Ben Bernanke's Advice on Money, Careers, and Intestinal Parasites

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Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gave the commencement address at Princeton University this weekend. He didn't talk about interest rates, unemployment targets, or quantitative easing. Instead, he gave life advice. "All of what follows has been road-tested in real-life situations, but past performance is no guarantee of future results," he began. Here's a summary.

On rising tuition: "My colleague also used to say that, from a financial perspective, the experience [of sending his kids to Princeton] was like buying a new Cadillac every year and then driving it off a cliff. I should say that he always added that he would do it all over again in a minute." 

On change: "Life is amazingly unpredictable; any 22-year-old who thinks he or she knows where they will be in 10 years, much less in 30, is simply lacking imagination. Look what happened to me: A dozen years ago I was minding my own business teaching Economics 101 in Alexander Hall and trying to think of good excuses for avoiding faculty meetings. Then I got a phone call ... "

On purpose: "Many things will happen in your lives, pleasant and not so pleasant, but, paraphrasing a Woodrow Wilson School adage from the time I was here, 'Wherever you go, there you are.' If you are not happy with yourself, even the loftiest achievements won't bring you much satisfaction."

On success: "A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate -- these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others."

On bureaucracy: "My experience is that most of our politicians and policymakers are trying to do the right thing, according to their own views and consciences, most of the time. If you think that the bad or indifferent results that too often come out of Washington are due to base motives and bad intentions, you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective. Honest error in the face of complex and possibly intractable problems is a far more important source of bad results than are bad motives."

On wealth: "I'm not going to tell you that money doesn't matter, because you wouldn't believe me anyway ... but ... a career decision based only on money and not on love of the work or a desire to make a difference is a recipe for unhappiness."

On the dismal science: "Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much."

On pride: "I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect -- and help, if necessary -- than many people who are superficially more successful. They're more fun to have a beer with, too. That's all that I know about sociology."

On finding a good spouse: "In making that choice, remember that physical beauty is evolution's way of assuring us that the other person doesn't have too many intestinal parasites. Don't get me wrong, I am all for beauty, romance, and sexual attraction -- where would Hollywood and Madison Avenue be without them? But while important, those are not the only things to look for in a partner."


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Morgan Housel will never have a beard as nice as Bernanke's. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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