Categorized | Workplace

Celebrity bon vivant Ben Stein offers helpful advice for the hardworking

Posted on 20 August 2012

When I think about jobs and money and success, I am drawn to memories of a boy I will call Phil. He and I were in college together. He was always a quiet, unobtrusive fellow, but no student. He was not physically prepossessing–more pudgy, sweaty, and hairy–and he certainly lacked even a shred of charm. Phil is also the richest man I know. And I barely know him now because he still lacks even a shred of charm and can really only talk about how rich he is.

Rule 1: Find the Right Business
So why are the fantastically smart boys and girls I went to school with still struggling as law school teachers, trying to make that next payment on a Camry? Why did they become corporate lawyers, happy if they can balance a home and a vacation house? Why did they become doctors, wondering if they can get by until Medicare cares to send them their next reimbursement? How did Phil, of all people, get so rich?

Because he followed the number one rule of making money: he got into a good business. By total chance, mostly because he could not find another thing to do, he went to work for a well-to-do retired scientist. That scientist became a venture capitalist. He had Phil bring coffee to the meetings. Then, because he trusted Phil, he brought him in as a partner in his business. And this was in the late 1960s, when venture capital lived in the servants’ quarters of capitalism.


No amount of money compensates for the horror of working at a job where the blood flows backward in your veins as you do your daily tasks.


Times changed. Venture capital turned out to be one of the great businesses of all time. If you are involved with it, you cannot help but make a killing. You can be a pleasant guy–well, not really pleasant, but passable–and still make a fortune just on the lucky shots. Meanwhile, there is no money to be made in teaching and little to be made in law, unless you’re in the plaintiffs’ class action bar. That’s almost as good as venture capital. Nowadays, it seems, you won’t get rich in medicine unless you’re in elective surgery.

Thus, I offer the main rule of making money in your career: go into a career where people actually make money. This would include finance of most kinds, but mostly investment baking and venture capital. Huge amounts of money slosh through those fields. You need only have a tiny bit stick to your fingers and you’re all set. On the other hand, tiny little dribs and drabs drip through academe, unless you work in the endowment side. And even if you get an endowed professorship, you might live on peanuts.

You may hate working in a counting house. And, of course, the old cliche dictates that you must work in a field you like. That’s true. No amount of money compensates for the horror of working at a job where the blood flows backward in your veins as you do your daily tasks. It is far better to work at a poorly paid job you enjoy than to spend your one and only life doing time.

Rule 2: Don’t Settle
But how happy can you be if you’re broke all of the time? Yes, a few saints can work for low or no pay and still love it. But it’s far better to find the work you love and the salary you want. Hence, I offer rule number two: try a lot of different things in the work department before you settle on something–and even then, don’t settle. You do not know your range of talents unless you venture into a number of different fields. If you venture into enough of them, you will likely find one that you enjoy and that pays a good wage. In a nutshell, commit yourself to activity and inner mobility, the logic of the cowboy, which I long ago described as “Bunkhouse Logic.”

Rule 3: There’s No Substitute For Hard Work
Rule three: work hard. No one will want you and you will be of negative utility to your employers unless you work hard. By this I do not mean working until midnight during the week and every Saturday or Sunday. You should focus on what you are doing, pay attention, don’t talk to your girlfriend on the phone, don’t listen to the radio. Learn from those around you and get your assigned tasks done. No employer benefits from lazy and disorganized personnel. Remember that you are always your own employer; you derive most of the benefit of your labor, such as it is.

If you make yourself into a well-oiled (preferably not with alcohol) machine, you will reap the rewards for life. There is no payoff in being lazy on the job, and none from being surly, and none from disorganization. Learn this, pay attention to it, and you will be far ahead of the game.

Rule 4: Learn All You Can
Keep learning about the world around you. You cannot expect that you have gotten a lifetime’s worth of knowledge in any school. You have to add to it constantly. Read, read, read about your field and others that interest you.

Finally, and of vital importance, I would advise you to save money. Save enough so that you can change jobs, take time off to consider your direction, and follow another path. In this life, savings are not an option but a necessity. The more you have, the freer you are to make something happen in a big way. And you will also be preparing for a less active life, which we all confront at some point.

Were you taking notes?

  • Work in a good business
  • Work in a good business that you enjoy
  • Try new things
  • Be active
  • Be effective and productive in your work
  • Stay informed about your world
  • Save money

That’s it for now. Class dismissed.

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