The unspoken truth about PE handcuffs

Hey folks

I've been in private equity in NYC for the better part of six years. It's been an exhilarating ride, filled with thrills and adrenaline. But lately, I've been feeling like I'm adrift, caught in existential questioning.

See, my circle includes friends who've been dedicating their lives to “intellectual” professions like medicine, physics, or statistics. Dinner conversations often morph into deep dives into the latest breakthroughs in stats / ML or whatever topic of quantum mechanics. And there I am, the finance guy, feeling like I've just brought a knife to a gunfight. Sure, I can talk about leveraged buyouts and market trends in industry X or Y, but next to pursuing larger intellectual pursuits it all starts to feel... trivial

Finance is the bloodstream of the economy, yada yada. But when you're surrounded by friends who are trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, it's hard not to feel a bit like a second-string player in the game of life.

And let’s be real, putting together those memos sometimes feels like I’m just playing dress-up with data. Meanwhile my friends are out there publishing papers. It’s like they’re running intellectual marathons every day, and I’m just here, trying not to trip over my own feet. To be clear, I’m not saying everyone should aim to solve the greatest puzzles of our time, but there’s a balance between that and the triviality of private equity. It’s like I’m living in this constant fear of being found out as a fraud. Not because I’m not good at what I do, but because what I do feels superficial and frankly, easy thus not quite rewarding. Especially when stacked against real tangible intellectual feats

So, here I am, wondering if I’m the only one in the finance game feeling like they’re just pretending to be part of the smart crowd. Am I alone in this? Or are there others out there who feel like they’re slowly dumbing down, one lucrative deal at a time? I mean, how do you guys deal with this? Is there a way to reconcile the thrill of the deal with a craving for something more intellectually fulfilling? Or are we all just doomed to watch our brain cells retire early while bank accounts flourish?

Maybe I'm just having a quarter-life crisis a few years too late. So, I'm throwing this out to the ether: How do you deal with the creeping sense of inadequacy?

Hit me up in the comments, misery loves company. I’m holding out for a brainiac support group

 

How is practicing medicine pushing the boundaries of human knowledge 

 

Doing research in medicine is, or at least an attempt to

 

It is not that you are not “intellectual” but in a wrong friend group - imagine you replace those friends with finance friends but one person is from a different background.

You guys might take about finance stuff (i.e. fed policy, impact of interest rates, M&A market, finance focused stuff etc.) and the Physics guy prob has zero clue and feel out of depth.

Plus btw you can read the AI stuff in your free time - it is not a gate keeped knowledge

Also you can give up your PE job to pursue PhD in a STEM field if that is your calling - no one holding you back

 

dump your loser friends and find some finance ones. I've found these medicine / engineer people act self-righteous and morally superior to offset the fact they spent more on education only to earn less. Of course they're going to strive to make you feel like an outcast, they're jealous of you. 

Don't give in OP, you worked hard for your career. Just find a better social group. It's not you, it's them.

 

My response is you need to read more and feel comfortable asking more stupid questions when your friends are discussing these things. Investing is a field that requires a high degree of intellectual curiosity where you're often not the smartest person in the room. A large part of my days are spent sitting on calls with CEOs or experts where I'm way out of my depth and need to connect and communicate with them so it eludes me how you feel so intimidated by your friends.

I have a similarly nerdy and intellectual friend group born out from people I knew in high school and I'd say while they have a depth of knowledge that is impressive, nobody can really rival my breadth of knowledge. (i.e. I can communicate and speak on their turf a little and start to ask the right questions but they'd have very little shot in understanding what I do/think about)

 

Except what they don’t tell you is that 90% of “publishing” never gets read by a single human being outside of the people writing it, most of the topics are “response to / critique of” something that’s already written just so they can get their publication count up, and the vast majority of the “breakthroughs” are theoretical and never pan out beyond the lab.

I routinely get hit up by former classmates in academia desperately looking to exit to consulting or PE. The grass definitely ain’t greener 

 

I bet a lot of people will disagree with me on this, but 100% on the same page as you rabbit. Whenever I talk about finance and investing topics outside of work, I regularly get steamrolled in conversation. Nobody wants to talk about yields, deals, or even stocks or crypto or 0DTE options and other crazy yolo investing. Maybe among women this is especially annoying, but I have found among men and women alike these topics usually receive (generally) lots of criticism

 

I think you're likely undervaluing the contributions that a breadth of knowledge, which is inherent to PE, can bring compared to the depth of knowledge that your friends in these more "intellectual" careers do. Naturally, career paths that favor depth are more likely to lead to breakthroughs - these folks are spending years or entire careers trying to solve one or a very small subset of problems. Private equity (in my experience and opinion) is a profession that values breadth of knowledge - of industries, sectors, market dynamics, legal structure, valuation methodologies, management teams + dynamics - and most importantly how to piece all of these together into a cohesive analysis of an opportunity.

Believe me, there are definitely days where I feel like each discrete task I'm doing could be completed by a smart 4th grader, but the reality is that it is the combination of these simple discrete tasks (also done in a competitive, time sensitive environment) that is what makes PE a mentally intense profession, just in a very different way from your friends. And no, I'm not saying that anyone in PE is really out here pushing humanity to the next level, but ultimately in the same way as a postal carrier or bank teller, PE is a crucial cog in the wider machine of the economy and society. 

We're each motivated by different things, and maybe you feel the need to be on that ground-breaking forefront of science or technology - in which case you should go pursue it. But you should remember that underpinning each breakthrough in humanity is a supporting and functioning society and economy, and in this regard working in PE allows you to play a quite outsized role (especially considering age and experience). So don't be too hard on yourself :)

 

Some people here seem rather unfairly critical of your friends. They are discussing fascinating topics and to be honest it's a great treasure trove of luck to have such people near you, with whom you can intellectually engage and grow. 

On a second point of how to carry on intellectual development in the highly time-pressurised environment of PE, well quite frankly I'm still just a student so I imagine a lot of what I'd write would be inapplicable due to your squeezed schedule. If I might just point to two things: if you truly wish to learn more about the frontier of human knowledge on the STEM side (ex: quantum) the question is do you have previous STEM education ? If so then I'd say already having the basics down means you can start working in a more forward manner on the topics that interest you by reading articles and perhaps also integrating it into your work ? By this I mean developing more and more surface knowledge under the guise of industry research ? Obviously your sector will place limits on that, but interesting subjects aren't limited to quantum, and some of the technologies you've mentioned (ML for example) are now hot topics in terms of applications across quite a few areas, so I'm certain you could find some interesting stuff to delve into (might also be an opportunity for you to bring a new so far less discussed but just as engaging topic to the friend table).

If you don't have a STEM background but want to better understand related topics, I'd suggest taking it as an awesome opportunity to learn brick by brick the foundations needed, which will most likely prove a slightly longer but deeply intellectually profitable project. You can do it bit by bit, starting from stronger math skills (which will overall make you feel sharper and are a healthy mental gymnastic) and then begin delving into the more applied subject of your choice, be it stats, biology, physics (if the latter you can check out https://www.susanrigetti.com/physics) etc... This would have to be done in your free time obviously but since the knowledge at play here is slightly more granular I'd imagine you can be more flexible with your learning.

Finally, there's also the future of your career. As you progress in PE I suppose the hours could get slightly better leaving a little more time for intellectual development of all types, and you might have more opportunities to explore deals in areas you're personally interested in. Perhaps you could also exit on the long-run. You don't seem extremely dissatisfied with your current position (which on this website seems rare) but nevertheless there may come a time when you feel you'll have run your course through PE and secured the financial comfort you find appropriate. At this point you'll be able to consider work in spheres matching your interests more closely, perhaps also securing some further studies along the way.

So yeah sorry this was so long, just wanted to put up my two cents on this topic as it's definitely one of my fears surrounding the world of finance. Hope the perspective of a student, though perhaps naïve, will have proven somewhat helpful

 

Sounds like a group of incels, sorry to offend. My group of friends talk about work for a solid five minutes and its over. You guys doing anything fun? Like boating, snowboarding, or anything? It also helps having girls in your social circle and perhaps having a girlfriend so you wouldn't have to talk about so much lame shit that no one cares about.

 
joehuntbbc

Sounds like a group of incels, sorry to offend. My group of friends talk about work for a solid five minutes and its over. You guys doing anything fun? Like boating, snowboarding, or anything? It also helps having girls in your social circle and perhaps having a girlfriend so you wouldn't have to talk about so much lame shit that no one cares about.

Yea like talking about reality tv celebrities and make up is so much better lmfao

 

Your girlfriend sounds respectfully miserable to be with. I’d hate going back home if she was a trophy and only talked about makeup, and bs about the latest reality tv show. Find someone that you can actually get along with and have good conversations with lol. There’s a reason they’re called a partner, not a trophy. My girlfriend also works in finance but we have hobbies that align outside the context of work which fuel interesting conversation (and also stupid/“less stimulating” topics for shits and giggles), like fitness, travel, politics, etc. Hope you find yourself a beauty one day boss.

 

honestly nah man those intellectuals can eff off. First of all, some of the most intelligent, intellectual, interesting, accomplished, and brilliant people i know work in pe/finance. The job itself has more complexity and technical elements than most of those "intellectual pursuits" you are glorifying. Go try and explain any singular technical investing concept to them and they will have no clue and break out into a sweat. 

Second most of those intellectual paths are just as empty and non-impactful as you make PE out to be. Most of the time those intellectuals are projecting their own insecurity that they had to spend an additional 10 years in school to publish a paper on renewable minerals in western Ethiopia that nobody is ever going to read, while you've managed to have a successful career that they don't understand. 

And third if thats the type of dinner conversations you're having you should definitely expand your circle.

Those types definitely don't have the moral high-ground on you. If you work in PE long enough you come to appreciate the unique benefits/skills that you personally derive from the environment, and the positive effects in can have on the private and public sector. 

 

Honestly, go work at a business with a financially complex business model (eg: most healthcare businesses, renewables, tech enabled services like Uber). In those companies, figuring out an economic model that is sustainable and scalable is a huge part of the battle and you add tremendous value in enabling the creation of a new offering. It’s extremely hard, slow, and often times fails, but it is intellectually stimulating. 

 

I have definitely felt the same way talking to some of my friends in STEM fields. I know people who studied frontier fields in college and they’re fairly likely to make a serious contribution just given how new their field of research is. It’s such a different equation compared to the total impact of a career in investment management. I think you’re fortunate to have a friend group in such varied industries. I have a lot of interests outside of finance, and while I enjoy my work my strongest interests aren’t finance but the arts, history, and science. It’s what I read about to take my mind off work and I enjoy that those topics aren’t ’corrupted’ for me by trying to earn money from them. They can remain purely intellectual and enjoyable. Staking out time to read the occasional non-financial industry journal or newsletter could make those dinner chats more enjoyable. I love the idea of doing a ‘salon’ to share expertise among a group. Even just a talking point or two about something you read could make you feel more engaged and learn how your friends approach the same topics from their background. You don’t need to be a complete expert to be interested in the conversation. Could be just as valuable to your friend group that you’re at the table listening, enjoying their company, and learning about things they’ve devoted as much time to as you’ve invested in learning finance and investing.

 

The politics and BS someone in academia has to deal with is more than someone at a good PE fund deals with imo.  You get promoted, tenure, advancement etc by publishing papers in prestigious publications and pulling in grant money.  When the scoreboard is less defined (vs PE where getting a 3x+ MOIC means you are a "winner"), politics and bureaucracy become more entrenched parts of the game. 

 

Grass is greener ~~

As someone from medicine...medicine, law & finance are all just professional services. I wouldn't say it's super intellectual - just that it requires a lot more studying and a lot more school. I always thought finance had a larger impact on the world because of tangible impacts on the economy (allocating capital toward worthy ventures)

Wouldn't say finance is trivial. As someone having a quarter life crisis but in a different industry - I would not say medicine is "more intellectually fulfilling" or a "real tangible intellectual feat". And even the most altruistic people get worn down over the years re. "emotionally fulfilling". I think people just get bored after a long time in one industry but don't realise how good they have it.

I will say this though - many medicine people really do believe in their higher calling and are genuinely altruistic people - and don't care that much about money. I know a lot of people who could grab 2-3x their current salary in private but don't move because "they don't feel a need to/want to serve in public/don't want fee-for-service to interfere with medical practice". So don't just trash doctors for being 'morally superior', many of them don't see it hte same way.

It's not you and it's not them, just find other things to talk about over dinner lmao

 

"I will say this though - many medicine people really do believe in their higher calling and are genuinely altruistic people - and don't care that much about money. I know a lot of people who could grab 2-3x their current salary in private but don't move because "they don't feel a need to/want to serve in public/don't want fee-for-service to interfere with medical practice". So don't just trash doctors for being 'morally superior', many of them don't see it hte same way."

I find this to be super rare amongst millennial doctors. Maybe true for those with minimal debt.

 

"I will say this though - many medicine people really do believe in their higher calling and are genuinely altruistic people - and don't care that much about money. I know a lot of people who could grab 2-3x their current salary in private but don't move because "they don't feel a need to/want to serve in public/don't want fee-for-service to interfere with medical practice". So don't just trash doctors for being 'morally superior', many of them don't see it hte same way."

I find this to be super rare amongst millennial doctors. Maybe true for those with minimal debt.

Yea i guess in the States where you have to pay for med school. Also doctors do tend to get more cynical as they practice, so not too much of a surprise but I think most going into it had altruistic motives

 

If your pe stint has been filled with "thrills" and "adrenaline" maybe I'm in the wrong gig

 

It always seems fulfilling on the other side. You see them working really hard producing research and probably not making as much money (this is an assumption so could be wrong). They see you working hard, making money, while they work hard and earn less.

I know plenty of people miserable in both finance and academia. If you want to participate in dinner talk, maybe try to learn a bit about what it is they’re interested in. You’ll benefit by just keeping up in their convos. At the end of the day, find something fulfilling for you. Maybe it’s time to start moving roles where you can feel fulfilled

 

If they're pontificating just pour yourself a wine, cocktail or grab a beer and let everyone blow their air. If they're talking about things they've actually done, be excited for them and ask questions.  My close friends who are in medicine are not blowhards on intellectual heady topics.  The conversations are about something they're actually doing, it's easy, and I'm just happy that their work is meeting their passion. Not hard to participate and no one is trying to impress each other.  And most of the time everyone is shooting it around normal everyday conversation because we all get enough of what we do every single day of our lives for a living and enjoy talking about other things.

Honestly, you could be in a circle/measuring contest conversation on who has the most intellectual firepower and these folks are simply peacocking or mirroring each other.  Don't worry about it, you have a heaps worth of business experience and understanding of how to do things in a commercial world.  Be genuine and be confident in yourself.  Just ask them more questions, and if they ask you about your opinion, be honest if you have one or just say, I honestly don't know much about that field so I don't have one.

Sometimes its in vogue for 20 somethings or others to try to flex that way.  I can recalls somewhat similar feelings out of thinking I'm out of my depths in similar group settings when younger, but honestly I've seen the same people later in life and couldn't care less now if I found myself in the same position again.

 

Academic pursuits and even medicine are rarely pushing boundaries. Most theorists are fine in the classroom - throw their ass into a real work environment and they crumble and cannot execute on basic tasks.  Quants can be interesting people to talk to, but it is a different game they are playing.  I took a full year of quantum mech in college, it was interesting but I do not want to practice it or discuss it at dinner.  
 

put it this way, you will make enough money to be able to go back and get a PhD in whatever you wanted and study what you wish if you really want to down the road.