This comment was a response to the @ContemplatingBanker"'s post on "How to Deal with the Hours" (find this comment lower down on page 2). Patrick called this "one of the best comments I've ever read on WSO" - so naturally it deserves its own spot on the homepage. To see all of our top content from the past, click here.
ContemplatingBanker – I read your post and empathized very strongly with what you wrote. I have been in a similar place myself and, in some of my lowest moments, remember reaching out to a few trusted advisers and getting literally nothing back from them. Despondent about this, I hunkered down and carried on with my job while thinking hard about how to rationalize the junior banker experience and get the most out of it without coming away from it defeated and bitter.
I mean no disrespect to the other posters and agree almost entirely with the sensible advice that they have shared. I will however say that their good advice seems to be mostly tactical and focused on the day-to-day blocking and tackling of the job. Permit me to offer a slightly more strategic and higher-level perspective. Tough as it is in the short term, you do have an extraordinary opportunity before you and I discourage you from acting rashly and without due forethought. Much as being an Analyst blows, you can cope and you can come away from this experience as a stronger and more empowered person with terrific career options ahead of you.
I should probably "introduce" myself first. I have lurked on WSO for a long time but this is the first time that I have felt moved to post anything more than a few lines. The comments below should probably be set in context by some bare facts about me: I am in my mid-30s, my first career was as an infantry officer in which I spent two tours fighting in the Middle East. I did an MBA at H/S/W and then worked as an M&A Associate for a MM advisor on the East Coast. I am now working in a completely different industry, although I would not have got this chance if I didn't start my business career with an investment bank.
What follows is simply an account of what I found helped my state of mind while I was getting crushed by repeated 100+ hour weeks one after another. I am writing this in the spirit of trying to help another guy trying to get through a tough and miserable time – if it comes across as preaching or condescending then that is unintentional. If it comes across as braggadocios alpha-male bullshit then that is not intended either. I was a soldier for nearly a decade and I guess that colors how I look at a lot of situations. Here goes:
1. Adopt a Survivor Mentality.
There are some extraordinary stories of people that have survived in the face of incredible odds against them. I am talking about being stranded in the wilderness or adrift at sea – that kind of a thing. There has been a certain amount of academic research and a number of books filled with awe-inspiring stories. Movies too; "127 Hours" is a recent example that comes to mind. Those that survive exhibit a number of common personality traits. Fortitude and an absence of self-pity are among them, but the one that really resonated with me is: Acceptance. Those that got their heads down and prevailed against an awful situation accepted the hand that they had been dealt. That was just how it happened to be for them. They accepted that this was the situation that they'd got themselves into, they accepted what resources (or more importantly what constraints) they had, and they made the best of what they had to work with. Getting frustrated or angry about things that you simply cannot change is an enormous waste of energy. Save that energy for something that will actually help you.
2. Put it in Perspective.
I am wary of becoming preachy here so I will keep it short: there are many, many people whose lives are a fuck's-sight worse than yours. Nothing highly original here, but what put it in perspective for me was reading a well-written book about somebody roughly the same age as me who is having an altogether different, and worse, experience. Apart from the fact that reading is an enjoyable and enriching escape – even for 20 minutes before bed, it can also give you tremendous perspective. [I had the Kindle app downloaded onto my work computer, and sometimes inconspicuously read between 9am and 3pm while I was waiting for a turn of edits]. "Unbroken" and "Matterhorn" are two books that I recently read. I also taped a small picture of Nelson Mandella to my monitor. When I was really hating life I thought about what he described in "The Long Walk to Freedom" and it put things in perspective for me. Once one of the Directors asked me who the picture was of – I told him it was my uncle and he seemed to believe me, the ignorant fuck.
3. Rationalize 2 Years.
I know its hard when you are there, and at the time of being an Analyst its not much less than a tenth of your life, but two years really is not a long time. If you get caught with a small amount of weed and are unlucky you can get sent to prison for more than two years, soldiers go to Afghanistan for nearly 18 months. I know that these are downbeat examples but you can get through two years if you can keep the end in sight and break it down into chunks. I created a fancy spreadsheet with loads of date functions that broke down how far through my stint I was and how much money I had made so far. This can sap your morale as well as boost it so decide for yourself and obviously never let anyone see it! Two years all at once can seem overwhelming so break it down into milestones that work for you: Thanksgiving, when bonuses get paid, your one-year point – whatever. Focus on getting to the next milestone and then pick another one. Somehow it makes things seem a tiny bit less shit.
4. Be Strong.
carry yourself with purpose and aplomb – do not look like a victim and never complain. It is a shitty life right now – everyone knows that it is. The Analysts that tearfully drag themselves about the floor like zombies mark themselves down as bitches and it becomes a downward spiral of disrespect from there. It is an ugly, "Lord of the Flies", side of human nature and I am not endorsing it but if you mope around and visibly hate every moment then it gets noticed and it becomes the legacy that you do not want.
5. Create Options.
If your current job genuinely is the only current opportunity that you have for gainful employment, then yes that sucks and you feel trapped. Forgive me for the blunt analogy, but being a junior investment banker is in some ways akin to being in an abusive relationship. You can be the victim that's trapped in the trailer park and regularly beaten by your drunken spouse and for as long as you let it be so that will be your life until such a time as you chose to make it otherwise. Nobody will help you get out, nobody cares and the cycle of victimhood will be perpetuated for as long as you let it. I'm not saying its easy to switch jobs, and as we all know, it takes time, persistence and good fortune to make a smart career move. But every outreach, every networking email, every informal coffee meeting creates optionality for you and makes you feel a little bit less trapped each time you make some headway. There are alternatives and if you proactively go out there after them, each small success even if it doesn't directly result in a job opportunity will take you down the road and make you feel a bit less trapped by where you are now.
6. Think Creatively about your Career.
I accept that this might not the same for everyone, but I found that the abject crapness of being an M&A Associate actually made me really think a lot more than I ever had before about what I valued in life and what I wanted from it. Despite working 100-hour weeks, in what little downtime I had, I actually was able to think incredibly sharply about the career that I wanted and what interested and motivated me. No longer having the luxury of idle time for thought made me use what scarce time I had very carefully. I tagged ideas, whims and fantasies in Evernote (both on my browser and on my iPhone) and this led me to my current career (soft commodities) and pursuits (for example Krav Maga and cookery) that would probably never have occurred to me beforehand. I also went through my alumni network, a handful of headhunters and LinkedIn to build a CRM database in Zoho of people that I wanted to make contact with. It was surprising how much progress I could make even just putting in an hour or two a week – people were also very understanding about my current situation.
7. Exotic Jobs.
If you are pre-MBA and really need to re-set after a couple of years as an Analyst, I would encourage you to think about parlaying your skills into a business-related function but for an altogether different organization. I'm thinking places like Peace Corps, MSF, Red Cross, War Child, LeapFrog Investments etc. People with business, finance and consulting experience are in demand in such places – friends of mine have worked at all of the above. Pros: its only a year or two commitment, it gives you a chance to live healthily and get tan, if you're in any way bullish on emerging markets its great exposure, you get irreplaceable experience in a foreign country, your MBA application essays are going to write themselves. Unless you are smitten to taking your chances with a mega LBO-fund (which with all due respect I don't sense that you are) I really don't think that it is going to hurt your career in the long run, and on the contrary could open a lot of doors in interesting parts of the world where there are some fantastic opportunities to participate in their economic growth.
8. Heroes and Mentors.
When I was on my second tour in Iraq, a 36-year old Major that I knew was killed by a roadside bomb. He was ten years older than I was at the time, and left behind a wife and a couple of infant children. It was around this time that I decided a long-term career in the military was not what I wanted. It's a bit of a stark example, but my point is to look at guys who are a bit further ahead in the same career as you are now in. Ask yourself whether you would want their life, and whether you would want to go through what they did to get there. Perhaps you do, in which case it is fairly clear-cut what needs to be done next. If you balk at it then that's a message to you – it's a message to start redirecting your career to somewhere that you do want to take it. Additionally, I cannot be too encouraging of seeking a professional mentor.
You'll get differing opinions from everyone, but what has worked well for me is NOT reaching out to some crusty septuagenarian who plays golf with your Dad – this rarely works unless he is exorbitantly well-connected and happens to love you like a son. Find someone with whom you have some commonality who is 4 to 6 years further in his or her career than you are. Use your alumni network, LinkedIn, WSO whatever. Pick someone that you are able to meet in person in NYC or whichever city you live in. Buy them a beer and make it clear that you are not looking for them to find you a job – you are just grateful for their advice and suggestions. They will drop their guard when they realize that you are not trying to pump them to find your next job for you (as just about everyone else is) and if they are a half-way pleasant kind of a person they will take some satisfaction from giving you a leg-up and helping you get ahead in your career.
Other guys have commented on alcohol and office politics so I will only briefly add my 2c. I would advise against hitting the bottle too hard. Like you, I found it quite a good way to depressurize although it is obviously injurious to your health and can all too easily get out of control. Understand what a "high functioning alcoholic" is, and if you identify with any of the symptoms I'd recommend giving it a break for a bit. It won't do you any favors in the long run. The best move I made was not keeping any alcohol whatsoever in my apartment; when you get home at 5:30am you simply don't have the option of having a quick and easy nightcap before bed. I would also recommend, if you possibly can, talking to your Associate and appealing to them to manage you in as humane a way as they can.
Unless a direct promote, they have learnt all that leadership, man-management BS at business school and a sincere appeal for empathy ought not to fall on deaf ears if they are a half-way decent human being. I would try to send Analysts home early when I could, and I know that other Associates tried to as well. Ultimately it's a give-and-take relationship between Analysts and Associates – a bit of goodwill is always repaid before very long so you shouldn't be too hesitant about being asked for a small break now and then.
Good luck. PM me if you want to talk on the phone sometime – I assume you'll be in the office ;)
Mod Note: Best of WSO, this was originally posted March 2013.