Many successful business people, especially speculators, are derided as amoral seekers of profit. They’re denounced as rapacious rent-seekers whose motto is “accumulate wealth, forgetting all but self.” For strong critics of capitalism’s excesses, it becomes hard to grapple then with stereotype-shattering figures like George Soros who, rather than viewing wealth accumulation as a way to achieve their own vain goals, instead view it as the best way for the high-minded to implement their philosophies in the real world.
From academia to Wall St.
Unlike most who fill the ranks of high finance, George Soros never had any particular ambitions of lucre. In fact, he had originally sought to become a social philosopher instead. He was quite elated when, at age 17, he was accepted to the London School of Economics and began studying under the renowned master Karl Popper. Soros was deeply swayed by Popper’s ideas on open societies. In his book, Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper lays out the vision for which he argues all societies should strive in order to maximize freedom and well-being for all. These ideas arguably formed the intellectual foundation that would guide Soros, not just through his academic career, but through his financial one as well.
Exigencies of survival
Upon graduation, Soros did not have any immediate job offers. He worked for a few years as an itinerant salesman to make ends meet. He did not enjoy that line of work and around the age of 25 resolved to go work on Wall St. Even holding a prestigious degree, George Soros was serially rebuffed by the hyper-competitive hiring climate.
Finally George Soros landed his first job as a financial analyst at the little-known firm Singer and Friedman. Over the next 15 years, he would work for a string of Wall St. trading firms with an uneven output. Even as he eventually made his way to vice president at a major investment house, he was described as being far more interested in expounding on his philosophical treatises than tending to his job. Throughout this time, he continued to work on his theories of reflexivity, heavily derived from the work of his teacher Karl Popper.
Eventually he branched off to form his own investment fund, Soros Fund Management. By all accounts, including his own, he did not do this to make money. On the contrary, his primary goal was to test the now multiple theories of markets he had elaborated over 15 years of his own philosophical studies. The almost singular strangeness of this driving impulse almost cannot be overstated: At no point in his financial career was George Soros ever to any significant extent motivated by outsize personal gain. This is a crucial point to understand for anyone who wonders why one of the most successful speculators in history has spent the vast majority of his latter years exclusively on philanthropic activities.
Today George Soros runs his Open Societies Foundations. These are charged with finding practical means to implement the theories laid out by Karl Popper and later expanded and refined by his most notable protégé. To understand George Soros one must know that he isn’t so much a fantastically rich businessman as he is a fantastically rich philosopher.
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