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Banking jobs great for high achievers, bad for the truly gifted

Are bankers intelligent?

If you work for an investment bank – particularly in the sort of front office job which attracts hundreds of thousands of applications, chances are you’re pretty special. You’ll will probably have achieved exceptional exam results after studying at an exceptional university. If you’re this kind of academic high achiever, you may be perfectly adapted to a career in an investment bank. On the other hand, if you’re truly intellectually gifted you may want to give banking careers a wide berth.

Academics at the Institute of Psychology at Austria’s Innsbruck University studied the extent to which academic high achievers and intellectually gifted people succeed in building happy and meaningful lives. They found that academic high achievers are generally happier than the intellectually gifted, and that the components of happiness for the two groups are very different.

If you’re a mere academic high achiever, you will – self-evidently – be enthused about achieving things. The researchers found that the 141 academic high achievers in their sample disproportionately linked their happiness to personal development, defined as personal growth and goal striving. At the same time, these high achievers derived meaningfulness in their lives from meaningful work, defined as work that’s fulfilling, significant, directed, coherent with life goals and that contributes to a sense of belonging.

For the properly intellectually gifted, however, things were a bit different. The 198 intellectually gifted individuals in the sample had levels of subjective wellbeing (happiness) disproportionately linked to ‘self-compassion’, defined as having a ‘‘‘positive emotional stance toward oneself.’’ And they disproportionately derived their life-meaningfulness from engaging in careers that were “generative”, or that contributed to the greater good for coming generations.

Ostensibly, this would seem to preclude the intellectually gifted from pursuing banking careers if they want to be happy and fulfilled. After all, the punishing schedule of banking jobs isn’t conducive to self-compassion, and while banks are imperative for funding the real economy they’re not generally perceived as furthering the good of humanity. By comparison, academic high achievers seem to have all their boxes ticked by the average banking job: there’s a lot of personal growth and goal striving in banking; there’s a lot of significant work that helps you achieve life goals (like paying off your mortgage); and banks are generally keen to foster “belonging” among their employees.

The results might help explain why banks have historically had an aversion to hiring students with a 1st class degree in the UK (usually equivalent to a score of over 70% in final exams). They also echo an earlier study of MIT graduates which found that the MIT students who went into finance weren’t the very highest performers, but students who tended to devote a lot of time to sports.

Before you rule a banking career out on the grounds of your exceptional intelligence, it’s worth wondering whether the academics’ findings might have fallen foul of selection bias, though. The intellectually gifted people in the academics’ cohort were defined as those with an IQ >130 who were members of the German and Austrian branches of Mensa. – Maybe these individuals’ high IQ and highly developed sense of moral superiority were their defining features? By comparison, the ‘high achievers’ were taken from students who won awards while at university. “High achievement is very likely associated with high levels of motivation,” noted the academics, tacitly admitting that their system of categorization could have preempted their results.

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