The Secret of Ramit Sethi’s Success

by Reihan Salam

Mina Kimes of Fortune has just published a profile of Ramit Sethi, a personal finance guru who has become tremendously popular with the under-30 set. One of the puzzles of the Sethi story is that none of his recommendations seem particularly groundbreaking, and he is not exactly charismatic in the classic sense. At the end of her story, Kimes offers a hypothesis:

Millennials grew up believing in the power of the individual. They were told that they were special, and that if they had faith in themselves, success would follow. But those lessons have collided with the recession. Faced with high unemployment and crushing student debt, young people are learning that self-esteem only goes so far.

Enter Sethi. His message has nothing to do with individual empowerment. He takes the opposite tack. He believes that people are inherently weak, and that they should acknowledge as much so that they can develop systems for improvement. He writes that hiring managers don’t actually want to hear about you in interviews — they want to hear what you can do for them. The same goes for potential clients. Get out of your own head and get into theirs, he says. Then get the money.

Rather embarrassingly, this immediately led me to think about the future prospects of social conservatism. The Christian worldview is informed by a sense of human limitations, and our inescapable reliance on families and communities. Permissiveness and licentiousness aren’t condemned for their own sake; they are condemned because they undermine social bonds, norms, and rules — the “guardrails” that protect the weakest among us. Indeed, one could argue that many of the apparent moral advances we’ve made in recent decades are only moral advances in part. The decline of shame is bound up with the rise of disembeddedness or anomie. The ultimate “system for improvement” is a robust social group, whether a family or some substitute for a family, that nurtures and disciplines us, that regulates our behavior. 

We know that upper-middle-class couples tend to marry relatively late and to eschew divorce. The “neo-traditional” family represents the survival and adaptation, in somewhat more egalitarian form and with an extended period of pre-marital sexual exploration, of the midcentury model of marriage and family formation. So perhaps the Sethi model reconciles this neo-traditional model of family life with a neo-traditional model of economic life. That is, Sethi is advancing the proposition that work is not play — that is, not all of us will be Steve Jobs, per a recent Virginia Postrel column:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” Jobs said in a 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, which has been much quoted in recent days. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

That inspiring philosophy offers the promise of greatness and self-fulfillment, but also perpetual dissatisfaction. If business isn’t just about making money, if it is about finding a version of true love and leaving a cultural mark, the stakes are much higher. Your work becomes your identity.

Nobody ever asked why Steve Jobs kept working after he was rich. Everyone understood.

Sethi makes a different case: that we must be 21st century organization men to get ahead, and that settling is exactly what we should do. There is a place for conformism after all. Yet Sethi is promising that this brand of conformism represents a rarefied unsentimental knowledge. Only the truly smart are smart enough to take in Sethi’s message that finding fulfillment through work is kind of for the birds, and that the real secret to success is to always be closing.

For young workers, self-expression might prove to be the god that failed.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.