You don't know anything— 5 things to do about it

Throughout my career I was constantly reminded of how little I knew.

When I interviewed for the job at Goldman Sachs, as a finance major writing a thesis on option pricing and having interned at JP Morgan, I thought I knew the job. But when I started I realized I didn't know anything.

On the first day alone, stumbling through income and cash flow statements calculating EBITDA, LTMs, and fully-diluted EV multiples I realized the learning curve was steep and I had to get climbing. When I started working on deals in industries as disparate as mining, banking, technology, and telecom, again I was reminded I didn't know anything.

The same was true when I moved to Silicon Valley and technology banking. In my interviews I confidently talked about B2B and B2C, but when I got to Menlo Park, reading about Cisco routers it was obvious I didn't know anything.

It was the same when I moved into the job of staffer. What did I know about managing analysts and associates and operating the business? Joining leveraged finance as a VP it was an even steeper learning curve. In my first week, negotiating commitment papers with the partner of a buyout shop, having never done a bank or a bond deal, I had to first accept I didn't know anything.

A few years later when I joined the Carlyle Group as a distressed debt investor, in the interviews I had analyzed credits and pitched some distressed opportunities, but when I landed in the seat, once again...I realized...I didn't know anything.

And that's all good...when you know:

1. No one expects you to know

You're not being hired because they assume you know how to the do the job, but because they assume you have what it takes to learn it. Investment banking is a dynamic business where you have to learn as you go and think fast on your feet.

I remember in my first couple of weeks on the job being on a call with the partner who ran the office. While the client was pitching him a hardball question, he put the call on mute and looked at me and said, "Remember, there are always three things to think about."

Then, casually, without missing a beat, he took the phone off mute and said, "There are three things to think about here."

After the call when I asked him how he had learned to be so certain he told me something I wrote down and kept coming back to during my career. He said, "You're not expected to have all the answers, just to provide a better answer than the client currently has."

2. Empty your cup

There's a story about a Japanese Zen master, Nan-in who takes the time to talk with a university professor who wanted to learn more about Zen.

As the university professor began and continued...and continued...and continued talking, the old master began pouring him tea. His cup quickly filled, yet Nan-in kept pouring.

As the tea over-filled the cup and began to flow onto the table, finally taking notice, the university professor said, "The cup is full. No more tea will go in." To which the Zen master promptly responded, "You are full of your own ideas...How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

The greatest obstacle to learning is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. When you start and every day on the job you must be willing to set aside what you think you already know and continue to seek out better and better answers.

Note too those ideas won't always come from people more senior than you. Later in my career I learned as much from the analysts and associates who worked with me as I did from my bosses. It pays to listen!

3. A fast learner is more valuable than a know it all

Rather than expecting you to have it all figured out, clients and colleagues alike respect the person who says, "I don't know the answer, but I'll find out and come back to you."

Similarly, you aren't expected to hit the ground running, but you are expected to learn to run fast.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for an associate or VP in working with an analyst or associate is to have a conversation about what needs to get done, and then hours (or even days later) to hear the work hasn't been done because they didn't know how to do it.

It's not always easy to ask for help, and of course it's important to sometimes take the time to figure something out for yourself before asking someone else, but you are far better off admitting you need help quickly, than being stuck and asking later.

The flipside is: You only get a short period of time to ask those "stupid" questions. And once you have been told or shown how to do something you must learn the lesson. So write it down and create some notes for yourself so you don't have to go back to someone again and again on the same topic.

4. Soak up knowledge

Forget the books on the shelves, sitting inside a bank you are surrounded by walking and talking libraries of knowledge. Every interaction you have and every deal you work on gives you a chance to build your knowledge and skills.

Be curious. Look everywhere you can to learn to the business. Take people to coffee and lunches. Demonstrate you are someone who wants to learn. And perhaps more importantly, figure out a way to best organize what you are learning.

Early in my career one of my associates showed me a Word document he had been assembling for years with snippets of information he had picked up along the way. Inside he kept some Excel shortcuts, key ideas on mergers and IPOs, as well as more specific ideas, such as the one I shared with you earlier-there are always three things to think about...

Whenever he would come across ideas that he thought were worth keeping, he would add them to his document, and every now and then he would go back through and review his notes. Today you might do something similar in Evernote.

5. Take it upon yourself to learn

There is nothing more potent than specialized skills and knowledge. You can of course learn a lot from the day-to-day job and people around you, but to obliterate your career you want to develop deep knowledge and skills by seeking out other resources.

For instance, Investment banking is a people business and those with the best people skills are likely to do best in the business. What is coverage, but building relationships? What are deals, but managing people and negotiations?

You can rely on learning these skills on the job or you can take it upon yourself to read books or attend other training seminars that will massively amplify your skills and abilities to win on the job.

So, remember, it's accepted that you know nothing when you walk in the door, but the faster you learn and the better you get, the better your career will be.

About Geoff: A former investment banker at Goldman Sachs and investor at the Carlyle Group, Geoff Blades is an advisor to senior Wall Street executives, CEOs, and other leaders on corporate and strategic matters as well as topics of personal and professional development.

Mod Note: Best of WSO, this was originally posted November 2015

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Comments (43)

Nov 5, 2015 - 2:39pm

Fantastic advice. Seems so obvious in hindsight, but I wish I would have known it coming out of school.

Commercial Real Estate Developer

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Best Response
Nov 6, 2015 - 10:36am

This is true and great advice. It's wisdom, really. I've definitely experienced and realized this over the years. Embracing the fact that you don't know everything--or anything--is actually empowering.

I thought I knew everything after I left IBD. Turns out that I knew just enough to be dangerous, lol. Enough to make business plans and financial models that looked good on paper. Enough to convince the bank and investors to loan $250k to a 25-year-old so that I could start a business in an industry in which I had no experience. Well, things didn't turn out as expected. And, in order to make things work, I've had to throw away all the ego and "knowledge" that I came into this business with--quite a painful process. I've had to learn the business from the ground up. Only by doing this have I finally been able to gain traction and get positive results--and feel good about it.

I often wonder what it is that I think I know now that I will discover in the future to be false confidence/knowledge.

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Nov 6, 2015 - 3:19pm

Thanks for this - will keep it all in mind. It's much-needed advice at the beginning of an analyst stint (and beyond).

Maximum effort.
Nov 9, 2015 - 5:05am

True that, esp. #3. I always think that the ability to learn quickly is one of the most important skill in life. SB-ed.

Anyway, this new WSO interface rocks.

Fortes fortuna adiuvat.
Dec 27, 2015 - 5:53am

This is a great resource +1

"Act as if it were impossible to fail." -Chinese Fortune
Jan 24, 2016 - 4:59am

That's a great post buddy. Very well written and still applicable to me today even after working for 17 years !! Especially the part about emptying your cup.

What I Learnt on Wall Street
Jan 25, 2016 - 7:17pm

If someone asks you an important question you do not know the complete answer as well as a way to communicate it effectively - I recommend you be honest about your ability to answer their question. Contrary to popular belief, honesty is the best policy.

This is better than being caught in a mostly BS answer or, worse, outright lying. You might also want to more broadly answer their question until you can sit down and either find or figure out the answer, preferably asap.

Apr 1, 2016 - 10:45am

I agree, few things beat honesty/integrity, people do it in interviews, get hired and then fired for not being honest.

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Apr 1, 2016 - 10:42am

These are really good advice but this also comes from growing up and remembering what our parents teach us when we are young, (do not show off, be humble, always try to do the uncomfortable things, try to learn something new everyday, if it is easy then not worth doing) etc.

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