* Yes, the title is from a Kelly Clarkson song. I’m not ashamed.
During the summer before my senior year of college, I did an internship at a large investment bank in New York. To get the job, I professed my love for DCF models and calculating betas. I made myself sound like the most interesting person in the world: “I enjoy reading Reuters.com, making data tables in Excel, and taking nonlinear walks along the beach. I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer A&W. That company’s got quite the cash flow.”
I suppose it worked. I accepted an offer from a prestigious bank in midtown Manhattan, working in equity research for the summer of 2006.
I thought I would need a few weeks to determine whether I’d find my calling in finance. But after just a few days, I already hated it. I hated the dress code, the formality, the hierarchy, and the Big Brother-ness of it all. I hated the work, which teetered between mundane and soul-sucking. Most days, I just felt like a highly-paid supermarket cashier, plugging in numbers and being rude. I quickly learned that there were three tenets of business: 1) Jerkiness is a coveted personality trait… 2) “Fuck” can be used as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, insult, directive, and occasionally, term of endearment… 3) Lastly, in order to fit in, you have to be strongly opinionated about HR, women leaders, and taxes. (The opinion must also be negative, although you can “support them in concept.”)
Throughout the summer, I felt like I was part of a giant sociological experiment, where you throw fifty impressionable college kids into (what I would consider) the worst job in the world (except, maybe, dairy farming) and record their reaction. The people who loved it also seemed to hate it as well, but they had all accepted that hatefulness was part of the job — therefore it was palatable. And for a summer at least, it was palatable, especially given the fact that we were well-paid, well-fed, and living in New York with an unlimited reign over the four-letter word dictionary.
Nearing the end of my two-month stint, I had to meet with HR (ugh) to discuss full-time opportunities. The bank was well-known for only hiring first-years from its summer intern class. Even though I knew, deep down, that I didn’t want to do this for two full years, I still wanted to get an offer. I still wanted to have a job lined up, even though I swore I wouldn’t take it. I wouldn’t. Even though it was a prestigious firm. I wouldn’t. Even though I’d built up a strong network. I wouldn’t. Even though I’d get to live comfortably in New York City. I wouldn’t. Or would I?
During my session with HR, I was bombarded with a barrage of questions that I hadn’t prepared for: “What are your three biggest weaknesses? What would you title your autobiography? Which historical figure do you identify with most?” To the last question, I blurted out “Abraham Lincoln,” after a long, awkward silence in which I contemplated whether Chairman Mao had any redeeming qualities. (For some reason, he’s the first “historical figure” that pops into my head.) After trying to justify to HR that Abe was a perfectly legitimate answer (“I see myself in him through his honesty…his passion for humanity…his log cabin roots”), I realized that I would always be better at BS-ing about Lincoln than modeling cash flows.
So when I got my full-time offer, I turned it down. I took another job, still in finance, but at a media company where I could learn to hone my creative talents. And now, two years later, as I’m coming to the end of my term, I have to make another decision — whether to stay in my backup plan, or to go ahead and do something crazy, like compare myself to Abraham Lincoln. Like eschew a stable finance career for the peripatetic life of a starving writer. I’m leaning towards the latter, because I’m finally ready to give it a real shot now. And I do truly believe that all things will work itself out in the end…
After all, the full-time offer I turned down, in the winter of 2006, was from Lehman Brothers.