Working at Goldman Sachs made me stronger, until it didn’t

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Reaching out to myself...

Trudging through three semesters at Stanford, Will McLellarn could barely keep his head above water. Academically, he was overwhelmed. His public school background made him feel like a nervous outsider. Looking for some sort of edge – or maybe just some confidence – McLellarn eyed an internship. He applied to more than 50 of them during his sophomore fall. By Christmas break, not one company had responded.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, he received an email from Goldman Sachs. And so began a five-year relationship that would include three internships and eventually a full-time position working in Manhattan at Goldman’s equity derivatives desk. The experience turned him from a shy, unvalidated student with a chip on his shoulder to a hyper-competitive, ego-driven Wall Street banker – a version of himself that, at the time, fit what he thought was his ideal. Then everything changed.

‘The squirrel’

McLellarn’s first internship, a week-long program at Goldman’s Manhattan headquarters, took place during spring break of his sophomore year in 2010. After feeling like he bombed the interview, McLellarn was surprised to find he earned one of the roughly 15 spots, made up of mostly other Ivy Leaguers. He and the other interns were put in a room and taught everything there was to know about securities. In retrospect, McLellarn says he never had all that much interest in the mechanics of the stock market. But he loved the competitiveness that Goldman pulled out of him – something he felt could cover for his nerves and assumed lack of pedigree.

“They put us up against each other,” he said. “It felt harsh at the time but they treated us like adults, like employees.”

McLellarn said he was the first person to arrive at the office every day, just so he could sit in the front row. Halfway through the program, he arrived in the morning to find that a girl from Cornell had beaten him to the seat. “Every day moving forward, I showed up even earlier to make sure that never happened again,” he said.

McLellarn said he was one of three people from the group who was offered a full 10-week summer internship. Soon after starting, full-timers on the floor gave him a nickname: the squirrel. “I was so nervous and frantic,” he said. But the competitive juices began to flow yet again. “I thrived on doing more than anyone else,” he said. “I never once thought about enjoying the experience. It was more about winning.”

Ten weeks at Goldman and he felt like a different person. “I came back to Stanford confident, maybe even arrogant,” McLellarn said. During his first two years in college, he never once raised his hand to speak during class due to nerves and a lack of confidence. “I came back my junior year and said f*@k it,” McLellarn told me. “I had money and I had status. My ego enjoyed the experience” of knowing he already had an invite to return to Goldman during his junior summer.

‘I couldn’t get myself to care’

McLellarn spent more of his junior year preparing for his second summer internship than he did enjoying his time at Stanford. He spent 20-30 hours a week working at a small hedge fund for someone who eventually became a friend and mentor. This is where the first warning sign went off, he said.

“I met others who lived and breathed trading – they were passionate about the work,” he said. McLellarn didn’t want to admit that he didn’t feel the same. Until that point, it didn’t actually occur to him to even question his interest in the industry. “All I wanted to do was to go to Goldman, start my own hedge fund and become a billionaire,” he said. “But I just couldn’t get myself to care.”

However, after reentering the walls at Goldman the following summer, his passion was renewed. The competition stirred him yet again. He got on the rotation at Goldman’s equity derivatives desk and never left. “I felt I was the best candidate. I marked my territory and people backed off,” he said.

A full-time job offer soon followed. “The second I accepted, I peaked,” he said. “Things went downhill from there.”

A change of heart

Speaking to me from a Starbucks in Portland roughly four years after he walked away from Goldman, McLellarn comes off as self-aware, yet the confidence that bordered on arrogance hasn’t left him. He talked to me for an hour with me asking but two questions. I didn’t have to push him to go on the record. He wanted to.

As soon as McLellarn received a full-time offer, he felt the music stop. While there was still plenty of competition at the analyst level, work wasn’t as much of a battle of will as it was, well, work. Mundane, fill-out-the-spreadsheet, enter-the-trade work – befitting an analyst. It was no longer a sprint; he found himself on the first leg of a marathon that he had no interest in finishing. McLellarn said he soon stopped idealizing those above him and became rather fearful he would one day find himself in their position: needing every big paycheck to maintain their lifestyle and ego, fearful they could be given the door, he said.

He hated the way he was treated as a first-year analyst. He hated the way his first-year analysts were treated when he was in year-two. McLellarn became frustrated seeing former classmates become principles at startups while, in his second year, an MD gave him a task that literally involved him copy and pasting data into Excel, he said. “I was floored to realize that someone couldn’t or wouldn’t do that themselves.” Meanwhile, a couple of his former classmates from Stanford founded Snapchat. McLellarn’s passion to do his own thing ate away at him.

At some point during his first full year at Goldman, McLellarn said he just stopped caring. “I did the minimum to not get yelled at,” knowing early on he would finish his two years as an analyst and leave Goldman. “If they fire me, they fire me.” After a little more than two years, he quit Goldman to help found a start-up, eventually finding his way back to California.

McLellarn currently runs a digital marketing company while working on a product development startup and keeping up a blog. He seems genuinely happy, despite acknowledging the difficulty of the first year – going from making six-figures to crashing on a buddy’s couch in California. “Goldman gave me confidence and allowed me to inflate my ego,” he said. “When I left, a lot of those things were taken away.”

While claiming to be comfortable where he is in life, McLellarn still appears bitter with an industry, a company and a culture that he feels stifles creativity and independence. He acknowledged a few reasons why he liked Goldman – the competitive culture and growth opportunities – but only in passing. He went on to list a number of reasons to steer clear of investment banking. They were clichés on the surface but you could tell he believed them. Investment bankers aren’t “independent” nor “individualistic” nor “masters of their own destiny.” Senior bankers become selfish, profiting off the work of the next generation, and are seduced into staying in an industry that eventually makes them obsolete, he said.

“While every employee has their own experience we feel strongly that we have a culture based on innovation and entrepreneurialism and believe those are primary contributors to our success,” Leslie Shribman, vice president of media relations at Goldman Sachs, said in a statement to eFinancialCareers.

McLellarn’s story is a cautionary tale, no matter what you think of him or Goldman Sachs. The rush and the influx of money does something for people, but anecdotal evidence we’ve collected over the years says that will take you only so far if you aren’t obsessed with the actual work – and plenty of those folks do exist. Just look at the number of people who are still pounding down the doors of banks, Goldman in particular.

“If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, I wouldn’t recommend it,” McLellarn said of investment banking before hanging up. As I did the same, a third question came to my mind, one that I always ask burned-out bankers who’ve found success elsewhere. “Do you think you’d be where you are today without that experience?” But our hour was up.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: btuttle@efinancialcareers.com

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