Regular readers will know we treasure our useless degrees around here. Happily, we are not the only ones willing to evangelize for the value of studying worthless, outmoded subjects such as English literature, philosophy, religion and language.
Recently the financier Bill Miller donated $75m to the study of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. The size of the gift made headlines, but few stopped to remark on the other surprise in the story: that someone who studied philosophy went on to create a fortune estimated at about $1bn — and thought this study valuable enough to encourage others to do the same.
Mr Miller is anomalous, obviously. If you really want to understand how to create an enormous fortune from nothing, you should look to someone like George Soros, who studied . . . philosophy. Or consider billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who resigned last year as an adviser to Donald Trump over potential conflicts of interest. He graduated from Princeton with a thesis on “The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning”: another philosopher. Clearly not all philosophers are moral philosophers. But they know how to think.
The brain is like any other muscle: working it makes it stronger, faster, more flexible. Being able to hypothesise, think conditionally and reason inductively as well as deductively are all features of the theoretical training that goes on in good humanities departments — and not only there. The most advanced work in mathematics moves away from real numbers toward imaginary and irrational numbers. That’s where the difficult thinking occurs: in the realm of the imaginary, which is by no means antithetical to the logical.
Chris Cole, who runs one of the more quantitative and conceptually challenging investment strategies I have encountered, studied freaking film. In fact, to steal a recurring concept from his research, and to build a bridge to Churchwell’s argument in the FT, I argue that studying a useless subject such as film, philosophy or English has a highly convex return profile.
Let me be clear: useless degrees do absolutely NOTHING to prepare you for schlepping around in an entry level position in any industry.* In reality, most entry level jobs in most industries can be learned through apprenticeship. However, employers like to use education as an easy screen to narrow down pools of job applicants. This is no different than an investor screening stocks trading on EV/EBITDA multiples over 5x out of her investment universe. Yes, she will miss some good companies. That’s not the point. She’s using the screen to narrow the field to a manageable number. She doesn’t have the time, energy and resources to model every company in the Russell 3000.
As with good companies trading on “bad” multiples, screening processes can make it difficult for people holding useless degrees to get their feet in the door initially. For rich people it’s not so bad, because they’ve got lots of wasta from knowing other rich people. The rest of us have got to build networks and demonstrate our ability to add value. This can be a circuitous path. I started my career in finance as a Customer Service Associate in retail banking. Paying dues like this is no fun and can cause us useless degree holders to despair at times.
However, I contend that a useless degree holder with sufficient motivation is exposed to significant positive convexity in his career / earnings progression over time.
As your career progresses, your job is less and less about executing straightforward tasks that can be taught through regimented training and checklists. It becomes more about thinking strategically and (dare I say it?) creatively to solve business problems. The potential rewards for thinking strategically and creatively are much, much greater than those for being really good at executing straightforward tasks. Roles that require strategic thinking tend to be roles involving risk taking and risk management, with variable compensation schemes that scale up massively in line with business results. Owner, Partner, CEO, COO, Portfolio Manager, Line Manager, etc.
Hence, the returns to a useless degree are very small relative to other, narrowly focused degrees for several years. If there is a return at all. Until one day you work your way into a role that demands “being able to hypothesize, think conditionally and reason inductively as well as deductively” (such as running a hedge fund). Then those returns grow exponentially.
That, friends, is the power of convexity.
Chris Cole, who I mentioned above, put out a great white paper about convexity as relates to George Lucas’s profits from the Star Wars franchise. Prior to Star Wars, everyone “knew” film merchandising rights were worthless. Lucas cleverly made a deal where he took a much lower directing fee (the “best” way to get paid at the time) in exchange for merchandising rights. We all know how that played out…
Now, when people asked me where I studied finance, I delight in telling them I was a dual major in English and German. “Your CFA charter is what gets you hired,” I tell them. “The English degree is what gets you promoted.”
* Pro Tip: Adding value as an entry level employee is super simple and revolves entirely around making your boss’s life easier by proactively solving problems, while simultaneously being someone your co-workers enjoying working with. That’s literally all there is to it.