The Happiness Equation

How To Make More Money Than A Harvard MBA


Harvard makes you feel rich.

I walked through campus for two years feeling like I’d been cast in the lead role of Moneybags McGee in a movie about ruling the world and having it all.

On Harvard’s campus, tall twisting oak trees blow softly in the wind, casting polka-dot shadows over beautiful red-brick buildings, manicured ivy, and rolling lawns. Students ease open thirty-foot-tall carved wooden doors to grab made-to-order sushi from the cafeteria before eating with friends on brown leather couches against walls covered with expensive original art.

The students at Harvard Business School feel rich because they either are rich… or they’re about to get rich.

The average graduating salary is $140,000! To put that in perspective, the average American makes $905 a week or $47,060 a year. That means a fresh-faced, dewy-eyed twenty-six-year-old with two years of business school under his or her belt makes three times what the average American citizen makes. I know my salary almost tripled after I graduated from Harvard.

Yes, Harvard makes you feel rich because it actually makes you rich.

Or does it?

I was sad when I graduated, because all my friends were scattering in different directions. After a big road trip, it was suddenly all over and then:

  • Mark and his wife moved to Houston, and he got a job with a high-end consulting company. A full 25% of Harvard Business School grads go work for consulting firms, and the hours are notoriously tough. Unless they land a local assignment, most consultants fly out Monday mornings and fly home Thursday nights, every single week, every single month, forever.

  • Chris went to Washington, DC to be assistant principal at a big charter school. We kept in touch, but he was always at work when I called. We talked about our road trip and I’d ask him, “Are you getting any sleep these days?” He’d say, “Well, I get to work every morning around 7:00 a.m. and get home around 9:00 p.m. I usually go in for a few hours on the weekend, too. So yeah, enough sleep, but not much else.”

  • Ryan went into private equity in New York. 29% of Harvard Business School grads get finance jobs in sub-industries like investment banking, private equity, or hedge funds. They help big companies buy each other, invest in illiquid assets, create complicated investments. But Ryan told me he started work around 10:00 a.m. and worked till 11:00 p.m., seven days a week.

  • Sonia went to work in Silicon Valley at a big tech company. The tech giants hire 19% of the graduates from our class and had great reputations for gourmet meals, dry-cleaning, and Ping-Pong tables at the office. When I reached out to Sonia a year after graduation she told me she loved her job and was working about eighty hours a week.

It seemed crazy to me, but all my friends were working like 80 to 100 hours a week. And a week only has 168 hours in it! I remember thinking, “Is everyone nuts?”

I thought back to Harvard and remembered going out for dinner with a group of McKinsey consultants during a recruiting event. They flew to Boston and wined and dined us at a ritzy joint. We drank expensive wines, ate delicious food, and talked about world issues into the wee hours. My brain was overheating because of the stimulating conversation. These folks were warm, friendly, and killer smart. It was a great night.

But the thing I remember most is that when we were finally finishing up around two in the morning, all the McKinsey consultants were… going back to work! I’m not joking. They were jumping on conference calls with teams in Shanghai, opening laptops to do emails, or getting together to finalize presentations for the next day. At two in the morning!

Consultants and finance folks make up most of Harvard Business School grads and they work approximately 80 to 100 hours a week.

Are they really making $140,000 a year?

Do you remember fractions? I learned them back in fourth grade in a moldy classroom with flickering florescent lights in my elementary school. Pink chalk dust scrawled across blackboards showing us how one-half can be written as ½ or three-quarters can be written as ¾… with 3 being the numerator and 4 being the denominator. As in “I sat on the couch in sweatpants watching Netflix all night and ate 3⁄4 of a sausage pizza.”

Well, the Harvard salary of $140,000 is a fraction, too.

Every single job is paid by the hour.

Harvard Business School grads make double or triple the money a lot of people make, but they often work double or triple the hours, too. When you work that much, it’s harder to find time to shovel the driveway, play with your kids, or plant your garden, so maybe you hire people on the cheap to do those things for you. You will still have fun! Frankly, the money you’re making can afford luxury vacations and expensive restaurants. You may have even more fun. But there’s less time for fun.

Think about whether it’s important to you to feel the pride of a freshly shoveled driveway, the joy of watching your kids discover a new word, or see the tulips you planted in the fall finally bloom in the spring.

There’s nothing wrong with either life.

But think about the life you want.

Here’s how much a Harvard MBA makes compared to two very common jobs: an assistant manager at a retail store and an elementary school teacher.

They all make $28/hour.

Where did I get the numbers from?

Well, teachers are scheduled for seven-hour school days (usually 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) with typically an hour off for lunch. Let’s round that up to thirty working hours a week. But we all know how hard teachers work. We know it’s way more than that! My dad is a teacher, my wife Leslie is a teacher, and they bring work home. The average teacher does an hour or two of work every single night! Marking, prepping, coaching a team. So I added ten hours a week for that.

Retail store assistant managers are typically scheduled for forty-hour work-weeks, but it’s a tough job. They end up working before or after shifts sometimes. There are questions, issues pop up, people call them at home. So I added ten hours a week for that.

And the eighty-five hours for Harvard MBAs? It’s a ballpark average figure based on my data, research, and personal experience. Working on consulting gigs in a Chicago hotel room or slaving away on an investment banking deal doesn’t exactly give you free evenings or weekends.

Although these numbers are generally accurate, of course there are exceptions. Are you the outlier teacher working eighty-five hours a week or the outlier Harvard MBA working forty? Maybe! But stick with me, because there’s still value in the higher level point here.

What’s the bottom line?

They all make $28/hour!

So how do you make more money than a Harvard MBA?

Work way less hours than they do … and make more dollars per hour.

But wait: Am I telling you to work less? No, that’s not the final takeaway. My point here isn’t that you should suddenly dial down your interests, passion, or career. My point is to calculate how much you make per hour and know this number. Remember this number. Have this number in your head. I have friends who work around the clock as downtown lawyers and they joke, “When I do the math I actually make less than minimum wage.” They’re right! And, frankly, I don’t understand them. Do not make less than minimum wage!

The way to make more money than a Harvard MBA isn’t to get your annual salary over $120,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. It’s to measure how much you make per hour and overvalue your time so you’re spending time working only on things you enjoy.

The average life expectancy is around 30,000 days and we sleep for a third of that.

That means you have less than 20,000 days in your life total.

Understand how much a Harvard MBA really makes and then overvalue you, and overvalue your time, so every single hour of your working life is spent doing something you love.

Check out the video version of this article below:

An earlier version of this article appeared in my

#1 international bestseller The Happiness Equation

Avoid Burnout By Asking This Question

In the late 1990s I began an undergrad business degree program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After nearly flunking Economics 101 and striking out with a majority of sports and teams, I finally found my home among a group of interfaculty misfits at the Golden Words comedy newspaper.

Golden Words was the largest weekly humor newspaper in the country, an Onion-esque paper publishing 25 issues per year, with a new issue every Wednesday during the school year. For the next four years, I spent every Sunday hanging out with a group of people writing articles that made us all laugh. We got together around noon and wrote until the wee hours of Monday morning. I didn’t get paid a cent, but the thrill of creating, laughing, and seeing my work published gave me a great high.

I loved it so much that I took a job working at a New York City comedy writing startup during my last summer of college. I rented an apartment on the Lower East Side and started working in a Brooklyn loft with writers from The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. “Wow,” I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I love.”

But it was the worst job of my life.

Instead of having creative freedom to write whatever I wanted, I had to write, say, “800 words about getting dumped” for a client like Cosmopolitan. Instead of joking with friends naturally and finding chemistry writing with certain people, I was scheduled to write with others. Eventually my interest in comedy writing faded, and I decided I would never do it for money again.

When I started writing my blog, 1000 Awesome Things, in 2008, I said I’d never put ads on the website. I knew the ads would feel like work to me, and I worried that I might self-censor or try to appeal to advertisers. No income from the blog meant less time trying to manage the ads and more time focused on the writing, I figured.

I was smart about that…but not smart enough to ignore the other extrinsic motivators that kept showing up: stat counters, website awards, best-seller lists. It was all so visible, so measurable, and so tempting. Over time I found myself obsessing about stat counters breaking 1 million, 10 million, 50 million; about the book based on my blog staying on the best-seller lists for 10 weeks, 100 weeks, 200 weeks; about book sales breaking five figures, six figures, seven figures. The extrinsic motivators never ended, and I was slow to realize that I was burning myself out. I was eating poorly, sleeping rarely, and obsessing about whatever next number there was to obsess about.

I started worrying that the cycle — set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal — would never end. And I started forgetting why I started writing my blog in the first place. I was shaken by how quickly I had gotten caught up in the achievement trap.

Studies show that when we begin to value the rewards we get for doing a task, we lose our inherent interest in doing the task. The interest we have becomes lost in our minds, hidden away from our own brains, as the shiny external reward sits front and center and becomes the new object of our desire.

Keep in mind that there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is internal — you’re doing it because you want to. Extrinsic is external — you’re doing it because you get something for it. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has performed some experiments on intrinsic and extrinsic motivators with college students. She asked the students to make “silly collages” and invent stories for them. Some were told they were getting rewards for their work, and some were not. What happened? Based on scores from independent judges, the least creative projects by far were done by students who were promised rewards for their work. Amabile said, “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest.”

And it’s not just getting rewards that hurts quality.
 In another study conducted by Amabile, 72 creative writers at Brandeis University and Boston University were split into three groups of 24 and asked to write poetry. The first group was given extrinsic reasons for doing so — impressing teachers, making money, getting into fancy grad schools. The second group was given a list of intrinsic reasons — enjoying the feeling of expressing themselves, the fun of playing with words. The third group wasn’t given any reason. On the sidelines, Amabile put together a group of a dozen poet-judges, mixed up all the poems, and had the judges evaluate the work. Far and away, the lowest-quality poems were from those who had the list of extrinsic motivators.

James Garbarino, former president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, was curious about this phenomenon. He conducted a studyof fifth- and sixth-grade girls hired to tutor younger children. Some of the tutors were offered free movie tickets for doing a good job. What happened? The girls who were offered free movie tickets took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily, and did a worse job than the girls who were given nothing except the feeling of helping someone else.

The Garbarino study raises the question: Do extrinsic motivators affect us differently depending on age? Do we grow into this pattern — and can we grow out of it? According to a recent study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, we may be hardwired to behave this way. Their work found that if infants as young as 20 months are extrinsically rewarded after helping another infant, they are less likely to help again than infants who received either no reward or simple social praise.

I was surprised by the studies, but they made sense to me. I loved writing for Golden Words. It was a joy, a thrill, a true love. With the paid writing startup in New York City, I lost all my energy and drive.

When you’re doing something for your own reasons, you do more, go further, and perform better. When you don’t feel like you’re competing with others, you compete only with yourself. For example, Professor Edward Deci of the University of Rochester conducted a study where he asked students to solve a puzzle. Some were told they were competing with other students and some were not. You can probably guess what happened. The students who were told they were competing with others simply stopped working once the other kids finished their puzzles, believing themselves to be out of the race. They ran out of reasons to do the puzzle. But those who weren’t told they were competing with others kept going once their peers finished.

Does all this mean you should just rip up your paycheck and work only on things you’re intrinsically motivated to do? No. But you should ask yourself, “Would I do this for free?” If your answer is yes, you’ve found something worth working on. If the answer is no, let paid work remain paid work and keep asking yourself what you would do simply for the pleasure you derive from doing it. Chances are, if you’re working solely for extrinsic reasons such as money, you’re bound to burn out sooner or later.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.