David Ford’s father was a U.S. Naval pilot; his mother was the daughter of the general who commanded the Rhode Island troops during World War II. Growing up in a military family helped him develop a view of life as a meritocracy. After graduating from Wharton, Ford joined Goldman Sachs, where he rose to become a managing director and co-head of global asset management before he retired in 2003. In an interview with Wharton Magazine and Knowledge@Wharton, the 74-year-old spoke about life’s four-dimensional matrix, the reasons he taught his sons to play games, and the value of the one-box rule.
All of us have a four-dimensional matrix on which we place ourselves. There’s money in one quadrant. In the others, there’s power, prestige, and lifestyle. Where you fall in that matrix leads you to think about jobs that are right for you.
When working with people, I like to ask what you’re going to do. If we agree on what is good for both of us, then I expect you to do it. The first time it doesn’t happen, it’s shame on you; after that, it’s shame on me.
Growing up in a military family, you’re given an allotment of how many boxes you can have, or how much weight you can have when you move. I had a small box, and if it didn’t fit in that, I had to let it go. You learn to love small things, and you also learn to give up things. Then when you got to a new place, you had to start over and make new friends. That taught me to empathize with different types of people.
In the second grade, I went to the eye doctor, and everything was blurry. I put on glasses, and I could read. After that, I read incessantly. When my job involved selling, I’d read books on selling. When I got into management, I’d read books on management. Now, I probably read more books on adventure, because I happen to do a lot of traveling.
When I was young, I thought I was going to be an astronaut. I was in the fifth grade when the Sputnik went up. But that didn’t satisfy my monetary-reward quadrant, so I had to take a different job. Since then, I’ve done everything from running the Olympic torch to sailing across the Atlantic.
Power is less important to me today than it might have been when I was in the midst of my career. Money is less important. Probably lifestyle is more important. And I like going out and seeing different parts of the world.
I asked both my sons: What did I teach you? Did I teach you to have a strong moral compass? Did I teach you how to be good parents? My younger son said, “Dad, you taught us the rules to every game.” We loved games. We played everything you could imagine. When you play a game, it teaches you about risk; it teaches you about odds. It keeps your mind sharp. It teaches you to be a sportsman. It teaches you to be a gentleman.
What matters most in life? My family. After they’re satisfied, there are several things: religion, the outdoors, and community. I will do my part to fight climate change and bigotry.
For people who are graduating, I would ask them to look deep inside themselves. What makes you feel good? What are you interested in? What are you willing to spend time on during the weekends? Try to take your career in that direction, and work as hard as you can. Because hard work pays off.
Published as “David B. Ford WG70” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.