Imagine if the smartest people at your work actually worked on something consequential. What if incentives were set up to reward meaningful work instead of mastering complexity for it’s own sake.
“Emergency” at Work
We ran into something of a catastrophe at work the other day, a veritable accounting disaster. The shit hit the fan in a big way and we had very little time to clean it up. It was incredibly stressful, even for me, and I was at best a tertiary player. I can’t imagine the over-bearing pressure my boss must have felt as it all came down to her. And she crushed it.
A Little Background on My Boss
She’s a genius. Not like a beautiful mind genius, more like a savant of organization and analysis. She has accounting rules down pat, and can apply and understand their impacts as naturally as I chew my food.
When this “crisis” happened she rose to the occasion. It was a site to see. We had a high-dollar consultant in office with us and the two of them were dissecting accounting standards like Tom Brady picking apart a cover-2. It was amazing.
When it was over I had this odd feeling of exhausted exuberance. I felt this small tinge of something, I don’t know, pride maybe?
But then the cynic took over…
What had we accomplished really? This very complicated accounting problem presented itself requiring immediate rectification. The solution was buried in a myriad of esoteric accounting standards and somehow still the right answer was extracted and enacted. We did it. We accomplished something, right?
Finishing something has many different meanings. You can finish a 5,000 piece puzzle in a day and you undoubtedly accomplished something. But how does that compare to finishing a well in rural Rwanda? Are you a shitty person if you feel pride at your newly glued snowy landscape? What about if you feel empty after that first bucket of fresh water comes up?
I honestly don’t know. But they feel like important questions.
My boss was beaming when that day was over, and I don’t begrudge her that. But it did make me wonder…
What if she was doing something important
I was struck with something of a day-dream, I imagined my boss and this consultant working just as feverishly on the Puerto Rico hurricane recovery efforts. I pictured the two of them sat at that same table, huddled over computers, reaching out to their well-cultivated contacts, and just generally rocking it, but this time on behalf of Puerto Rican residents without electricity or running water.
My boss is clearly well-suited for logistical work. She could navigate the cumbersome bureaucracy of Federal programs and adeptly identify solutions under the crush of enormous pressure.
But she doesn’t. Instead she does accounting. Why is that?
Money? Prestige? Outside Influence?
Careers like teaching and social work are often described as noble. The only way to attract the best and brightest to these roles is to rely on their altruism. You do these things for reasons other than money.
That’s all well and good, but what if we also used money and prestige as a motivator for these positions?
Let’s look at Wall Street as an example. Investment banking is a field that attracts hoards of Ivy League graduates, drawn to the promise of influence and the potential of out-sized performance bonuses. The earnings are justified by the huge dollars at play and the competition among firms for the most intelligent actors.
To loosely tie that in to Puerto Rico… Billions of dollars in aid has been spent and even more is forthcoming. The organizers of this pile of influential money don’t have the same performance incentives though. What if their was fierce competition among the nation’s most ambitious and intelligent to be part of the groups that deliver aid dollars? What if the most prolific aid worker was lauded and compensated the way the 100th best hedge fund manager is?
Think about the talent that would start moving into elementary education if you treated your kid’s 4th grade teacher with the same esteem as their pediatrician. What would happen if we rolled our eyes at finance majors instead of education majors? If we beamed about our nephew’s ESL certification the way we do about our niece’s law degree?
An Unlikely Revolution
As nice of a thought experiment as that is, it seems beyond improbable we see that type of shift in our lifetimes. For capitalism to work, money needs to be a powerful motivator. And beyond that, it requires that the primary way to attain wealth is to create more commerce.
If the prospect of unequal financial gain didn’t motivate the most talented, then we wouldn’t “advance” as a nation. Financial rewards for altruism probably isn’t a great way to sustain a powerful economic nation.
So my boss will never be motivated to leave the lucrative field of accounting for the bureaucratic world of government logistics. And maybe, that’s not a terrible thing? I don’t know.
What we can do
Maybe a small thing we can do is treat those who perform well in positions without monetary reward with a special level of respect and admiration. Perhaps instead of a $20 Starbuck’s gift card you can stop in to your kid’s teacher’s classroom and thank them personally for their hard work. Tell them about the change you’ve seen in your son and that you know they’re a huge part of it.
When your neighbor’s kid tells you about their sociology major you can try asking them what they’ll do with their degree in a way that doesn’t imply you think they’ll be poor forever. Maybe they know at a young age that money isn’t the most important thing and you should foster that belief instead of trying to convince them otherwise.
I’m probably not the best person to complain about the misaligned incentives of high salaries. I’m currently in the process of selling my soul to bank financial surplus. But instead of just plugging along unthinking for the next 35 years we should at least consider the way we’re all going about it.
I want to imagine, just for a minute, a world where my analytically brilliant boss is saving lives instead of numbers.