I may not be exactly the audience the Wall Street Journal’s money advice for those starting their careers is targeting but, nonetheless, I was interested in what they had to say. Five successful business individuals wrote short pieces sharing their wisdom. I recognized names like former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and I had heard of the companies that these professionals lead like Land o’Lakes or a subset of Merrill Lynch. There was only one exception – Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble.
Ms. Herd stood out on a few fronts. Not only did I have no idea who she was or what her company did but looking at the drawings of the featured three women and two men suggested that she was the youngest of the group. Most importantly, her advice was of an entirely different type than everyone else’s.
If, like me, you aren’t familiar with Bumble, it is a dating app. Its unique property is that it gives women sole control of the first point of contact. What interested me, however, wasn’t the company but its thirty-year-old founder and CEO’s advice. You could file all the other respondents’ advice under the category of financial literacy. They included concepts like understanding debt, valuing savings and measuring job opportunities by looking at growth potential and skill acquisition as well as salary.
Ms. Herd’s succinct advice? “Never be financially dependent upon anyone else in your life. Don’t rely on a parent, a spouse or a boss. It will only erode your self worth and negatively impact the important relationships in your life. Instead, learn to save money, make money and then you can rule your own world!”
I found it fascinating, if not surprising, that the youngest member of the group offered the most personal and emotional advice. It turns out that Ms. Herd isn’t advocating living life alone. She married a few years ago and is expecting her first child. Interestingly, the articles I subsequently read about Bumble featured quite a few women who were economically independent but who were finding it very difficult to meet a worthy man with whom to share a life. Many of these woman were of an age where children may no longer be a reality. Recent studies have shown that younger people in general value marriage and children less than earlier generations did at the same age. Is Whitney Wolfe Herd an outlier as a strong, effective woman who at what today is considered a relatively young age is combining business success with marriage and family?
Her advice reminded me of the advice my generation of women received when we were in our twenties, “Don’t sign any documents your husband hands you without investigating and understanding it yourself.” In theory that sounded reasonable and prudent; in real life it wasn’t so simple. After all, pretty much everyone today checks a box that reads, “I have read and agree to the terms of service,” when we have at most read the first few sentences of legalese governing how we will interact with online companies.
The advice to independently assess insurance documents, house deeds and other legal contracts was spurred by fear. What if your marriage fails and you find out too late that you signed away your economic interests? What if your husband is actually a horrible person who is looking to cheat you? The most benign interpretation was, “What if your husband is incompetent and financially foolish?” After all, if you trust your spouse, there is no need to duplicate effort and spend time and possibly money by having separate lawyers and advisors walk you through verbose and confusing documents.
Everyone giving the advice knew of or had heard of someone who had been hurt by a “bad guy.” They did not want another woman to fall victim in the same way. Those of us getting married did not think that our chosen loved ones were bad guys or would become so. If we did, why would we marry them? And, as always, time and money were at a premium and the desire to wade through boring papers was well under control. We signed the papers put in front of us. In the overwhelming majority of cases, everything ended up just fine. In a rare case, it did not.
I assume that Whitney Wolfe Herd, like many of her generation, has been raised to value independence over relationship. The fact is that each time you trust another person and each time you attach a piece of your heart to another person, you cede some of yourself. I read that as a result of her pregnancy, the CEO is prioritizing childcare initiatives at Bumble. Yet, no matter how good the childcare, chances are that a piece of her heart will ache if she misses her baby’s first smile or if she has to walk away when a feverish baby clings to her. When you love, you lose some of your independence. That is true in all relationships. Financial independence can protect us from one type of harm, but seeking it may lead to other damage such as missing out on marriage and family in a timely fashion while we are busily pursuing our economic goals.
John Donne’s oft-quoted poem begins, “No man is an island, Entire of itself…” His words speak of the larger world, but they are true in our innermost lives as well. I don’t have a brilliant way to make sure that no one is harmed by someone they love and trust. I do believe that operating from a belief that we should be complete in ourselves, on whatever front, results in more of us being alone even when we don’t want to be. Linking our parents, spouses and bosses together as if our relationship with each is identical results in placing barriers on our hearts that keep out feeling as well as danger. Linking our self-worth too tightly to the economic arena limits our worth in other areas. I wonder if asked to comment on the same question in forty years, Ms. Herd’s answer would be the same.