Why I Had to Get Out: Confessions of a Wall Street Insider
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Anton Prado PHOTO
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When some people think about Wall Street, they conjure up images of traders shouting on the stock exchange, of bankers dining at five-star restaurants, of CEOs whispering in the ears of captured Congress members.
When I think about Wall Street, I think about its stunted rainbow of pale pastel shirts. I think about the vaulting, highly secured, and very cold lobbies. And I think about the art passed daily by the harried workers, virtually unseen.
Before I occupied Wall Street, Wall Street occupied me. What started as a summer internship led to a seven-year career. During my time on Wall Street, I changed from a curious college student full of hope for my future into a cynical, bitter, depressed, and exhausted "knowledge worker" who felt that everyone was out to screw me over.
The culture of Wall Street is pervasive and contagious. While there are Wall Street employees who are able to ignore or block it out, I was not one of them. I drank the Kool Aid. I'm out of it now. But I'd like to tell you what it was like.
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When you are wealthy and successful, you have a choice. You can believe your success stems from luck and privilege, or you can believe it stems from hard work. Very few people like to view their success as a matter of luck. And so, perhaps understandably, most people on Wall Street believe they have earned their jobs, and the money that follows.
While there are many on Wall Street who come from wealthy backgrounds, there are also many people from very humble backgrounds. In my experience, it is often those who do not come from privilege who are the system's fiercest defenders.
When I was a summer intern, we met with various executives who'd tell us about their careers and pitch us on the firm. The aim was to sell the firm to everyone, even though only a few of us would ultimately be offered full-time positions. There was an element of redundancy to it, since we were clearly already interested in the firm, or we wouldn't be there at all. The effect of these talks, then, was to make a competitive situation even more competitive. Welcome to Wall Street. One executive described the firm as a "Golden Springboard."
If we began our careers there, his reasoning went, there wasn't anywhere we couldn't go. The executive was right. Background becomes irrelevant once you have "made it" to Wall Street. Once you've gotten in the door, you're one of "us."
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Once hired, the cultural indoctrination begins in earnest, especially for those recent grads who begin their careers in "analyst training programs." These programs are exclusively for college and graduate students, are often several months long, and are custom-tailored to the department you'll ultimately join. The Sales & Trading analyst program is more competitive than, say, the Technology training program. And while most of the training is job-specific, there is also an air of finishing school. A trader friend of mine was instructed not only in the mathematics of the financial markets, but also in wine tasting and golf. You are trained, but you are also groomed.
The grooming is not all fun and games and country clubs. Most of the message revolves around how hard everyone works, and how hard you are expected to work in turn. Wall Street views its own work ethic as legendary. Sixty-hour weeks are standard. An ex-boss of mine used to brag that for one six-year stretch he never took a sick day or a vacation. The streak ended when he contracted strep throat, refused to go to the doctor, and eventually had to be hospitalized (at least so he claimed).