All that glisters is not gold —
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
(“The Merchant of Venice,” 2.7.69–72)
I learned about the prestige of landing a job at Goldman Sachs before I had any idea what investment banking was. College meme pages are filled with half-ironic portrayals of internship offers as the ultimate marker of status — positions coveted by all, yet awarded to few. Oftentimes, I’ve heard seniors introduced as “This is ___; she’ll be a junior analyst with Goldman next year,” as if the Goldman brand conferred automatic legitimacy on everyone associated.
Given the hype, it was no surprise that I became increasingly curious about what careers in investment banking actually entailed, and why college students found the industry so desirable. I began to ask around, receiving all kinds of answers:
“I mean, it’s obvious: they pay.”
“The environment — Wall Street is fast-paced, competitive, exciting.”
“It looks really good on your resume.”
And finally, the reason I found most compelling:
“It’s a good option if you don’t know what you want but you’d like some experience. Banks don’t even care what your major is. You just have to work hard and be smart.”
Now, like many other freshmen, I’m pretty clueless about what I want to pursue in life. I struggle to decide what I want to eat for dinner the next day, never mind choosing my major or identifying potential career paths. Couple this uncertainty with an affinity for the social sciences and humanities, and it was no wonder I felt out of place in the passionately tech-dominated Silicon Valley ecosystem.
This sense of directionlessness seemed like a liability: one that going to Wall Street could solve. It didn’t matter that I haven’t an inkling of interest in the New York Stock Exchange or the intricacies of global commodities markets; after all, if my friends were right, a relentless work ethic and willingness to learn were all I’d need to succeed. Soon, I began responding to inquiries about my career aspirations with, “I might try finance” without a second thought.
But when I stumbled upon a 2014 Vox interview titled “How Wall Street recruits so many insecure Ivy League grads,” I found that it hit eerily close to home. The interviewee, author Kevin Roose, remarks that many students “think going to a bank for two years will … keep them from having to make these hard decisions about the rest of their life.” Moreover, he makes the bold claim that “if it’s just about taking risk off the table and doing the safe, prestigious thing, I’d tell them first that it will make them truly miserable.”
Risk-averse, prestige-seeking kid scared of commitment … there was no denying that Roose’s criticisms had identified me to a T. Unnerved by the accuracy, I downloaded a Kindle copy of his book, “Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits.”
In “Young Money,” Roose follows eight college graduates to track their journey into the (outwardly) glamorous world of investment banking. Armed with a wide array of evidence — from personal conversations to diary entries to Roose’s own undercover observations — he crafts an intimate picture of their day-to-day lives as some of Wall Street’s newest and brightest young minds.
In many ways, these new traders and analysts were much like any other 20-something professionals. They bar-hopped with friends, commiserated over their controlling bosses and sought a better life for themselves and their families. But at the same time, they worked grueling 100-hour workweeks under exacting standards and immense competitive pressure, much to the detriment of their health and relationships.
Some of these graduates ended up leaving Wall Street for the technology industry or startups, but many chose willingly to remain in the financial sector. Yet Roose observed that all of them developed, along with technical know-how and a knack for Excel, an aversion to risk and creativity — a tendency to apply their quantitative assessments to decisions of all kinds:
They were slower to smile and quicker to criticize. Many of them began to talk about the world in a transactional, economized way. Their universes started to look like giant balance sheets, their appetite for adventure waned and they viewed unfamiliar situations through the cautious lens of cost/benefit analysis.
(“Young Money,” Ch. 36)
While some critics of “Young Money” disparage the lack of a strong, coherent stance on the financial sector and its members, I found that Roose’s restraint in judgment was crucial to the book’s value. Instead, he strove to represent his subjects in a fair light: portraying people with diverse backgrounds, personalities and final outcomes.
More than an argument, therefore, “Young Money” gave me the room to reckon with my own motivations for considering Wall Street: Was I interested in the status? The safety? The salary? And ultimately, would it be worth it?
I’m definitely still in the process of figuring it all out. But in a world where finance remains the industry of choice for graduates of America’s top universities, I’d encourage aspiring financiers to reflect on their career goals and ensure that they harbor no illusions regarding Wall Street’s cutthroat cultural ethos.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled
Fare you well. Your suit is cold —
Cold, indeed, and labor lost.
(“The Merchant of Venice,” 2.7.73–78)
Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’ stanford.edu.