strategy and life strategy is key. You are the CEO of your career and life – no one else can do that for you.

    Conversely, in tough times, employers that have poor business strategy and weak management need to be fired by their employees (i.e. time to be more selective in who you choose to work for – all employers are not equal). People forget that they are in charge of who they choose to work for.

  9. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    Yup, job “security” is an illusion, that’s for sure.

    I first discovered this in the eighties. Maybe before. Actually it’s always been an illusion. But it’s true that quite a number of individual people managed to persist in this illusion longer than you’d think reasonable.

    However, there’s no excuse now! Penelope is right, people.

  10. USpace
    USpace says:

    Great stuff! A job is much what you make of it, even if you’re a ditch-digger, be the best you can be at it.
    the harder you work
    the luckier you will get
    – keep working at it

  11. Hanging In
    Hanging In says:

    You are spot on Penelope. I work in sales for an investment bank and so far I still have a job. Even so, I am acutely aware that this thing has had its day. The IB will no longer be the go-to choice for those seeking glory and fortune. In short, it has had its time just like many before it. It used to be that “everyone” wanted to work in brand management for P&G, then they wanted to be a management consultant, then they wanted to be a dot com whiz, then they wanted to be an investment banker. It will be interesting to see what comes next because we are all lemings at the end of the day ;)

  12. Kat
    Kat says:

    Your point about becoming a stay at home dad may have some flaws – depending on how wealthy they actually are. These rich people expected to have “secure” jobs, so they have big mortgages, have swanky cars, send their kids to private schools, go on several family holidays abroad a year etc. All this costs a lot of money, so being a stay at home dad (assuming the guy is generating the majority if not all this income) may not be so appealing. They must be scared of losing this lifestyle, so would even consider taking a job with a paycut (short term) just to keep paying the bills. But I agree that if they can afford to do it, then I think they would love being a stay at home dad.

  13. Leanne
    Leanne says:

    Stay at home dad is not for the faint hearted – ain’t all muffins and cappacinos …ask my MIC – he’ll give you the low downs and the high points ..

  14. Michael
    Michael says:

    “… the most fearful of self-discovery balk at being lost and instead go to law school.”

    Or the many other ways of stepping back from the edge. The price of self-discovery is stepping into a blank space on the map.

  15. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Can we replace the word “career” with “happiness?” Isn’t that what we’re all aiming for anyway?

    Life is short. Use the resources available, whether they be your skills, your degrees, your experience or whatever, to help bring about your happiness.

    In trying to find that perfect “career,” over and over again, I come back to that same basic question, “What makes me happy?” At 42, I STILL can’t answer that in a straightforward manner.

    Let’s stop chasing a “career” in the pursuit of happiness. Instead, let’s discover what makes us happy and then use the resources that we have at our disposal to help bring about that particular state of being. It may be that upon discovering what makes you happy that you may not really need what you thought of as a “career.”

  16. Michael
    Michael says:


    I think you’re right. This is a short video (the eight irresistible principles of fun) http://www.eightprinciples.com on that point: what do I really want, what really matters, what’s my Great Work.

    And it’s rarely a single answer. Someone gave me the idea of a “portfolio career” a long time ago – basically, you need a mix of stuff to give you what you really want, one single job won’t come close to providing it.

  17. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    It’s a luxury to pursue a career and/or happiness when you need a job just to survive day-to-day. These guys who use ‘stay-at-home dad’ as an excuse for their unwillingness to take any job- just to put food on the table-are the very same men who don’t value the experience of stay-at-home moms when they try to re-enter the workforce. Sheesh.

  18. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    YES! Absolutely brilliant. I’m so glad you said that. Go you.

    So, is college really the best start to everyone’s career, or is much/ most of it (which is what I’ve been wondering) just an attempt to be or stay “safe” for longer?

    • Ashley
      Ashley says:

      I think the only alternative to college is borrowing thousands of dollars from Mom and Dad to start a company, and that’s not really an option for most people. Honestly – if you don’t have a degree and you don’t have experience (a.k.a.: a recent high school graduate), you won’t be able to find a job that will take you anywhere.

      However, I have known plenty of people who are in college to hide from the real world and to avoid thinking about what they really want.

  19. Maya
    Maya says:

    All so true.

    Being in the IT sector, I have used Number 1 for a few years now. It is a great idea and honestly, I believe I fared much better doing this staying with one safe job that promised promotions.

    For now, I am doing number 2. Honestly, it is a great escape and a rewarding experience…and if we are are really good at what we do career wise, work comes looking for us while we are enjoying this escape.

    Being in control of our own careers is the new “safe path”.

  20. Angie
    Angie says:

    I agree that there are no “safe” jobs anymore. I entered the workforce knowing this. But I think that knowing that can only be exciting for those who are real risk takers. For people like me, who value security more than they are energized by risk, it can only produce anxiety. So, do I accept that I have to “forge a path” and make myself marketable? Yes. And I honestly relish the freedom and privilege that allow me to try various things. But this process of trying various things in order to find a niche and constantly trying to update my skills is incredibly confusing, exhausting, and yes, anxiety producing.

  21. James Mcfaden
    James Mcfaden says:

    Once again a post of yours proves what a true genius you really are. Would a hedge fund manager really become a stay at home dad? You are just brain dead really, give it up.

  22. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    @James McFaden: it’s the hedge fund managers who are brain dead morons. And I’m guessing you are one, too. Try to keep that straight.

  23. Marsha Keeffer
    Marsha Keeffer says:

    Pithy and spot-on, Penelope. In a former life, I provided career counseling and without exception every law student and attorney I saw wanted to know how to get out of it. Since then, BigLaw hasn’t become prettier. It’s important to inventory every skill – not just those we’ve been working with lately.

  24. Dan
    Dan says:

    “And guess who’s taking the kids back to school? The dads. Because all those finance guys who just last month were expensing trips to strip clubs with their clients are now taking kids to preschool and then hanging out at Starbucks talking about how great it is to be a stay-at-home dad.”

    Really? Do you know any of these dads personally? If not what is your evidence for this assertion?

  25. Steve C.
    Steve C. says:

    Penelope, I think it’s only exciting if you have so much money that you don’t have to worry about anything.
    Same goes for the stay-at-home-dad/mom thing. It sucks unless you can smooth out those lows by pampering yourself, and that takes money, and time. When you start to lose your identity, it’s no fun. I don’t care what you did before. The first thing that goes is your ability to manage time, as you waste huge amounts of time reading and responding to blogs. I mean, let’s do some of the math here: how many hours do people spend reading blogs and comments and responding, and how much is your time worth(not your’s penelope, our’s)? Add it up, then take a look at how many of us are putting at least that much time into it. We all have waaay too much time on our hands, and could be using it much more productively. Which tells me tht most of us aren’t really working all that much, at least not on a production line. I guess it’s cheaper than talk therapy, at what $150 an hour? Helen Keller once pointed out that of all the species on earth, we are the only one that seems to think we have a right to security. I always liked that observation, but it still doesn’t make me feel any better about the whole stay-at-home dad thing. It sucks and it’s dysfunctional. Women trying to tell me how great it is, is like me expounding on the joys of breast-feeding. It just doesn’t ring true.

  26. USpace
    USpace says:

    “Once again a post of yours proves what a true moron you really are. Would a hedge fund manager really become a stay at home dad? You are just brain dead really, give it up.”

    So James Mcfaden, just because you are a HF manager making several hundred K or a few Million $$ per year and would not be a ‘stay at home dad’ even though you could easily afford it, does not mean some other multi-millionaires might not choose too.

  27. m
    m says:

    I don’t mean this negatively, but since the post seemed directed at the general population and not parents only, I wanted to point out, re Things To Learn From Crashing Careers #2: Not everybody has (or will have or wants) kids. Seemed a bit of an odd “lesson” for a general post about careers.

    Good post though overall, thanks as usual for sharing your thoughts.

  28. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    In an ironic twist, I have to disagree with Suzanne (Generation Xpert) – I think the number of positive comments makes this post boring! Penelope please write about something controversial, something that will make the likes of Jeremiah and jojokaka and editormum post comments. Those are my favorite posts.

  29. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    You can learn from the super rich but that’s not the first place I look to for guidance. I can more easily relate and learn from people whose values are common to my own. I enjoyed and learned from the stories of the middle class people from Madison, WI thanks to your Wisconsin State Journal link in #2. I absolutely do agree with you in this post that you have to make your own path. Making your own path requires knowing yourself, your abilities, and being able to adapt to change. You’ve stated this before and it’s even more relevant during this current economic turmoil.

    “Wall Street ticks with rainmakers and math geniuses.” made me think of the Matchbox Twenty song ‘real world’. Here’s the lyrics –

    I wonder what its like to be the rainmaker.
    I wonder what its like to know that I made the rain.
    I’d store it in boxes with little yellow tags on everyone.
    And you can come and see them when I’m…done, when I’m done.

    I wonder what it’s like to be a super hero.
    I wonder where I’d go if I could fly around downtown.
    From some other planet, I get this funky high on yellow sun.
    Boy I bet my friends will be…stunned, they’re stunned
    Straight up, what did you hope to learn about here.
    If I were someone else, would this all fall apart.
    Strange, where were you, when we started this gig,
    I wish the real world, would just stop hassling me.

    I wonder what its like to be the head honcho.
    I wonder what I’d do if they all did just what I said.
    I’d shout out an order, I think we’re out of this man get me some.
    Boy don’t make me wanna change my…tone, my tone.
    Please don’t change, please don’t break.
    The only thing that seems to work at all is you.
    Please don’t change, at all from me.
    To you, and you to me.

  30. Chris Young
    Chris Young says:

    We make our own luck…

    Penelope… Do you ever consider the responsibility you are given with 25,000 readers? You cannot continue to write this obvious nonsense.

    Write something worth reading.

    I personally stop by to see everyone fawn over your glib postings that are nothing more than statements of the obvious or mindless chatter.

    Keep posting. The world needs an oasis of caca on occasion to forget about their troubles.

    Perhaps that is your real calling.

  31. tinyhands
    tinyhands says:

    Following #2, I knocked up two chicks and have another date tomorrow night. Who do I see about getting paid for this? Is there a form I have to fill out?

  32. Chris Bauman
    Chris Bauman says:

    Once upon a time I would have definitely fitted into the category – where if you work hard you will be rewarded and your job is completely safe.

    What I didn’t count on were factors that were outside my control….. people, markets, competitors, and the media. Really any number of things can effect your career.

    I would say that I now definitely believe that there is no such thing as career stability.

  33. Dave
    Dave says:

    I doubt many many men who have been using their workaholic finance careers as an escape from family responsibilities will see becoming a stay at home parent as an escape. Rather than seeing stay-at-home parenting as a default, better-than-looking-like-an-unemployed-loser choice, I think a lot of people have already reached the conclusion that slaving away for big financial companies to make rich people richer and chasing an illusory meritocracy and non-existent ladder is not satisfying and not worth the cost (financial and personal) of delegating child care.

    You are right that we all need to seize control of our own fulfillment. And stay-at-home parenting is not going to fulfill a lot of people; I’m not saying it should. But parenting should never be a default, rather, it is more likely that in an economic crisis, the stay at home parent may have to go back to work to make ends meet–and both parents will need to check their egos that were bolstered by inflated paychecks at jobs and careers that are now undergoing a market correction.

  34. Procrastinating
    Procrastinating says:


    Nice post. But I would argue that one safe financial path is becoming a physician. It’s safe because 1) there is a current shortage of doctors in the US, so there won’t be much trouble finding a job, or even opening one’s own practice, 2) Physicians are less likely to be affected by downturns in the economy, and 3) Doctors are rarely ‘let off’ or fired by hospitals, unlike those who work in the finance industry.

    To be fair, the financial rewards are not as great as on Wall Street. Not to mention that the total training time is very long, and the pay during that training is not very much. But at the end of it all, doctors do receive very good pay in a very stable manner.

  35. Susan Greene
    Susan Greene says:

    Like everything in life, a setback like getting laid off can be what you make of it. If you look upon it as a blessing in disguise, and use this opportunity to do something you otherwise might not have had the guts to do — start a new business, stay home with the kids, write a book, move to a new state, etc. — it could be wonderfully life-changing. Go for it!


  36. Todd Rhoad
    Todd Rhoad says:

    I think these failures teach us that the forces that seek big profits will remove whatever gets in their way. This means all the little people at the lower ranks of the organization, or those in the middle that still exist, have little control over their future. Even if you get a great degree, work miracles on the job and are the best person in the world to be around, someone above you can drive the company into the ground, sending you searching for a job. In short, you have to work a lot smarter to maintain any stability.

  37. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    @Procrastinating: If I were going to go into healthcare, I’d be a nurse or physician’s assistant. In fact, I seriously considered becoming a midwife and nurse practitioner for a while. The plus side of nursing is that there’s a nursing shortage so you’ll find work, pay can be pretty good to start and gets better with an advanced degree, there are opporunities to teach and do research if you so choose, and the hours are saner than that of an on-call physician. I think it’s also a good option for parents and other caregivers because you can work a 12-hour shift three times a week, which gives you a lot more time at home.

    Physician’s assistants don’t have to go to school nearly as long as physicians do and the pay starts off great.

    I wouldn’t want to be a doctor. So damn stressful, no time with patients, getting paid through managed care is a joke when you’re in private practice and the schooling and internships are grueling. I’d put them in the lawyer category. I think there are probably a lot of unhappy doctors. Also, aren’t their student loan payments among the most astronimical?

    I love nurses. My mom’s a nurse and totally supported me on her nurse’s salary and got an advanced degree while raising me alone and working full-time (your job will probably pay for your tuition, another plus). I go to a nurse midwife rather than an ob/gyn and she spends way more time with me than any doctor has and she knows her stuff (she’s also a professor at a medical school). She’s totally going to deliver my baby when I’m preggers.

  38. Gavin
    Gavin says:

    I enjoyed this post Penelope – it was quite insightful, and I like it when you challenge established notions of how we should work….. as the comments section is ALWAYS a compelling read!

    For those readers who have criticized it, please try to consider the psychological profile of the group that Penelope is commenting on (their commitment to ongoing education, self-promotion, self-discipline and self-belief), and it may be an epiphany for you. This isn’t meant to be critical of you, it’s just emphasizing that there HAS been a HUGE paradigm shift in how we work, and it is possible to work for ourselves and build in security, but you have to map the path out for yourself….. and once you work that out, and embrace it, then the axis of your life will shift for the better.

    P.S Hedge fund managers becoming stay at home dads is merely a metaphor for parking yourself on the sidelines while all hell breaks loose! These guys would have so many irons in other fires (cue in the self-promotion trait mentioned above) that their title is merely a simplification of job description for submitting their tax return!

  39. resonanteye
    resonanteye says:

    Everyone can be a stay-at-home dad? This is news to me. I thought you had to be married, a parent, and with someone who makes enough money to pay the rent for two to do that!

    Count me in, where do I sign up? (says the single, un-childed, working woman.)

  40. Doug
    Doug says:

    Great value to society here encouraging people to pursue their goals, and not fall into the trap of thinking an old company name = secure job. And while Penelope brings up this issue of stay-at-home dads, I wouldn’t hire any of these tools, because I know many of them, and far too many might not have a job for life anymore, but they’re still pu, I mean wimps for life.

  41. J
    J says:

    @ procrastinating

    There is a always shortage of physicians because the supply is kept artificially low by the AMA cartel. A doctor is one of the last great American careers that pays oustandingly well and offers stability.

  42. Juki Schor
    Juki Schor says:

    I assume this post was meant sarcastic? I hope so at least. I definitely would count the whole hedge fund economy as a welfare “game of chance”. These guys might be geniuses and they could only operate in the way they did because of the lax to non-existing bank controls in the States and elsewhere. But in my opinion these guys are money junkies and should get a cure for drug addiction in prison. Somehow I feel the focus in this issue is weird. Sure, we can learn something about our careers from this, but it is “rainmakers” with their mindset that are causing even more people now to not even have a job or a home. I am not sure what kind of talent they have, but they definitely lack a lot of human qualities, so I wouldn’t want to recruit them into my business. After reading these posts it seems to me that especially American women can’t stop “admiring and wanting exactly those types of gambling wolves who are known to eat their welfare system for dinner”.
    I wish other countries economies weren’t touched by this, it would just be another nice American soap opera then.

  43. George
    George says:

    Learning from other peoples mistakes is the best way to go especially when it comes to money and business. The problem is that people tend to make the same mistakes over and over again all the time. Success comes from preparation and so does luck!

  44. Solar power man
    Solar power man says:

    People should stop panicking over this recession. It’ll pass. In fact, I think a downturn like this is a great opportunity to renew humanity’s commitment to things like renewable energy.

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