I gamified my life and got into banking. And now I'm moving on

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Leaving Goldman Sachs associate

"That's how you'll get the dolls", said my mom.

When I was a child, my family was too poor to buy us toys. My dad's business was struggling. My mom was juggling our resources to make ends meet. As a kid, I was unaware of this, of course. I just badly wanted those Barbie dolls. I often asked for them every time we passed by the store on the way to school, and my mom would shake her head in silence. She was sorry that she couldn't buy the toys I wanted, but she knew there was little point saying that. Instead, she thought of a difficult challenge to solve the situation."

"If you get a series of 10/10 grades for all 10 tests in different subjects continuously, you will get the dolls," she said. "Even if there is one discontinuity and anything but a 10/10 - like a 9/10, the whole process will reset. That's how you'll get the dolls."

My mom was smart. The tests were spaced out every few weeks, meaning it would be months before I got the dolls. As a child, I was excited though: my path to the dolls had become clear.  I began working tirelessly to try and get them. I failed, tried again, failed, and tried again. I did everything I could.

This was the start of my propensity to gamify my life as a series of accomplishments.

Eventually, I got the dolls. It took over a year and, like many other games, the prize was less exciting than the process. I moved on and started playing a computer game called Age of Empire instead.

My brother is an avid gamer too. Still now, in his twenties, he spends hours every day gaming without exception. I worry he's addicted, but a friend pointed out that games can give you a sense of achievement, which can be harder to come by in real life. Her sentences got me thinking: Weren't my three years in banking - and my years of hard academic work to get into banking - like that too?

As a banker, I worked for perhaps the most prestigious institution. I arrived as a 21-year-old fresh graduate who was overly well paid and who felt could they achieve most things much faster than outside the banking world. It gave me a sense of achievement, and it probably kept me in banking for longer than I should've stayed.

The sense of achievement I got as a banker was virtual, like in gaming. The results were fast-paced, partly because of the job itself and partly because of the caliber of the institution I worked for. People trusted and respected me because of the franchise rather than because of me: I had not earned their respect.

It's hard to stay grounded in banking though. When you work on deals worth millions and billions for years on end, it's easy to let that go to your head - to feel you've achieved everything yourself and to be blown off course by winds of ego. I kept reminding myself that my achievements were a great experience, but that the magnitude of what I was doing was not a reflection of my ability nor my identity. Over time, I saw other people in banking blend their identities with the companies they were working for. Some forgot they hadn't earned the deals they were working on themselves, and incorporated them into their self-image.

Leaving any game is hard. There are no more fast-paced, quick rewards. There is no more certainty about what it takes to move on to the next level. There are no levels. When you have to use your own ability to convince others of your worth, it is a painfully long process.

Outside of banking, you find yourself in a different reality. You are no longer in a high-speed transactional environment with spreadsheets and email replies expected every five minutes. In the real world, people don't do business with companies; they do business with people. This requires relationship-building, which is a slow and indeterminate process.

In banking, three to six months seems like an awfully long time to close an IBD deal, but this is the shortest amount of time one can expect when closing a deal with a regular B2B client. Now that I'm running my own venture, I used to have no patience. I kept doubting myself and questioning why everything was taking so long. Then I realized that I was in reality. Here, everything takes longer, and costs more. If I want the dolls, I will need to work for months to earn them. Like in my childhood, there are no shortcuts.

When you accomplish something in a virtual world, your achievements are contained within that environment. Now that I'm outside banking - in the real world - my confidence is growing. Now, I know that if I have to start from scratch all over again, I can repeat this lengthy process and come out fine. People are doing business with me because of me: not because of a franchise or corporate machine that I represent. In life gamification, I have advanced to a new level: it's called reality.

Mai Le was an investment banking associate at Goldman Sachs before she left to found her own venture Vietnam Inbound. Besides writing on her own blog, she also runs a cover-letter sharing community called Cover Letter Library.

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