Examining the Big Career Problem Part 2: New York or Hong Kong? Does It Even Matter?

As recruitment season for summer internships is coming up, I’ve been getting some inquiries about a number of issues concerning interning in finance in Asia. One question in particular pretty much tops all lists as the most-frequently-asked questionDid you ever contemplate working in New York instead of Hong Kong? If so, why did you pick Hong Kong over New York? My answer is probably the same as most people that have studied in the US and have an interest in China: Yes, we all have.

Why you are asking, and why I asked the same thing about a year ago:

Understandably, choosing a job or a career is probably the single most important decision you have ever had to make. The last big decision you had to make was probably which college to attend, but parents usually had a pretty big influence on that.

This time it’s different. Our parents might have had some knowledge of how colleges ranked and how the application system worked, but they know almost nothing about how to find a job in a big firm or how campus recruitment works when it comes to finance/consulting.

The most they’ve heard of is that this kid or that kid got hired by some big-name firm even before he graduated – because nosy family friends love to gossip about this stuff, as if those kids didn’t even need to apply and some company CEO just magically arrived on a helicopter and handed them job offers on a silver platter.

After debating with your parents for a year or two, hopefully demystifying the recruitment system and discrediting your aunts, uncles, and friendly neighbors, you realize that you are pretty much on your own. Depending on your parents’ level of English and financial literacy, they may think that becoming a banker means that you’ll be sitting behind a cashier and helping people with their deposits and withdrawals; if you’re lucky, they may think you take rich people’s money and help them buy and sell stocks; if you are really lucky, they may actually understand that you are going to take companies like Groupon and Michael Kors to an “IPO.” The term “consultant” is even more ubiquitous and difficult to explain because there are simply too many different types of consultants out there. Unless your parents work in the industry, there is very little chance that they will understand what kind of job you’re really applying for. So regardless of how lucky you are, your parents are of little help. And for the first time in your life, a big decision is pretty much all on you.

What to do about it:

I’ve said this many times before but here it is again: The best way to answer any question about this type of stuff is by actually trying it out. I highly recommend taking a gap year to really dig deep. But not everyone wants to/can do that. So what you can do otherwise, is to build a mental model of what it would be like if you worked in Hong Kong or New York (or Beijing, Shanghai, London, Dubai, São Paulo - anywhere for that matter). If you can convince yourself that the outcome of one place is better than all the rest, you can go ahead and pick that one. After all, you just need convince yourself that your final decision is the “right” one - whether  or not it’s actually better than the rest doesn’t even matter and isn’t even relevant because you will never get to test it out.

In reality, we overestimate how much impact a major decision like this will have on our happiness. If you are able to make it into finance or consulting in any of these big cities, you are already in good shape to become a high-earning white-collar and retire with plenty of vacation money (unless something like the current financial crisis happens). And if all you wanted was to do a two-year stunt in a prestigious firm just to show that you can, doing so in New York vs. anywhere else doesn’t matter nearly as much as how prestigious the firm is. Just as your educational outcome may not have differed much had you gone to Princeton instead of Yale, so too your professional success may not be all that different if you decided to pick Barcap ECM over BAML NRG.

However, if you think your life’s dream involves much greater ambition than just becoming a white-collar, then your task is a little bit harder – you’ll need to figure out what that dream is first, before you do anything else. School, I find, is a terrible place to discover one’s true passion, because school is nothing like the world you will have to deal with once you are outside of it (unless you go into academia).

For one of my business school classes, we were assigned to a book called Managing with Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer on the importance of power when one desires to make impact on this world. A section entitled “Lessons to Be Unlearned” summed up a few very important points that all college grads should keep in mind:

  1. Despite what we have learned all our lives growing up, life is not a matter of individual effort, ability, and achievement. How well you do in school is a result of your individual academic efforts and capabilities, but it’s independent from your classmates. This is even more evident in the Chinese education system where the final exams account for 100% of your course grades, and your gaokao exam score is the sole determinant of which university you end up in. As the author puts it, “the private knowledge and private skill that are so useful in the classroom are insufficient in organizations. Individual success in organizations is quite frequently a matter of working with and through other people, and organizational success is often a function of how successfully individuals can coordinate their activities.” In short – drop your books and join some clubs.
  2. In most classes, there are always right vs. wrong answersbut real life doesn’t work that way. I like to think of school life vs. the real life as an Venn diagram, where there is a portion of school life that can be applied to real life, but a large chunk of it is pretty irrelevant (such as how to register for class and memorizing the difference between Doric and Ionic order columns).

But here comes the more important part – the reality of decision-making:

  1. A decision by itself changes nothing
  2. At the moment a decision is made, we cannot possibly know whether it is good or bad
  3. We invariably spend more time living with the consequences of our decisions than we do in making them

So instead of pulling your hair out trying to decide “New York or Hong Kong” before graduation, focus on implementing the decision and maximizing your returns whatever you decide to do and wherever you decide to go. John Legend became a singer after three years at BCG; Peter Peterson went from Secretary of Commerce to co-founder of Blackstone. Anything can change after a good start. As self-righteous homo sapiens, we will always find ways to justify our decisions later and play 事后诸葛亮, but the most important thing is that we do everything we can to make the most out of every situation.

One response to “Examining the Big Career Problem Part 2: New York or Hong Kong? Does It Even Matter?”

  1. tuftsgcc says :

    always enjoyed reading your blog David! although I would dispute one of your minor points: knowing the difference between Doric, Ionic and Corinthian order is pretty useful, especially when you are travelling in Europe, so that you can show off your knowledge in art history to your girlfriend or whoever is travelling with you haha. –Yihao

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