In around a month, the new generation of juniors will arrive to join the analyst classes at investment banks. They might come with ideas about how their banking careers will evolve, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from 18 years in finance, it’s this: nothing goes to plan.
Back in the early days, I didn’t think I even had what it took to fit in on Wall Street. I remember spending weekends researching my next career, convinced Wall Street wasn’t for me.
I was a shy nerd, I spoke with an accent, and I became a lonely cubicle slave, working hours on end. I wouldn’t speak in meetings because I figured who was I to be saying anything. When it came to bonus time, I just accepted whatever they paid me, happy with whatever scraps came my way.
I never expected to be where I am today. Along the way, I’ve made more mistakes than I care to admit and I’ve seen every single successful person I know do much the same.
Back in the early days, I thought mistakes were something to be ashamed of. I wanted to be the best and the fastest at everything. For example, when I was new to Wall Street, my boss gave me a project to be completed by the end of the day. I rushed through, proud of how quickly I was getting it finished. I handed it to my boss, waiting for my pat on the back. As it turned out, I had messed the whole thing up.
I was so focused on getting it done that I had completely missed the point.
I learned the hard way – quite a few times – to slow down and see the big picture. Now I tell all the new recruits to: “Try to figure out the substance of what you are doing and what makes your client happy, rather than the very specific, narrow task you have been asked to do”.
Finance is also an industry where things can change, fast. Just because you’re in a dark place one year, don’t assume you won’t catch a lucky break the next.
For example, I spent many years at Lehman Brothers in New York. While I was there, I was forced to change roles internally as my career was going nowhere. It was one of the lowest points of my career. And then, just one year later, I was hired by Goldman Sachs! Three years after that, I was made MD. It still amazes me how quickly things turn around.
Never assume that unexpected (good) things won’t happen when you work in finance.
You might want the security of a planned future, but you don’t have to have a plan for everything. Once you can let go and acknowledge this, you’ll get much further. I’ve seen so many young guys make the mistake of being in a huge rush for success. Finance careers don’t work like that. You’ll screw up – it’s inevitable. You may also feel out of your depth. What’s important is that you keep trying.
Over time, I learnt that you only get what you ask for and I learnt that if you want to excel, you have to treat every day like an interview. I learnt that no one really knows what they are doing, and that we are our own worst critic. I learnt to trust myself and stop sweating the small stuff and start building the systems and habits that have changed my life.
The author is a former Goldman Sachs managing director and blogger at the site What I Learnt on Wall Street.