You are not your job—or are you?
If you consciously or subconsciously derive your identity from your work, what happens when that work goes away? Moreover, how do we reconcile the advice we hear from everyone from Steve Jobs to Steve Aoki to “follow our passion” (and, in case it wasn’t clear, monetize it) with the advice to also maintain some semblance of “work/life balance” or separation between the metaphoric church and state?
Is it a bad thing to love your work, or is it something to strive for?
My guest this week is the impressive Nora Ali—host of Morning Brew’s Business Casual, Harvard grad with a degree in statistics and quantitative finance, former Goldman Sachs analyst, concert violinist, and current media venture founder (i.e., someone who knows a thing or two about being conventionally successful and identifying with your credentials).
This week’s episode will give you a lot to chew on if you find yourself sneaking off to hammer out a few more emails after dinner.
Mentioned in the Episode
- Derek Thompson's piece, The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/
- Robert Frank's piece, The Wall Street Journal: https://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2007/03/21/the-workaholic-rich/
- Listen to Money with Katie here: https://www.podpage.com/money-with-katie-show/
- Read Money with Katie: https://moneywithkatie.com/
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Katie: What happens when the line between you and your work becomes blurred? When your job becomes your identity, when your title becomes how you define yourself outside of work, too? This isn't rhetorical; I've recently found myself grappling with this, and it gave me a lot to think about. Because in a society powered by capitalism, the hustle and grind culture, who am I if I'm not my work ethic? To make matters more complicated, identifying strongly with and therefore committing deeply to your work can be very lucrative, creating a dopamine-fueled feedback loop that's hard to break. The downside is the complete commingling of work and life means you may feel existentially lost without that driving structure of work in your life. So let's get into it.
Welcome back to The Money with Katie Show, #RichGirls and Boys. Today's episode is going to be a little bit meta. If you ever tried to watch TV while working, maybe in a weird attempt to make the work more enjoyable, or because you can't sit down and watch TV guiltlessly without also doing something productive? It's a funny example that I think most people can relate to because it demonstrates habitually how our work and our leisure time tends to blend together. This topic has a tendency to get broad, fast. So I want to take pains to distinguish between the idea of burnout, which is being chronically exhausted from a lack of work-life balance, and the idea of not being able to separate yourself from your job, your vocation, your work, and more than anything, I want to pose a question: Is it bad to feel deeply connected with your work, or is it something to strive for? Particularly when we know that a lot of the time finding a monetizable passion is a really good way to make a lot of money and have some fun doing it, which I have spoken about previously at length.
So that's what we'll be talking about today. The complications of what happens when work becomes your identity. You'll also hear from my friend and colleague, Nora Ali. Nora is an impressive person by pretty much any definition of the word. She graduated from Harvard. She had a complicated analyst job that I don't quite understand at Goldman Sachs, but now she's the founder of her own media venture. She also plays violin beautifully. If you were to craft a satirical pedigree of the perfect person under a capitalist system that also values culture, it probably wouldn't sound too different from Nora's actual qualifications. And I'm sure you'll understand why she's a great guest for this topic very soon.
So why did this feel important to talk about? Well, in an interview a few months ago, I was asked, “I get who Money with Katie is. I get that, but who's Katie?” And as anyone who's ever spent 12 minutes in a room with me knows, as long as I am awake, I am rarely at a loss for words, but this interviewer caught me completely flat-footed. His attempt at a light, fun question tormented me for the next few months, emerging every time I would sit down to meditate or take a long walk without my phone. And I realized, I didn't know how to describe myself outwardly or inwardly anymore, without talking about my work. I didn't have a canned response for who I am that didn't involve what I do. In fact, when meeting with a therapist for the first time to express this concern a few weeks ago, she asked me, well, can you think of a few ways that Money with Katie isn't you? Like some things about your job that you leave at your desk when you log off at the end of the day? And I couldn't; there was no line. There was no difference. Sure, it's a character or a brand, but in a lot of ways, it's just the commodification of me, which was, make no mistake, exactly what I had set out to create when I started out on this path a few years ago. This was exactly what I wanted. It brought up this idea I've been thinking about since then, which is the idea of work becoming your identity. Guys, why is…why is the music playing?
Henah: Huh? I don't hear anything.
Henah: Katie, are you O-Katie?
Nick: Katie, the Money. She's The Money.
Henah: Uh, yes. You need to be more Katie, Katie. The Money, Katie, The Money!
Katie: What's going on?
Nick: Katie, Katie, Katie, The Money.
Katie: Guys, I think…I think something's amiss. Wait, my mom is calling me now? Mom? Hi.
Recording: Welcome back, #RichGirls and Boys…
Katie: Aaaggghhh, I need to settle down. My trusty FM radio. That always does the trick. [MWK theme music] What is going on? [Banging on door] Thomas, is that you? Whoaaaa…
Recording: Rich Girl Roundup! Love it!
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Katie: The only thing that can never truly settle me down: advertisements. Anyway, if it wasn't clear in that bit we just did, I had been thinking about work becoming so consuming that it starts to become your identity. And look, you don't have to have a brand named after yourself to feel this way. In fact, I was doing some preliminary Googling on the topic. I found a host of articles, essays, and episodes from 2019—yes, pre-pandemic shakeup—describing this very phenomenon, by everyone from The New York Times’s Ezra Klein to The Atlantic's Derek Thompson. It used to be an attribute of a predominantly white, predominantly middle- and upper-class, predominantly male subset of society, likely because prior to the last few decades, they were the only ones deemed worthy of the high-paying, high-demand jobs. But in the last few years, it's eked out into other groups as well, including highly educated women. It's also because it's primarily a curse for those who work knowledge jobs—you know, the fake email jobs, the jobs you can do from a laptop remotely, somewhere in Montana—they don't require you to physically make anything or lift anything or build anything, technically. But they do require a lot of thinking. And the end product tends to be rather invisible to the naked eye. It's code, or it's an article, or it's an ad campaign analysis. It lives in this virtual world for public consumption, but I don't think it's limited to those types of knowledge worker jobs. And if anything, it's probably even more prominent for workers who engage in work that has a direct and witnessable impact on another human being or entity, like doctors or vets or teachers, people who may see their profession as a calling. In Derek Thompson’s piece for The Atlantic, he describes the way rich men used to be the group that actually worked the least in society, because they could afford to. Now, rich men are the group that works the most. Not because they have to, but because they want to. He says, maybe the logic here isn't economic at all. It's emotional, even spiritual. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans who can have whatever they want have chosen the office, for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays. It's where they feel most themselves.
For many of today's rich, there is no such thing as leisure, in the classic sense. Work is their play. The economist Robert Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal, building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun. Drag me, right? There is so much to unpack here. He writes about how work has transformed in the late 20th and early 21st century from a necessity, to a status thing, to meaning. Maybe that's why it's been linked to the decline of religion as a replacement for traditional religious faith. You have to worship something, after all, and derive meaning from somewhere. Where better than the place that provides your paycheck, that you already have to spend 40 hours a week?
Now there's likely something to that theory, that in the absence of traditional faith and a belief in some purpose that you serve on earth to a higher, unknowable power, you derive meaning from other things. And if those other things just so happen to be societally reinforced as good or noble or moral, then it makes it really easy and acceptable, even, to derive a lot of meaning and eventually identity from what you do.
Maybe you've heard this before. I don't know that it's particularly novel or original. The part of it that I find fascinating right now is the question of whether there's something wrong with this way of existing. Based on what my search history dredged up, I knew I wasn't alone in this feeling, but I was having a hard time describing it to anyone else in a way that didn't sound ridiculous. After all, part of the emotional confusion stems from the fact that usually, finding the thing you're really good at, that you really like, that's really profitable, ends up making you relatively wealthy, at least by middle-class standards. I have definitely directed people in the past to pursue a similar path, as it's one of the surefire ways to unlock a relatively high ceiling for your own income.
This idea that work remains a necessity for the poor and middle-class, but that it morphs into a sort of religious calling and promise of identity for the wealthy, is fascinating to me. It promises a sort of transcendence. The line about “where they feel the most themselves” sticks out to me. And it begs the question: Is there anything actually wrong with that? What if you do feel the most yourself, the most at home, sitting behind your computer? Is it wrong to be obsessed with your job? And if it is, why? What's the risk? The reward is obvious, right? Traditional success. Achievement in the traditional sense. Money, prestige, status. Things that we are trained from a very young age to pursue, as markers of being good at being an adult. And things that feel objectively good most of the time—having money, being successful—I don't know anyone that's like, “More money? Nah, not into it.”
Here's another quote from Thompson. “There is no question that an elite obsession with meaningful work will produce a handful of winners who hit the workist lottery: busy, rich, deeply fulfilled. But a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” Though this is where I, Katie, will counter that. If you find your job to be enjoyable, it actually may be very difficult to burn out, which might mean that you rarely choose to take breaks. Burnout is a state of chronic stress and overwhelm. Whereas deriving fulfillment from the work you do is not only lucrative, but tends to be restorative and energizing. In fact, on some level, it's a little bit addictive. If you're getting dopamine from your work and the results of your work, whether that be status or money or a sense of accomplishment, your brain is hardwired to seek more of that. And usually it seeps into time that you would not ordinarily have to be working, particularly if you are already wealthy. The reward for being rich back in the day was less work. Today, it seems people are choosing their own reward of doing more work.
So let's talk about the false choice of work-life balance, because it's not a secret that Americans today report higher levels of depression and anxiety than they did just a few decades ago. It doesn't seem that on the whole we are happier or more fulfilled in this world than we were in the world of 50 years ago, despite today's world being objectively more comfortable and convenient for most. That's why it seems to me that work-life balance is a bit of a false choice. I don't think anyone's actual end goal, if they were to soul-search long enough, would be to put work in some compartmentalized box, the way they do on the dark satire Severance on Apple TV, where the employees sever from their work selves to create complete separation. Most people, deep down, probably want to do work they find fulfilling, engaging, and interesting, work that they would choose to do even if they weren't being paid. We want it to be a meaningful part of our lives. And that very desire is a function of modern society. The idea that a job could actually be something grander, a career with an impressive narrative arc or more spiritually, a calling, is a relatively new idea. But if that's true, then work-life balance only matters if you don't like your job. If you do derive a bunch of meaning and fulfillment from it, the thinking goes, it should be A-OK to pour as much of yourself into it as possible. The work and the fun melt together until they're totally inextricable. And isn't that the ideal that we've all been told to find? To succeed at “finding your passion”? The notion that everyone has a passion and should be working tirelessly to discover, cultivate, and, importantly, monetize it, is an omnipresent pressure I'm not even sure we even recognize any more as a thing. It's just a given. Everyone from Steve Jobs to Steve Aoki tells us that relentlessly pursuing our thing and devoting ourselves to it fully is guaranteed to bring not only happiness, but—and sometimes this part is implicit—riches. There's almost something romantic and Shakespearean about the whole ordeal, to give of yourself fully to your purpose and, ideally, monetize it.
So yes, the irony is not lost on me that I have unlocked said path in the pursuit of retiring from paid labor altogether, right? The grand irony in my particular case is that I have now found myself in this work/identity morass as a direct result of pursuing financial independence in order to retire from paid labor. Starting Money with Katie to document and share my journey to financial independence and extremely early retirement, then having it become my full-time job and suck up all of my leisure time—not because of demands placed on me by the job, but rather because it became my identity—feels like a sick cosmic joke.
And I find myself working through these mixed feelings about my work and how much it seems to have subsumed my consciousness, even when I'm not technically working. Like when I'm watching TV or reading a book or going out into the world, I find myself constantly on the hunt for new ideas and things that I can transmute into content. In some ways it feels like a staggering gift and privilege to have a job that feels like a bit of a mental release valve. Like, turning my experiences and opinions into something that pays me admittedly rocks.
But there is an undercurrent of concern stemming from the fact that I recognize I have forgotten how to just exist in this world. How to just be. Consider new ideas, experience new things, enjoy an evening spent on the porch without identifying and then verbalizing an angle that can be nailed down in a 45-minute audio journey. Like the fact that I have turned this very observation into this episode is almost tragically funny. But is that blend of work and life, of hustle and leisure, of creating and consuming, actually an issue? Or is it a good thing? What's the risk, if this is the way I make money, you might wonder. And I think it comes down to the fact that it's risky because it can go away. And so too can the money it generates. It's risky anytime you are deriving meaning or identity from something that can be taken away from you, because it's not intrinsic to you. For many of us, I wonder if we even realize how much meaning we derive from work and how empty our lives might feel without it. If capitalism, as a means of organizing society, has largely replaced religion, which I know is a rather vague and grand statement, but go with it for now. Then that's the system that informs how and why a person has innate value. The characteristics or traits that make someone a worthy cog in the machine become indistinguishable from the characteristics or traits that make them a worthy human being.
I remember once journaling, “Who am I, if I'm not my work ethic?” And John Calvin cheered from the grave. Still, when you are predisposed to value your own work ethic and achievement above all else, and you suddenly find yourself in a position where your work is something you enjoy, it is a potent combination. You are now likely going to become very successful…and also very unable to relax. [theme music] Oh no, I think it's happening again. I'll just put on a podcast and settle down before it gets crazy again. [theme music] What, they're all Money with Katie? [new music] Finally, the sweet sounds of Business Casual.
Nora Ali: From Morning Brew, this is Business Casual. I'm your host, Nora Ali. And today our guest is…
Scary voices: Katie Gatti Tassin. Mwahahahahaha…
Nora Ali: Sorry, Katie. They made me do this. I will just see you after the break.
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When I saw Nora Ali, my impressive colleague who hosts the Morning Brew podcast, Business Casual, tweeting about experiencing the same feelings, I wanted to bring her on the show for a conversation about it. So Nora, welcome to The Money with Katie Show. Thank you so much for being here.
Nora Ali: Thanks, Katie. I'm happy to be here with you.
Katie: So you are, by all definitions of the word, impressive. A classically impressive person. A Harvard grad with a BA in statistics and quantitative finance, Goldman Sachs alum, founder, concert violinist. I'm pretty sure you also play piano. Like I could go on. Point is, you've achieved a lot of success through hard work, and I imagine a lot of intentionality. And I know this question is a little bit silly, but since we're on the topic, how does it feel to be a super successful person?
Nora Ali: Well, I don't always feel super successful, Katie. I live a life on a roller coaster. Sometimes I feel super great, very accomplished. Sometimes I'll just, like, look at my LinkedIn and see where I've been and what I've done. And it's so different. Each career and job I've had, I feel really proud and very cool. But then other days I just feel like a pile of hot garbage. But don't we all?
Katie: What would bring on the feelings of hot garbage? 'Cause I feel like if I went to Harvard, I'd never feel like hot garbage. Maybe that's my SEC background coming out?
Nora Ali: That's a misconception. I think a lot of us feel like hot garbage. 'Cause that's the environment that I went to school in, is everyone else was like me or smarter. Right? So social media obviously doesn't help, 'cause you're seeing everyone only post their successes. And one of the things I find most annoying is when people tweet “Big announcement coming up, something cool in the works!” And I'm like, should I be tweeting these things? Like, I always have cool things in the works. I just don't announce it until it actually happens. So it's definitely…social media is a contributing factor. And then, we can get more into this later, but a big part of what drives my feelings of success is what my family thinks. And it's very cultural too. There's this notion of “What will they think in immigrant communities?” I'm Bangladeshi, and the ease with which, and the pride with which my parents can describe what I do for a living to their friends and family is a big driving factor to me, is how impressive do I sound to the community? And it's not like I've ever felt like hot garbage because of that. But it's definitely…that's something that is always in the back of my head and makes me want to do more and more and more, regardless of what I am doing in the exact moment.
Katie: So it sounds like a combination of culture and comparison.
Nora Ali: Yes.
Katie: You know, a few months ago you had tweeted “Something I've been working on: identifying who I am without tying it to work or career. Y'all ever try this? How do you identify yourself?” So I'm curious, are you any closer to an answer to that question? Like, what is your relationship with work like?
Nora Ali: I tweeted that because my therapist asked me that question. She said, Nora, who are you? Who are you if not your work? And I froze. I had no answer for her. I was like, Sam, I have no idea. Because when you meet any new person, especially nowadays at a party, a networking event, a family event, the first question often is, what do you do for work? And that just becomes your identity. And over time, what I do for work has become more challenging to describe. So I end up spending more time describing it and having to explain what it is I'm doing. So it just becomes a bigger part of the conversation. But I have started to chip away at who Nora Ali is outside of work. And the main thing I've realized, Katie, not to get sappy, is family is everything to me. Above all else is family. So the beauty of my work now is that I can work from anywhere. So I tend to travel quite a bit. And I work out of my childhood home in Minnesota. I just got back from a three-week trip with my family in Minnesota. I went to LA for work meetings, but stopped by my cousin's house to visit some family there. Took my parents on a trip to Vegas. So I can be anywhere, anytime I want. And that is a very big motivating factor for me, is how can I spend more time with family? And I'm very much a cool aunt. I describe myself as the best aunt in the world, at least to my nieces. So family is a big part of my identity, for sure. And I didn't really realize that until my therapist asked me that question.
And I've also been trying to lean into the violin thing a little bit more, because I grew up competing and it was a very stressful thing for me. And I would get lots of anxiety when having to compete in piano and violin competitions. And as a result, I have had this mentality of perfection all the time when it comes to performing pieces. And that's what you're trained to do as a classically trained musician. It's about, oftentimes, perfection, not just your own interpretation. So I've tried to let go of that now. And I'll post videos of me practicing something, I'll post on Instagram, where it isn't perfect, it's out of tune, it's not my best work, but people are still impressed by it. 'Cause it's like the violin is an impressive instrument, even if you're not that good at it. And I feel like I have lost 50% of my skill. My dexterity is not there anymore, but it's still fun to post and get that, those comments and that engagement. So family and being a violinist are two really big things that I'm focusing on now.
Katie: I think that's interesting because there's no easy way…I find that when I engage in hobbies, sometimes in the back of my mind, I can't stop that little voice from being like, how is this going to make you better at your job? Or like, ooh, and this will be like a fun way to recharge so you're more productive tomorrow. And I find that things like, you know, playing a musical instrument or hanging out with your family, while you could make the case that those things are going to rejuvenate you and make you better at your work, okay, fine. But there's no direct pathway, I think. And that feels important to me.
Nora Ali: Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up, because with the violin, I have felt pressure to put it on social media when I practice, because maybe that'll help me build my following, build my brand, build engagement. So I have found it difficult to just play for the sake of playing and not having to post it somewhere. So that's a good reminder, Katie. I'm going to practice violin today and I'm not going to put it on the internet.
Katie: Don’t tell a soul. Except for the people listening to this podcast right now, no one else will know except us that you practice.
Nora Ali: Exactly. Yeah. There are a few things nowadays that I just do for myself that, to your point. Yeah, like even when I watch TV now, because the company that I'm building is in TV and film production, and when I'm watching TV, I'm like, okay, what show can I watch that'll give me insight and information into the types of shows that I'm trying to create, instead of just turning my brain off and watching something completely irrelevant. So as a result of…I try to go on like the total opposite end of the spectrum of anything I would ever create, when I want to turn my brain off. And that ends up being murder shows, which is not great for my sleep. So I'm watching these true crime…whatever, I watch these before bed. And then I have nightmares and I wake up, and then I have anxiety about work in the middle of the night. So it's just this like vicious cycle. So all that to say, I have not figured out how to turn my brain off in a…I'm not going to say a productive way. I almost said productive way. How to turn my brain off in a completely off way.
Katie: See, it’s so internalized.
Nora Ali: It's totally internalized. Like how does this thing that I'm doing now help me better myself for the future? We have difficulty just being, I think.
Katie: Yes. You know, it's funny, my therapist, I had the exact same conversation with my therapist. So it's like looking in a mirror. But you know, one thing that I wanted to explore in this episode is the idea that being good at our jobs and feeling like we're good at them can be a real dopamine reward pathway builder. And that it's easy to find yourself in front of your computer on a Saturday morning, three hours deep in something that you love, before you're like, wait a second. How did I get here? Like it's Saturday. And that this usually leads to some level of financial success, because you know, if you're working all the time and you enjoy what you're doing and probably going to at some point start making some good money from it—which, again, is a dopamine reward pathway when you're getting paid well to do something. So I'm kind of curious, from your side of things, do you think you're more motivated by the feeling of achievement or the money that can come from it, or maybe something else entirely. You brought up family. I'm curious if that is playing a role here.
Nora Ali: Yeah. I think it's the feeling of achievement more than the money itself. Because if I reflect back maybe to when I've been the least anxious and just the happiest work-wise, it was when I was an anchor at Cheddar, because I was able to express myself creatively. I covered the topics I was most passionate about. I got to be on, I liked being on camera, on mic. I had a team that I loved working with, but I was getting paid the least, at least at the beginning, the least that I had gotten paid in my career. 'Cause I, you know, went from Goldman Sachs to a startup that got acquired by Walmart for three and a half billion dollars. So like I was making a lot of money in those jobs and I took a pretty big pay cut to become a TV anchor, but I was just happy because I was able to perform and get that positive feedback, that positive reinforcement from external parties. There's audiences, there's the production team, there's management. I was getting a lot of that at the time. And that was the last time that I was in an office pre-Covid, right? So I was feeling very happy in that role.
And I do, you know, I have a portfolio of things that I do for work, and I make more money now than I did then, than I ever have, frankly, and I don't, I can't say that I'm happier, necessarily. I feel like there's less longing to be doing something else or to put myself on a different path, because in every job that I've had, I've had this voice in the back of my head that says it might be time for you to explore something else. There's some, there's other things that you want to do. There's other things that you want to explore. But I feel like I'm in the path that I want to be in, maybe permanently, and the feeling of success and milestones on that path is probably a bigger factor to me than the money itself.
But then as they say, if you love what you do, the money will come, blah, blah, blah. So like, we'll see if that happens. And honestly, Katie, since this is a money show, like, I want to be really rich. I don't just want to be, like, kind of comfortably rich. You and I have had a conversation about airport lounges. The fact that I only discovered the Delta lounge within this last year, I'm like, this changed my life. And it's not, it's not that much more money to have like a Delta Reserve card, but it's not something I would have even considered in the past because it felt like a splurge. But now I'm like, wow, my life is so much better. So I just, I want the incrementality of being a rich girl. I don't know if I'll be happier, but presumably life will be a little bit better.
Katie: Well, I love this answer because it's not super black and white. I think you just kind of highlighted the complexity of all of this, you know, maybe a little bit unintentionally, which is, there's a lot wrapped up here. It is worthiness and it is that feeling of success and achievement. But there is also something very motivating about the idea of becoming really rich. I mean, that is the quintessential American dream, right? That you will achieve great financial success that will sustain you in generations to come. So I don't think it's as simple, probably, for anyone as saying that it's ever just about the money or ever just about the prestige. But I do think once you get into an arena where, to your point, you're doing what you want to be doing, that longing might be gone now. So you mentioned that your income situation has changed and has evolved over the years. So I'm curious, Nora, how you're spending and investing that income has shifted.
Nora Ali: Let me walk you through each job, Katie, that I've had, and what has changed. So my first job at Goldman Sachs, I was just so excited to have any money at all. So I wasn't really saving. I was spending and this…I was in my early twenties, living in New York City. My first apartment was in the West Village. So we could get to Meat Packing easily and go party and wear heels on the cobbled streets. It was really bad. So I was not focused on saving at all. I was just spending and really excited to be making money. And then in my next job, I went to go work for a startup called jet.com, and I took a pay cut to go work there, because of the upside potential of working at a startup. So at that point I cut down on my spending. Still wasn't saving, until about a year in. I mean, I was saving, but not actively, so right. I wasn't, yeah. I wasn't spending every paycheck.
Katie: There was no plan.
Nora Ali: There was no plan at all. And then, because also when you're young in your career, like, I'm just, I'm going to make a ton of money later on. I don't have to think about saving now. But then my boyfriend at the time who was very financially savvy and had parents who had advised him from a young age on how to think about money, he was like, we're gonna open a new account. You're gonna start just putting X percent of your paycheck in every single pay cycle. And I was like, okay, cool. And in retrospect, that was the best decision I could have possibly made for my saving, 'cause that has grown by magnitudes.
So at that job at Jet, I wasn't making much money, and it got acquired by Walmart, like I said, and I got a huge pay bump suddenly, 'cause they were aligning the Jet folks’ salaries to the Walmart salaries, and then I was just like, all right, let me just contribute more to my savings and this account that I have. And I started to finally see this cushion that I had. And I think that is part of…and I actually never thought about this before. So thank you for asking this question. I think that's part of what gave me the confidence to then try to pursue a career in television. 'Cause that was a big risk and that was the biggest pivot I've ever had, is going from finance to tech to working in TV. So then I gave myself this six-month runway, basically, of a timeline for myself. If I wasn't able to make the switch into TV in six months, it was fun. Great. I'll just stick to product management and working in tech. So I felt that confidence because I had some savings to go pursue that. And then I did, and I was also comfortable taking that pay cut to go work at that company, to work at Cheddar. And through Cheddar, I also, you know, cut down my spending a little bit because of that pay cut. And then I got this opportunity to start my own company. And I don't think I would have done that if my investors hadn't said, we're going to give you funding up front and also give you a salary. So I'm quite risk-averse. So if I were to just quit a job and not have any income, I don't think I would start a company. I don't think I would have it in me.
So now that I have lots of different streams of income and I am making more money, I don't like to spend necessarily more on myself. In fact, I probably spend less on myself than I have in the past.
Katie: Oh, interesting.
Nora Ali: To this point of being family first, now I like spending on my nieces. I like spending on my sisters. I like spending on my parents; my cousin and I took our parents to Vegas this past weekend and we paid for everything. I've never taken my parents on a vacation where I paid for everything, and it just felt great.
Katie: That sounds amazing.
Nora Ali: It's like, to your question about feeling successful, like I felt successful in that moment, because I am this daughter who can just treat her parents. They just have spent so much money on me through my entire life, but here I am giving back in a very small way. So that felt really good. So it's like, those are the things that bring me the most happiness when it comes to spending. And now that I make more money and I'm very intentional about my saving and thinking about the future, I can spend more on my family. I also, Katie, last thing I'll say, I reached out to a financial advisor for the first time. I think it's time for me to have an actual human who was advising me, because there's too many different streams of income. I don't think I'm taking advantage of tax situations. I listen to your podcast and that's like, that's a good start. That's a very good start. Maybe I should just be paying you to manage my finances. I don't know. But I feel like I'm at that point where I need someone who is not myself to be dealing with it, and set myself up for the future.
Katie: I love it. I do have one follow-up question. Are you still saving on a percentage basis? How are you approaching that now, now that you do have a lot of different streams of income?
Nora Ali: Yeah. It's not a percentage. It's a dollar amount every month. Yes. And I will adjust that kind of willy nilly based on how much I'm making. Like if I have a, you know, a big change in my income, I'll change that monthly amount. Or if I have like one big check that comes in, I'll just like put that directly into the account.
Katie: Okay. I love it. I was just curious. I have, I tend to have a range, personally, where I’ll trying to have my save rate be between a certain range, but I definitely will splurge if I have more coming in one month than the other, because it's just such a human tendency. I think it's hard not to, but I love that. I love that your spending has kind of taken on that new angle.
Nora Ali: Yeah, I'm definitely not a splurger, though. Like even if I have some check that comes in that's outside my normal income, I just, I would rather save it than splurge. I'm a very consistent spender, I think. And if I splurge, it's on other people, it's on my family.
Katie: Oh, I would love to see your books. I would kill to get in there and just mess things up. See what's going on beneath the surface. I love it.
Nora Ali: Maybe one day.
Katie: So I'm curious. I feel like I already know the answer to this, but I want to give you a chance to expound if you want to. Do you feel like you found your passion, like is your job your passion, and if it is, do you think there's anything wrong with that?
Nora Ali: Yes and no. I am really happy to have a platform. I think I've always wanted that. I love being the host of a podcast, a Business Casual, to be, you know, in the public eye. I am really happy to be building something from scratch. And the way that all happened was a little bit backwards. I had a couple of angel investors approach me and say, we'll give you funding to start this thing, which is like a dream.
Nora Ali: And I have this amazing infrastructure to help me build this thing. But some days I'm like, I don't know if I want to be the boss. I like being my own boss, but I just hired my first employee, my first outside employee a couple of months ago, which has been absolutely incredible. I love her. She's amazing. One of the best people I've ever worked with, but maybe it's imposter syndrome. I don't know. But sometimes I miss just being able to put my head down and do my work without having to be accountable for other people. And I have been spending a lot of my time on administrative stuff, getting set up in HR systems and payroll and accounting stuff. And she gets to do like the fun, creative stuff of developing TV shows and films. Whereas I spent a lot of my time doing the logistics and having to, you know, be accountable to our stakeholders, to our investors, and communicate to outside parties. Whereas I really loved, at Cheddar, anchoring, showing up, doing the research, interviewing people, being fun, ad libbing, bantering, just like being myself on camera. That was super fun. Maybe I was a little bit more passionate about that performative aspect than I am about the passion of having to build and go through all the logistics and admin stuff. But I think being in the world of entertainment is certainly my passion. And I think I've known that ever since I was a wee child, but I didn't know how to get there. And I'm finally here. So I do have to remind myself…and someone tweeted this many months ago. It was like, think about when you wanted what you currently have. And I think about that all the time. Like when I was, oh, 12 years old, I announced on some national radio show, which I was on for playing the piano. I was like…
Katie: When you were 12?
Nora Ali: When I was 12, they were like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I was like, I want to be a CEO. And they were like, of what? I was like, I don’t know, just a CEO. And like here I am the CEO of my own company, which is great. So I think I have found my passion. I'm in the industry that I'm passionate about. Maybe the day to day, I'm not passionate about all the time.
Katie: I think that is totally fair. It's funny. Chelsea Fagan of The Financial Diet told me something similar once, where I was picking her brain about building a media company around personal finance, around money for women. And she kind of told me the same thing, where she was like, it sounds like you really like the creating and the writing and kind of being the face of it, being the personality. And she basically said, just so you know, if it becomes a larger thing where you're in charge of all of it, you're not going to be the person doing it anymore. So like be careful what you wish for, basically, and yeah, kind of a similar sentiment. So Nora, thank you for being here. I really, really appreciate it.
Nora Ali: Of course. Thanks for having me, Katie.
Katie: To close us out this week. I want to end with a quote from Derek's piece. “Our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office. It's hard to self-actualize on the job if you're a cashier, one of the most common occupations in the US. And even the best white-collar roles have long periods of stasis, boredom, or busy work.”
I don't have the easy answers. Like most things in life, I think deriving identity and meaning from work can be both good and bad. It does beg the question, though, that is worth revisiting from time to time on a show about personal finance, money, work, and ultimately how to live a good life. Is the path that generates the most income and output always going to be the best one?
Welcome back to Rich Girl Roundup. This segment is brought to you by Betterment, giving you the tools, inspiration and support you need to become a better investor. Now, normally I would take a listener's question and answer it. And as my standard disclaimer, I am not offering financial advice. But this week we are switching things up. Kayla S., a Morning Brew fellow and aspiring #RichGirl with a focus on journalism, will be interviewing me. Kayla, thank you so much for taking the time. I am excited to chat today.
Kayla: Thank you for having me, Katie. I'm so excited to be here and to talk with you today. So I am a recent graduate from Texas Southern University. And my first question today is going to be, what is something you wish you would've known about securing a job post-graduation life before walking across that stage?
Katie: Ooh, I think I probably would have told myself to relax a little bit. I had put a ton of pressure on myself to have a job right out of graduation. And I had an internship, but I did not have a full-time job offer. And that was a very, very stressful summer. And I think at the time, it's a little cliche, but I probably would have told myself to just relax a little bit and try to enjoy it a little bit more. And rather than just worrying about getting that offer in hand and making sure I had something, really sitting back and asking myself, what do I actually want to be doing, and what would excite me, and what would I really enjoy doing for 40 hours a week, right? Because when you're going from college to the working world, I think we have a lot of expectations around what that's going to be like. And it can be disappointing sometimes when those expectations are not met, particularly because we are going from a world in which we're in class for two hours a day, and then suddenly it's eight hours, nine hours straight in an office. So I think I would have made it a little bit less about, oh my gosh, I just need to make sure I have that employment offer in hand, and a little bit more about, let me think pretty critically about what it is that I actually want to be doing full-time.
Kayla: I can definitely relate a lot to that, because I am kind of in that stage of, oh, wow. What can I do? What can I do? So I'll definitely take your tips and start enjoying this moment in this process so much better. So thank you. Those are some great tips. I'd love to kind of switch gears into a few money-related questions. First, how do you find trustworthy sources for financial news? There's a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of hot takes. I'd love to know how to determine what news source is trustworthy, factual, and actually worthwhile.
Katie: Hmm. That's a really good question. When I think about where I am getting financial news—and I have not always been the best at this because I think it's very easy to see the people around you in your social circles sharing things, or if you are on Money Twitter, so to speak, there are a lot of personalities on there that have very hot take, to your point. And so I think it's almost a two-part assessment, where A) looking at the source and determining what would the vested interest be of this publication? For example, there are some very interesting numbers around rent increases that were floating around a few months ago that were making the news and were very, I'm going to say, salacious. That might be the wrong word, but they were really cherry-picking the most extreme examples. And it turns out the source was a study by Rocket Mortgage. It's like, okay, well maybe these numbers are accurate, but they're probably not painting a very clear picture, because the source of that information has a vested interest in you not being a renter; they are a mortgage lender, right? So I think that's one piece of it.
The other piece of it that I would say that has been very surprising to me as I try to find sources for the shows and for the blog and the newsletter, is that you can look up the same fact or statistic from 10 different places and get 10 different answers. So I think it's important to always try to validate the things that you're learning somewhere else and make sure that if you read something that doesn't sound quite right, that you're able to independently verify that with another source. Those would probably be my two biggest things. And then just a general watch-out that a lot of content in the personal finance world is sponsored. I mean, all media is sponsored. That's how media makes money, is advertising dollars. So being kind of on the lookout for any articles that are sponsored by a brand that either paints them or what they would like you to do very favorably. It doesn't necessarily mean the information is wrong or that it's not truthful, but you should be aware of who is paying for that type of information.
Kayla: Thank you for definitely pointing out the biases that there are, you know, when it comes to these statistics and these facts that come out. So it's always, verify with multiple sources. So that makes a lot of sense. And as a recent graduate and someone that the idea of student loans is popping up in my head and a lot of my peers, you hear a lot of talk about debt, and how exactly do you define good debt versus bad debt? Is it logical to put yourself in debt for student loans for future payouts? How does this whole process really work?
Katie: Yeah, well I think the student loan debt conversation is a really complex one because there's a lot of, I don't know, there's a lot of factors at play, and I think there's a lot of blame we could assign for the kind of the mess that we're in now and the mess that students are finding themselves in now. But I think in general, any time you are taking on debt to acquire an asset that is going to go up in value—so, likely a home, not always, but you know, usually most likely the house is going to appreciate in value. That's a pretty good example of societally acceptable debt, mortgage debt. No one looks down on mortgage debt and is like, oh my gosh, that person's so irresponsible. But it is debt. It's leveraged. Right? And I think you can think about student loan debt in a similar way. You're investing in your human capital and in yourself as the asset that is likely going to produce cash flows in the future that can then service the debt.
Now the caveat I think worth making is that not every degree is created equal, not every skill set or college education is created equal. So I think there has to be some level of prudent assessment happening at the time of taking out the debt, whether that's on the part of the 18-year-old or their parents, hopefully, that are guiding them, to say, if you're going to take out $100,000 worth of debt, let's look at the degrees that would warrant that much debt, where the future cash flows of that skillset will be able to service six figures of debt.
So it's not a binary. I definitely think of it as a sliding scale of, you can take out hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to go to school, but you really want to make sure that at the other side of it, you are going to be an asset now that is capable of servicing the debt.
Kayla: You put it in a way that you can really, you know, visualize what you're talking about, and the good versus bad debt actually leads me into my final question. When we're young, we trade our time in search of money. And when we're old, we trade our money in search for time. Does an actual balance truly exist?
Katie: That is the million-dollar question. I think it's possible to find a balance that works for you, but I think it's a practice. I don't think it's something that you achieve once and then live in that static state. So to your point, when you're young, you are trying to give of the resource that you have a lot of to get more of the resource that you don't have a lot of. So if you have a lot of time as a young person, which most of us do if we're single, childless, we're probably not too far up that corporate ladder yet, so we're not working crazy hours. I think at that point, you do have a lot of time available to you. You also probably have a lot of energy available to you if you're 22 and able-bodied, and like neurotypical. So I would say that is the time to really be like, okay, I want to get more of that resource that I don't have very much of right now: money, for most of us. But I do think that the trick and the trap is that we fall into that mindset as maybe adults, “adults,” I'm using air quotes, or, you know, more middle-aged or elder that I have to continue to trade all my time for money. And why would I pay someone else to clean my house or to cook for me or to walk my dog? Look, I can do those things myself. It's like, yeah, but what if you could get that time back? It gets to a point where you're almost hoarding the money, when in reality, the resource that you have too much of is money, and the resource that you don't have enough of is time. So I think that calculus looks different for everybody depending on their life circumstances, the amount of money that they have available to them. But I do think it's important to remember that money really is a means to an end. And there is such a thing as enough, and that's not a very popular sentiment in the United States. I think we are always in search of more money, but we kind of lose sight of the fact that the entire point of accumulating wealth is to buy back your own time. Maybe you should be willing to give up a little bit more of your time to get a little bit more of the money to balance those scales.
Kayla: Well, thank you so much, Katie. I loved everything, all the great advice you were able to give me. I know a lot of people in my same position are really going to take what you said and really help, you know, as they go forward into life. So thank you again for letting me interview you for Rich Girl Roundup.
Katie: Absolutely. That was so fun, Kayla. Thank you. You did a great job.
Kayla: Thank you.
Katie: All right. Y'all, that's it for this week. I'll see you next week, same time, same place, on The Money with Katie Show. Nora, can you bring this thing home? [Nora plays her violin] Our show is a production of Morning Brew and is produced by Nick Torres and me, Katie Gatti Tassin. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia, and additional content editing comes from the lovely Henah Velez. Sam cat is our VP of chaos, as always. And Jojo is our chief of woof, though I think she is currently napping downstairs, so she spared us today. [Nora plays]
Nora Ali: Hopefully that'll do.