A Letter To Analysts: On Surviving Investment Banking

Survival is defined as the condition of continuing to live, usually despite challenging circumstances. And challenging they are for the underprivileged caste of initiates embarking on a journey of financial wizardry. For theirs, is a path beset with veiled violence, false hopes and some level of hair-loss.

Recently, I came across a very stimulating quote from the American author Louis L’Amour. It read: “Knowledge is like money and to be of value must circulate.” That got me thinking. If I fail to share my knowledge then, true, I will remain sole shareholder of it; but it will be an insignificant shareholding. Similar to an idea, I suppose. Ideas have no value. That is, until they’re put to work.

The words of the late novelist moved me.

I am now compelled to do something about it.

Lest the little I know falls anymore in value, I have decided to share a few words with incoming classes of investment banking analysts the world over. May it offer them a lifeline in times of need and desperation. Alas, times they will unquestionably face.

—————-

To my yet unblemished young soul,

The world around us is replete with words of advice related to the workplace. Throughout your short yet dignified life you have no doubt been advised to maintain a healthy diet, remain physically active and to make time to see friends and family. A wiry friend of yours of an earthy predisposition may have even convinced you to practice yoga in an unusually sultry room. I am afraid my advice will bear little resemblance to anything you’ve heard thus far.

What I present to you, below, is based on knowledge of the actions of great bankers, whom I have closely watched over the years. Here, I have done my utmost best to encapsulate the best of their strategies and cunning methods into a concise and digestible list.

What qualifies me to write this short piece, you may ask yourself. Firstly, I have breathed, fought and eaten in the den of financial gladiators. I have stood in the arena shoulder to shoulder with fellow bankers, many of whom perished early in their careers and went on to practice lesser arts. During that time I carefully observed the most senior and influential members of the audience above, in order to discern their tastes and motivations. Do not forget, it is they who bestow upon you the gift of life, death and the bonus. Secondly, I have also sat in the stands, from where I attentively watched gladiators below. During my observations, common traits emerged amongst the superior class of men and women who battled in the den. Those who became victors. Masters of the game whose every step riches followed.

Your time in a bank is short. And will likely end just as you begin to truly appreciate the tricks of the trade. What use will that knowledge be to you when you are no longer a banker? Therefore, please accept this humble offering. That it may afford you the advantage of hindsight I have gained.

What follows are guiding principles you should always keep in the back of your mind. They will not make your stay in a bank comfortable or pleasant – such miracles are the subject of schoolchild fantasies. They will, however, help you survive.

I. Sitting on a Chopstick

Man or woman cannot predict the course of his or her life, much less what happens within a bank, where there is a confluence of hyper frenzied activity, magnified emotion and heightened self-interest.

Take a stressful episode in your life. Consider the pressure and tension you shouldered. Recall the pain it caused. Now square it. Then, imagine it recurring several times a day, unannounced. Without the slightest warning. That will be your life the moment your gluteus maximus gently kiss your chair at work for the first time.

There, the stakes are larger; the rewards greater; the competition more brutal; and life shorter. Consequently, the stress higher. Within such an unpredictable environment one is bound to be taken by surprise, repeatedly. Especially in the early days. And those shocks slowly grind you down. Hence making you more vulnerable to victimization. Eventually, giving way to a firing or voluntary resignation.

Subjects of the bank are normally capable of dealing with difficulty if they see it coming, for there is preparation time. But it’s the unpredictable nature of stressful incidents incessantly occurring at work that quickly separates the strong from the weak.

The strong, who survive, never become complacent. They are constantly alert. Even those of them who outwardly appear at peace. There is a reservoir of activity – machination, care and concern – running through their mind. They expect the unexpected. So much so that they learn to love it. Their apprehensive constitution enables them to sit and balance on a chopstick. The weak, on the other hand, at some point become self-satisfied. And as soon as they relax…well, the chopstick disappears.

II. Creating Yodas

I have seen in my time some of the most embarrassing imbeciles known to finance hold on to their seats while other, more learned and capable young bankers were culled en masse like poultry in the aftermath of a bird flu epidemic. To the untrained eye, how so many fools manage to survive is a bewildering mystery. Yet upon close inspection one finds there is always a protector, usually a senior and influential banker, behind the scene casting a protective shadow over their subordinate.

Where competition is fierce, currying favour is a fact of life. Obsequious behavior, however, is easily seen for what it is, particularly by experienced bankers. Flattered as veterans may be by sycophants who shower them with adulation, the former will not lift a finger to protect the latter when jobs are on the line. Those pathtetic peons are tantamount to court jesters. They make the king laugh for some time. When they cease to be funny, they get their head chopped off.

The most skilled analysts are subtle in the way they build relationships with those they hope will be there for them in times of danger. They nurture the connection carefully, demonstrating loyalty whenever possible but in unsuspicious doses; they never ignore their protector’s rank even as their relationship evolves and will calculatingly and sparingly support the master-slave dynamic at play, which every powerful person – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – secretly loves; they will boast to their protector but only insofar as their achievement is illuminated in relation to their peers, and, in doing so, will also manage to indirectly credit the protector.

An outstanding analyst will not seek a protector. He or she will create one.

III. Changing Oulook

Stress cannot be eliminated. The person who tells you it can ought to be slapped. Twice. One time for lying to you. And another time for thinking they can get away with it.

A life devoid of stress is impossible. It’s a part of everyday living. Managing stress, though, is very much possible. And there are few better ways to deal with it than to change your overall outlook. Two simple yet invaluable tools can help you in that respect. The first is a concept known as Sarnevesht. A word that means destiny in Persian. The second has to do with life.

1) Sarnevesht (destiny): quite the evocative word, is it not? The literal translation is ‘written on the head’. In other words, some things are beyond your control and have already been decided. Call it what you will, destiny, chance, fate, the universe, a higher power, etc. How can you predict that one morning, exactly 100 days after you join the bank, you will turn a corner on your way to the bathroom and bump into a senior member of human resources, causing the folder they’re carrying to fall to the floor, and as you bend down to help the lady pick up her papers your eyes meet and she examines your face, and for a split-second you remind her of the bastard who recently mistreated her sweet, lovely and innocent daughter? Or that later that afternoon as she reviews the list of analysts in line to be fired, she goes on a vendetta against you and suggests to the head of your team that another analyst “needs to go from the team.” And with some persuasion ensures that victim is none other than you.

The sooner you accept that you are an insignificant part of a highly unpredictable universe, the sooner your temperament will equip itself to weather the storm you will face in banking life.

2) Life: there is no elegant way to say it. You’re not going to live forever. One day you will take your last breath and cease to exist. When that will happen is a mystery. What’s indisputable, is that you’re headed in that direction now, as you read these very words. Every second you inch your way closer to the end. Correspondingly, time is the most significant resource you have. To waste it is one of the greatest crimes imaginable.

We are given a limited amount of time. But there is a way to pack hundreds of years into one. By choosing to live our life meaningfully and to do what we truly want. Importantly, also, to be very cautious about the state of busyness, which is perpetual in the world of high finance. The danger with it is that it is the most treacherous and stealthy of thieves. Before you know it, ten, fifteen or even twenty years have passed. Just being busy. Therefore, when you feel the job is no longer worth it, simply step away. That choice is yours and never forget it. The truth is, you hold all the power. They just don’t want you to know. You will be indoctrinated to think that you have the greatest role in the world and that without it you are nothing. But it is they who are nothing without you.

They say that right before you leave this world a series of images will flash before your eyes, such as the first time you kissed your wife or husband, the moment you first held your child or a time you ran through a field of wheat in the summer as a youngster and had the sun shining in your face. Who knows if that’s true. But assuming it is, I assure you that on your deathbed, the image of your line manager giving you a thumbs up after you pulled three allnighters in a row won’t be one of them. Perhaps the look on his face as you’re seated across the table from one another after you hand in your resignation, pivot on one buttock and let out a massive fart goodbye causing his chin to practically hit the floor…that will bring a beautiful smile as the next life welcomes you.

One thought on “A Letter To Analysts: On Surviving Investment Banking

  1. Nick V. says:

    Hi,
    reading your blog for a while now, its awesome by the way, I wanted to ask you where you, and what you´ve actually studied.

    Kind regards
    Nick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *