Money Means Nothing Without Self-Meaning

02/21/2014 09:24 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

A dime. If I had a dime for every business student who entered my office; lamenting the self-described drudgery that is their work-life. They thought that a career on Wall Street or in heavy duty consulting would bring that pristine pot of gold. They were right. And wrong. Yes, those hundred plus hour weeks catapult you into that illusive 5% earner stratosphere. But if I had a dime for every student who would later confide in me: "it just was not fulfilling," ironically, I would be as wealthy as the financial institutions from which they feverishly depart.

Enter social psychologist Paul Piff and his provocative TEDx talk "Does money make you mean?" Sixteen and a half minutes of summarized laboratory and field data show an association between wealth, and lack of compassion, empathy and pro-social motivation. Astute scientists know the difference between causation and correlation, and that the sterile laboratory environment often amplifies reactions that would otherwise be muted by a normally noisy, real world.

But, for me the point of the talk is not to nit-pick Piff's implied conclusions. One must look beyond the provocative (if not intentionally inflammatory!) title and implied answer based on Piff's data.

The broader and more important point of the talk is to force our society to consider its implications. I did just that--in terms of a person's self-investment into who they are or want to be. And through the lens of this Professor whose job is to train and mentor the next waves of business persons who are ultimately stewards of our society's future. Does money make you mean? My answer is one of hope and cautious optimism. Why? Because of the numerous anecdotal interactions I have had that reflect the vignette that opens this blog.

Put a different way, I think the good news is that we are undergoing a systematic cultural revolution that should at least in part sooth the disturbing thesis put forth by Piff and his colleagues--and make even the hard core skeptic hopeful.

Business Schools and Moral Identity? Such a combination was once perceived as a rather humorous oxymoron. In the free-for-all-hey-days prior to the financial crisis, the mantra was "go forth young (wo)man and get rich" by any means necessary. Capitalism. The land of opportunity but pushed to a perverse extreme. Admittedly, the first portion of Piff's discussion is quite depressing in this regard. Money makes you selfish. Money (that is even unearned) makes you feel entitled, act in your own self-interest and disregard the needs of others. "Greed is good." I can still hear the character Gordon Gekko utter those words as he ferociously destroyed his competition from behind a cherry wood oak desk--making more money in an afternoon before his bespoke fitting--than most of us do in a year. Such a persona today? It all feels, well....icky.

False Idols and Self-Reflection--What I have noticed, however, over the past 13 years or so of teaching roughly 2500(+) undergraduate and graduate business students here at the Wharton school, is that they think it's icky too. It has created a "stigmatized identity" that I believe affects their self-image. Often, they rationalize that they must "try" that gig in iBanking or consulting. Under the guise that they will "learn a lot" and move on. I suspect that what they really mean is that they (at least initially) buy into that herd behavior; that glistening false idol that lots of money will bring you self-fulfillment. Can money make you mean? Maybe. But it can also give you meaning. Business students are increasingly coming to that "ah-ha" moment. That epiphany that profits and prosocial motivation can peacefully co-exist. What is required however, is a way to bring these two previously clashing worlds of identity together.

This Isn't Your Father's Business Person Identity--therein lies the paradigm shift. There is a new model of business and business student afoot: The student who enters my office with a deep passion to do two things. Make money and do good. Business schools are "rebranding" themselves to welcome this new identity. It's being called "social impact." The identity of the student, who has realized that mindless self-investment into the false idol of material things for their sake, is an empty void--a fast track to an empty soul--is changing. Business students are becoming much more aware, and self-reflective. Their "confessionals" to me point out that they have astutely thought about "why" they are pursuing wealth. What will their legacy be when they depart from the physical world? These are the questions that are front and center for them. Of course, the skeptics would quickly point out that this new identity is the merely the psychological resolution of pent up guilt: a 'moral license' to not feel bad that you adorn yourself in the throes of all things luxury. Is it 'guilt' or 'genuine' concern that underlies this paradigm shift? I'm not sure it matters.

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