5 Things That Surprised Me About A Career on Wall Street

I had a conversation with a friend recently about Wall Street. We discussed some of the odder aspects of the Street, not so much about investing itself, but about having a career in finance.

I have a somewhat skewed and skeptical perspective on Wall Street. I started out as a lawyer (I loved law school but hated practicing); got a job as a trader under very random circumstances; eventually moved to research and then onto asset management.

But I spent a long time learning what this industry was about — reading everything I could get my hands on, critically analyzing what works and what doesn’t. Learning and studying was a crucial aspect of a job in this industry; Long before Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it, I had a colleague who used to say that it took 10 years to become an overnight sensation.

As a newbie, I critically read everything — skeptically, carefully, looking for weakness in the logic. Over that period of study, there were quite a few things I learned about Wall Street that surprised me:

1) Deep thought: Surprisingly few people rolled up their sleeves and thought deeply about why things in market are the way the are. What causes markets to go up and down? Why do things blow up? Why do most investors under-perform markets? Lots of myths and urban legends, not nearly as much quantitative evidence.

If you get really deep about it and study the data, there are some rules to learn. To succeed in markets, one needs to become a philosopher-mathematician.

2) Long-Term Greedy: Too many people went for the easy money, but that was never what motivated me. It was more about intellectual curiosity and honing ones craft, and less about the quick hit. I made less money compared to many of my peers, but I kept more of it and never blew up.

The phrase “long-term greedy” was coined by former Goldman Sachs director Gus Levy many years ago. You can make (lots of) money over time, but only by serving clients’ interests. Its amazing to me that view is so far out of fashion today.

3) Hard Work: There is no other field where a person of average skills and intelligence who is willing to put their head down and work hard can makes 100s of thousands or even millions of dollars a year — but only if they are diligent and patient and willing to put in the hours.

However, most of Wall Street is taught how to sell products to clients; rarely are they instructed what they buy, why they are buying, when to sell (or why). This is the industry’s fatal flaw.

4) Get Rich Slowly: Few people have the patience to get rich slowly — everyone on Wall Street who ever got into trouble was impatient, and couldn’t wait the requisite 10-20 years it took to become a millionaire. They ended up in jail or as mortgage brokers. Patience is virtue.

5) Mentorship:  Finance is filled with amazing, generous, really smart people — who mentor and teach and bring along the next generation. I hope the crisis & collapse and bailouts and mergers didn’t ruin that — My fear is that has gotten a lost over the past decade.

I have found Wall Street, warts and all, to be a deeply satisfying place to work, filled with intellectual challenges, wonderful people, and deep rewards. Sure, there are frustrations, and there are people who focus on the piles of money to be made, to the detriment of all else.

If that’s your focus, you will have missed out on some very important life lessons.

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