Life lessons from an investment banker – No, it’s not what you think

Super stressful environments lead to wider insights into people’s behavior

What this post isn’t about:

It isn’t about how great it is to be an investment banker, or how glamorous or prestigious an investment banking career is, or how it fuels your ambition for knowledge and mastery over complex processes.

On the other hand, it isn’t about the opposite: how life is too short, how 120 work weeks for months, years, on end just simply isn’t sustainable, or how you’ve come to understand what true loneliness means because you have to spend Christmas by yourself (or with some colleagues) working, and can’t go home for the holidays.

What this post is about, after my 10 years in finance and most of that in investment banking:

It’s an extremely stressful environment where you spend all of your waking time, and extremely stressful environments bring out the absolute best, and the worst, in people.

Here’s some of what I’ve seen and learned.

What i’ve seen

I’ve seen:

  • …competition like you wouldn’t believe, at every level. From getting your foot in the door, to then distinguishing yourself against colleagues, to then fighting with other firms for millions of dollars in business and potential clients.
  • …managers, weirdly enough, compete against their own team, made up of juniors all working desperately hard to please them, by over-promising to clients and throwing said team under the bus, when they’re unable to meet impossible demands or deadlines.
  • …grown adults, both juniors and the top level directors, break down from stress and cry in front of me.
  • …incredible, deep wells of human strength, where teams I’ve been on delivered on impossible deadlines, pulling consistent all-nighters, and running on fumes for months.
  • …the absolute worst in human behavior. Patronising, demeaning, belittling acts; childish, petulant, and punitive behaviors, from top level directors and leaders of industry, to people on the same team. I’ve never understood that.
I love this photo, because it almost looks fake… but it actually isn’t dissimilar to what I’ve seen
  • …the opposite: coddling, or being too generous with one’s time.
  • …incredible bonuses that would make an outsider sick or angry.
  • …the recipient of these bonuses feel like it is entirely deserved, feeling like the money is commensurate with life drained and spent in exchange.
  • …the glamour of jet-setting across the world, from 30,000 feet, from business class, more times over than i can count.

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned:

  • …that competition is healthy, until it isn’t. People who call themselves “competitive” (usually at get-togethers, over board games) don’t actually understand “competitive”. I often smile internally and let them dominate whatever it is we’re doing because I genuinely don’t understand false competitive constructs.
  • …that you can suck it up for more things than you think. That actually, loneliness and missed holidays aren’t as big of a deal as I thought, and by next Christmas, you’ve already forgotten.
  • …that stress and sleep deprivation are no joke and can crack even the most seasoned professionals.
  • …that you can never tell who will crack, and who can still remain calm.
  • …you can’t get there any faster or better by shouting, belittling, demanding, adding additional pressures and deadlines.
  • …the person doing all that whip-cracking has severe personal issues and emotional deformities that have nothing to do with you, except that you’re unfortunately in the crosshairs.
  • …that you shouldn’t let someone cry on your shoulder or lean on you too much at the office, no matter your personal feelings. They need, and want, to sort their emotions out on their own, and maintaining professionalism, whilst at times difficult, serves you better in the long run.
  • …some people truly do get to the top by acting poorly, and as unfair as it is, it just isn’t up to you to do anything about.
  • …strangely enough, that I love economy class, in the weirdest of ways. Sure, I miss flat reclining travel, but it’s overrated and probably a bit un-ecofriendly.

I wish I could tell you, in so many words, that a career in IB has so much to offer, that its monetary and status remuneration is well worth it, but I can’t. What is admirable to some is repulsive to another.

What I can say however, is that over the years, I’ve watched others both in positions of power and in junior roles handle some pretty intense, stressful environments, and it’s almost impossible to not have been shaped by this. I think all this has made me a better person in the end – capable of resisting the negative influences, and accepting the less lauded positive ones, in the shaping of my own career over time.

It has made me a much more emotionally deep-welled, complex individual than I had anticipated.

I’ve asked myself, early on, what kind of manager will I be? What kind of leader will I be? And this is the value of my time in IB: it’s helped me to see such a wide spectrum of human experience that has helped me grow, I believe, in the right way.

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