Why Do You Work on Wall Street?

21 Jan

"Every dream has its price"

That is, besides the the women, the parties (Models & bottles baby!), all the other trappings of wealth and “life in the fast lane.”

Earlier today I switched the channel from CNBC over to AMC to watch the last ~40 minutes of Wall Street, a movie that I, like many of you, have seen well over a dozen times.

I can’t remember the first time I saw it, but it was probably around late high school or early college, but that’s really besides the point.  Every time I, like many of you, watched the movie I get pumped up and excited, but until today I never really thought about why.  I don’t mean excited about the plot twists, the story, or any of that, its more complicated, or maybe actually more simple than that.

I, like I imagine many of you, have always been a bit of an achiever.  I was never the smartest kid in AP or Honors classes nor the best athlete on the soccer or lacrosse field, but with hard work, a little bit of luck, and some natural gifts, I’ve always been relatively successful.

I, like I also imagine many of you, did not grow up wanting to be an investment banker or hedge fund manager; until probably half-way through high school, I studied computer science and dreamed of starting my own tech company.

So, what happened? I’d been following markets and recommending trades to my dad since before my Bar Mitzvah and over the next few years, I witnessed the frenzy that eventually led to the tech bubble.  We had a Finance/Investment club in high school of which I was one of the founders where we held an annual virtual investment contest.  I remember quite vividly presenting my rationale for buying Corning (GLW) as flat-screen monitors were set to take the world by storm.  Oddly enough, I recently got an email from one of the sites we used over a decade ago for our investment competitions.  One of the portfolios I set up held Corning and other former tech sweethearts.  When I set it up, I’d named it “Ultra High Risk Fund” or something along those lines, since I wasn’t totally drinking the Kool-Aid.  Fast forward a decade and its NAV is finally back above what it was at inception.  Impressive, eh?

For the remainder of high school and through college I planned on working in Venture Capital, what I thought (and still do to some extent) would be a combination of my love of both science/technology and finance. By senior year I was applying for jobs in not just VC but Investment Banking and Research, and eventually landed my first gig in the Investment Bank of one of the large global financial supermarkets.

So that’s how I flipped over to the “dark side,” so to speak.  Now, what does this have to do with Wall Street, the movie?  While I was watching the latter parts of the film earlier today, it finally dawned on me, the real allure of working on Wall Street.

For me, and I imagine many of you, it wasn’t all about the “Models & Bottles” (although that certainly helps!). It was – and to some degree still is – about the (quasi-)intellectual aspect(s) of the job.  It’s about busting your ass and working not just harder but SMARTER than the other guy and winning the proverbial game.  That’s what its all about, winning.  That’s what it really means to be “living the dream:” outsmarting the competition and, if you do it long enough, getting rich as hell in the process.

Of course, back in the realm of reality, Wall Street employs vastly more people in roles where this dream is still just that.  There really aren’t that many hedge fund or private equity titans out there, although there certainly isn’t any shortage of those aspiring to become one.  Certainly the advances in technology over the past 20 or so years have allowed people to trade in virtually any market for their own accounts (or even OPM) from anywhere in the World, but titans the vast majority of these traders are not.

As much as those of us who work ‘in Finance” are vilified by the media and “Main Street” – much of it our own fault – deep down, within most or dare I say all of us lies some inklining of enjoyment of the (quasi-)intellectual aspect of the job, however repressed or forgotten it may be.  For many, it really may be all about the money and everything you can do with it, but in the ultimate analysis, how many people stick around for 10, 20, 30+ years of working lunatic hours with other lunatics if they’re not even remotely interested in the work?

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2 Responses to “Why Do You Work on Wall Street?”

  1. Jacob January 21, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Warren Buffet said in some interview or another that he would gladly do his job if they just kept him in an empty room and slid bread under the door now and then. Finance is attractive intellectually because it’s sort of one of those “meta” fields. Acting is a similar field. An actor doesn’t really care about physics, but if he’s playing Albert Einstein he has to learn enough about it to at least appear to understand his lines, and he has to get inside the role of being a physicist. An investor (or trader or financier or what have you) similarly probably doesn’t really care about solar power itself, but he has to know enough to have a good idea of what a solar company does exactly, and he has to figure out the human side of why people would buy solar. So fields like that are intellectually appealing because you get to sample all these other fields and start to understand the broader structure that knits them all together.

  2. downtown January 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    agree with all of this…the glamorous events and parties are few and far between. the work is the work, however, and you have to be genuinely interested in it to make it here.

    good post

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