Tag Archives: jobs

Work Diary, Sept. 30, 2009: The Daily (Bump And) Grind

24, female, Midtown Manhattan, working in corporate finance.  She often wonders if she peaked already, and is now just racing downhill in a speedboat full of misplaced ambition, yuppie angst, and terribly bad work habits.

8:15 AM – Rough Morning

I wake up feeling like there’s a small Mexican toddler in my belly.  That’s what a night of fajitas, rice, and sangria will do: impregnate you.

hpotter11:05 AM – He’s Actually a 12-Year Old Boy

I have a meeting with an IT guy who has action figures on his desk.  There is a GI Joe next to the family photo of his three kids.  I’m not judging… but, he also has a WWE folding chair.  I sit on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s face as he (the IT guy) explains the statistical properties of data matching.

11:45 AM – My Office Romance

Like many companies, we have to touch our ID card against a scanner to get into the office.  I have become so lazy that I’ve taken to hipchecking the scanner, because it’s too much work to pull out the ID from my pocket.  And when I have my ID in my back pocket, it’s like having a little bump and grind with the scanner: turn around, love tap, access granted, feeling good! 

…Of course, I only do this when I’m by myself.  Or else it would just be embarrassing.  

12:01 PM – Why I Haven’t Left Finance Yet

great-depression-soup-lineI walk outside to go to lunch and there is a huge line stretching the entire length of the street.  People are filling out job applications while they wait.  It harkens back to a Depression-era bread line, reminding me once again that jobs = food.  And even though I may dislike my job, I love food. 

12:40 PM – My Work Oasis in the Elevator

Back from lunch.  I love when I get into an elevator alone.  Usually I do some stretching.  Sometimes I sing.  “I Will Survive” is a favorite, especially given how rickety and slow the elevators are.  And because there are no (visible) security cameras in here, I feel completely justified in my elevator activities: everyone needs an outlet.

TOTALS: One hour of data mining, two work projects completed, six elevator rides, one elevator ride alone (“I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give”), and three love taps, with one interrupted by a co-worker who I can no longer look in the eye.


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I Want Them to Like Me For Who I Am… But, I Also Need a Job!

Last night, I decided to update my resume, which I hadn’t touched in over a year and a half.  The idealistic side of me hates the concept of a resume: after all, this one piece of paper is supposed to define who you are, how well you work, and whether or not you’d be interesting if stuck in an elevator.  Or, in summary, if we [the hiring firm] should even give you [the person with the pink, perfumed resume] a chance.


Click on this image to get a (potentially helpful) resume template

So in principle, I hate resumes, just because of my romantic belief that a person’s job fate should not be defined by a single piece of paper.  At the same time, I hate all the other alternatives to getting a job as well.  At Harvard, we used to have handfuls of networking events once recruiting season started in the fall.  These events were all invariably the same.  There were always drinks, a gaggle of suited representatives, piles of promotional materials, and the usual giveaways, like Nalgene bottles and mouse pads.  The best networking events also had food: typically an assortment of cheeses, fruits, and before the recession, finger food.

There were three distinct groups of people at networking events.  The first group was the Hustlers.  The Hustlers got business cards, kissed up to the senior representatives, and pounded out thank-you notes by the time they got back to their dorm room.  The second group was the Legacies.  The Legacies already had their job secured, whether it was because they’d interned at the firm last summer, or because their daddy was very powerful.  The Legacies would spend most of their time drinking free wine in the corner and talking about how many goldfish they’d ice-luged the night before.  The last group was the Eaters, of which I was mostly a part.  The Eaters were only at the event for the food.  Eaters had been to so many networking events that we had become connoisseurs of cheese.  We would gather near the kitchen door, position ourselves for the crab cakes to come out, and only talk to reps if we could score an invitation to a company-sponsored dinner.

cheeseplateOverall, networking at Harvard was what I imagine speed dating is like: you talk to a lot of people who try to make their job sound more exciting than it actually is, and you eat a lot of cheese.  The ultimate goal of a networking event?  To impress someone so much that you get a second date: an interview.

So, this is my advice to college graduates hoping to land a job.  In order to get your foot in the door, all you need to do is: a) Deliver a kick-ass resume, with perfect formatting and lots of action verbs, or b) Act like a Hustler at a networking event.  Again, while my idealistic self would like to add in c) Just be yourself, I think that probably works about as well in recruitment circles as it does in speed dating.  That is, it doesn’t.

Happy job/woman/man huntin’!

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Thanksgiving on Wall Street

thanksgivingWith the holiday season rapidly approaching, we are all looking forward to seeing our loved ones.  Thanksgiving is a time to catch up with old friends, hang out with obscure members of the family, and gorge ourselves on mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and turkey and tofurkey.  Of course, Thanksgiving is also a time to stretch the truth about how amazing our lives actually are, in order to one-up our cousins and give our parents something to brag about.  So, in order to impress Uncle Jerry and crazy Aunt Lisa, here are some responses that may be better than the cold hard truth.

Crazy Aunt Lisa: “So, what are you up to these days?”

You: “Well, I’m working in New York at [prestigious company] as a credit derivatives trader.” 

(Translation:  I’m probably going to be unemployed soon.)

Crazy Aunt Lisa: “Wow, that sounds mighty impressive!  So you work in one of those tall, shiny skyscrapers?  What do you do as a trader?”

You: “Essentially, we run complex financial risk models and look for arbitrage opportunities.  My personal responsibility is to oversee all the trades that come through my desk.  Right now we’re in a bit of a liquidity crunch, as I’m sure you’ve heard, so even though it’s been tough, we are working through it.”

(Translation: I spend most of the day trying to break down the firewall that prevents me from checking my fantasy football stats.  At lunch, I serve as the designated pizza bitch for the traders on the floor who are actually making trades.  A few months ago, I used to carry six or seven pizza boxes back to the office.  Now, given the tanking credit markets, I’m ordering by the slice.  The rest of the day, I take bathroom naps and think about how I spent $120,000 on my education to get to this point: where, after a year on the job, I am a glorified delivery person with a Brooks Brothers suit and the financial modeling skills of an orangutan.) 

orangutanCrazy Aunt Lisa: “My goodness… and at such a young age!  So do you get to see friends a lot, given your busy job?”

You: “Even though the job is demanding, I definitely try and make time to see my friends.”

(Translation: If I didn’t see my friends, I would jump out the window of my shiny office building.)

Uncle Jerry: “How are you all liking New York?  Are you staying out of trouble?”

You: “Oh, of course.  My friends and co-workers are all young professionals, and we are always trying to do something different in the city.  There is so much culture in New York.”

(Translation: Yesterday I woke up sprawled outside my apartment door with the imprint of my floor mat on my cheek.)

Crazy Aunt Lisa: “That sounds like so much fun!  You are just so accomplished already… I hope [your screwup cousin] can follow your lead. Do you know of any job openings there?”

You: “I can talk to the HR rep about it.  Getting into the business is tough right now given the market, but I will check, definitely.”

(Translation: I would not wish this job on anyone.  Not even my screwup cousin.)

Uncle Jerry: “So, do you think this is it?  Found your calling?”

You: “Well I’ve enjoyed the work, and it’s been a great learning experience so far… I’m not sure I want to settle on anything just yet, because I’m still young, but I’ve learned a lot about myself.”

(Translation:  I’m peacing out after two years.  I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I know that it’s not this…)

Crazy Aunt Lisa: “Sounds like you have it all figured out!  To be so young and so driven… what a success!”

You: “Yep, that’s me… Could you please pass the sweet potatoes?  And take some more of my BS… I’ve had too much.”

Crazy Aunt Lisa: “Of course, dear.

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Having a Career vs. Having a Life: Mission Impossible?

We’ve talked before about defining success… now that we have an idea of what success means to us, how do we go about achieving it? If we want to focus on our career, can we have a personal life too? If we want to focus on family, can we still succeed in our jobs? Is it possible to “have it all”?

No: Simple economics tells us that we can’t. Like the graph below shows, every hour spent working is one hour less at home. It can be reasonably assumed that achieving professional success requires an enormous investment in time: an article about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers describes his theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to succeed at a given skill. “The greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians and scientists emerge only after spending at least three hours a day for a decade mastering their chosen field.” Within business, many varied skills are necessary in order to climb the corporate ladder. For all the hours we spend working, networking, and honing our communication skills, our lives can easily start to revolve solely around our jobs. Given that there are a finite 24 hours in a day, we must make sacrifices if we want to be a CEO, or a doctor, or secret agent Ethan Hunt. Whether that means spending less time with friends, cutting back dates with a significant other, or taking fewer vacation days to visit family, we face tradeoffs.

Yes: While people do face tradeoffs, “having it all” is not a simple matter of time. Just as extra hours spent at work may not increase our productivity, extra hours spent at home may not improve our relationships. Economics only goes so far: we do have to make concessions with our time, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that success in our career and our personal life is mutually exclusive. Working fifteen hour days may leave us only with a few hours to ourselves, but we can accomplish a lot in a few hours. The quality of our time is far more important than simply having the time itself. Although we may need to put in extra effort to ensure that we are making the most of our spare moments with friends and family, this must be expected with the life we wish to lead. And in the beginning stages of our careers, true friends will understand that perhaps our jobs may come first.

In the end, I think the second graph is probably most accurate, as it is possible to fall along any area on this spectrum. While all of us would like to be in the first quadrant, it does take work and sacrifice. This sacrifice, however, is not choosing between your personal life and your job. Instead, it relates to prioritizing within our professional and personal lives: “having it all” is not the same as “doing it all.” With limits on our time, we may not always be able to do everything we want to do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our work/relationships will suffer as a result.

Lastly, this past week on Grey’s Anatomy, we saw the overworked Dr. McDreamy land on the cover of a medical journal while keeping his romance alive with kidney-dropping Meredith. We also saw Michael and Holly consummate their relationship on The Office, bringing workplace romance back to Scranton. Thus, from the annals of fake hospitals and fake paper companies, these are just a few examples of intersecting professional and personal success stories. Given that I take all my cues from Thursday night TV, is it possible then to “have it all”? Clearly, yes.

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Always Doing What is “Practical” = Boring

Many people like to give job advice along the lines of being “practical.” Choose a major in college that is “practical”. Do internships and pursue work in industries that are “practical.” Being practical often refers to majoring in a field that will get you a job. It’s taking a job that will pay you well and get you further along some sort of practical career path to success. It’s the road most traveled.

The benchmark of practicality is often related to salary, job security, and chance for some kind of success. Acting and writing is not practical. Banking and marketing is. Unpaid work is not practical unless you’re trying to better position yourself for business school, law school, or med school. Practical jobs are steady, pay well, and will lead to other well-paying, steady jobs. The impractical jobs are risky.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing to be practical. But when is being “practical” just another synonym for being “safe”? After all, success does not always come from practicality. Dropping out of Harvard was probably not a safe move, but it worked out well for Bill Gates, Matt Damon, and Mark Zuckerberg. Quitting a stable job to write a novel worked out for JK Rowling. Will Smith turned down MIT to launch his singing and acting career.

Then again, our practical side reminds us that there are just as many (if not more) failed writers, singers, and Harvard dropouts who faded into oblivion by forsaking a more judicious, traditional path. A few years ago, I was at the UPS store in Cambridge when the guy packing my boxes mentioned he had gone to Harvard. He had been a chess champion, dropped out to pursue a career in chess, but failed to make it on the international circuit. Now he was working at UPS to support himself, while writing a book on chess and his travels.

There was a part of me that thought, “Wow, this guy went to Harvard and is now working at UPS and packing my boxes… what a failure.” But as he cheerily stuffed bubble wrap inside my boxes, the UPS guy told me about his travels around Europe, a chess match he had in the Soviet Union, and his hope that his writing would eventually land him a book deal. His life experience sounded far more interesting than anyone I know who had taken the boring old, “safe” route.

I’m not sure I could do what the UPS guy did and shove aside all thoughts of practicality: I think that our perception of success is still too easily determined by job titles and salaries and risk aversion. But there is financial success and professional/personal success, and perhaps we too often focus on the former. So, if we can get around the inclination to link what is practical to some narrow definition of success, then maybe taking the road less traveled won’t seem so risky after all.

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What Does It Take to Be Successful?

Having attended many business panels and conferences, I’ve always hated it when people ask a panelist, “What does it take to be successful?” First, I dislike it because the questioner assumes that there’s a simple path that leads to success: do this, this, and this, and you’ll have yourself a prosperous career. And, I also hate it because the respondent will inevitably give a typical answer about hard work, diligence, perseverance, etc.

If I were to re-phrase the question, I believe that defining “success” is far more insightful than talking about “what it takes”. When we were younger, most of us started out with the belief that success was something tangible: good grades, prestigious schools, high-paying jobs, and climbing up the corporate ladder. After all, we can show off our gold stars and shiny plaques and BMWs. Success stories followed a linear path, and always ended with riches.

study hard = good grades = good college = good job = $$$ = SUCCESS

But, now that we’re older, there may be different end goals that drive us. We may want to spend more time with our family, cultivate relationships, and build quality friendships. We may not want to work more than 40 hours a week. We may seek gratification outside work to define our interpretation of success.

Overall, I believe that most people fall into two camps. Those who are “Type A” think that professional success begets personal success. They believe in the formula above, that hard work and its resulting career will yield further opportunities and happiness. Those who are “Type B” think that personal gratification is more important than professional success. They believe in optimizing time spent with family and friends, rather than a life solely focused on our career goals.

Some people are just so accustomed to external definitions of success that they end up working only for their careers, titles, and paychecks, becoming Type A by default. Others are Type A out of necessity, working to provide a better future for themselves and their kids. They tend to see Type B folks as lazy, unmotivated, wastes of potential. At the same time, those who are Type B tend to think that the other side is made up of friendless, soulless, cutthroat workaholics who will end up sad and alone.

However we define our success, we are still not immune to what others think of us. In particular, high-profile women are often saddled with societal pressure to conform to a Type B archetype. As much as I disagree with her politics, I agree that Sarah Palin should have the right to accept the VP nomination, even if she just had a baby with Down syndrome. I agree that Hillary shouldn’t have to apologize for being ambitious, and Michelle Obama shouldn’t have to show off her softer side in order for people to like her.

So… what does it take to be successful? Well, what do you want out of life? A high-flying career? A happy family life? Are these two mutually exclusive? Can we have a healthy combination of Type A and Type B? And do we have to cater to what society thinks as well?

It’s a question that can’t just be answered with hard work and diligence.

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Why Do Young People Hate Their Jobs?

Most college students I have talked to are excited about the real world after school – excited about the work, the perks, but most of all, the freedom. In the real world, there are no tests or papers looming over their heads, no professors to answer to, no dealing with the stresses and dramas that invariably accompany the college experience. Yeah, college is fun, but there’s almost a mythic quality about life beyond college: it’s substituting the sweats for suits, the kegs for martinis, the hookups for a steady, sickeningly-attractive significant other… While college seniors go through the requisite nostalgia in their last few months as an academic, this nostalgia is still often dampened by lofty expectations for the next stage in their life.

Why then, do so many young professionals hate their jobs?

(I must preface this by limiting my observations to those in the field of business. Most would-be doctors I know are happily trucking away in med school, most would-be lawyers are busily debating each other in law school, and for the rest of my graduating class—those who are doing research in Bolivia or writing articles for Mother Jones—they seem, on the most part, relatively satisfied. Then that begs the question: are jobs in the business fields overly cruel, or are those people that go into business just overly hateful? Note: This observation also excludes investment bankers, who should expect to hate their jobs even before they start.)

Some theories:

  • The College Hangover: For many young people, you’re thrown into the fire right out of school. You’re not used to waking up before noon and having to look somewhat presentable. You’re not used to being “on” all the time, every single day, at least five days a week. If only you could skip work without anyone noticing (like college lectures), and still get your big performance bonus…that would be the life. Of course, that would never happen, and thus the nostalgia for college never really goes away. However, the College Hangover only serves as a legitimate excuse for your first few months out of school… After that, if you’re still falling asleep at work in reminiscence of those college glory days, well, you should lay off the drinking.
  • The Bottom of the Totem Pole: You were a pretty big deal in college… president of some organization, captain of some sports team, leader of the beer pong circuit. Now, you’re the entry-level analyst who is seen as the little know-it-all who wants to shoot straight to the top, but in actuality is only making a contribution as a master formatter or lunch bitch. You’re relegated to modeling (thankfully we’re talking only about Excel), and making sure that someone less smart than you looks more smart than everyone else. Of course, no one is as smart as us, so it’s a tough reality to stomach.
  • Those Lofty Expectations: You thought it was going to be first-class, up in the sky, sipping champagne, living the life… Your job was supposed to be glamorous, impressive, and telling of your smarts, skills, and talents. You thought that you’d be challenged every second of the day; you would have interesting coworkers, exciting projects, and intellectual discussions. You’d be an integral part of the company, just short of the glue that holds everything together. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have interesting projects all of the time, and we certainly know a couple of coworkers who have a few screws loose. We don’t foresee the hours of administrative tasks and unrewarded legwork that is part of the daily grind. You start asking yourself why you are here, what you are doing with your life, and how you can get into a new role/company/industry that is way more glamorous than what you are in now…or so you’d like to think.
  • Too Much Freedom: When you’re young, there’s an ordered sequence of how things happen. After pre-school you go to kindergarten. After kindergarten, you’re in first grade. After first grade… etc, etc. The proverbial “life train” goes through a predictable sequence: elementary school, middle school, high school, college—from A to B. But after graduating from college, you’re alone at the train station, and only YOU have to figure out where to next. Get on the banking train, or the consulting one? Marketing, or sales? It always seems like the other train is moving faster, with nicer seats and greener grass on their side of the scenic route to your future. Anxiety strikes. Uneasiness festers. Resentment grows. You end up curled up in the corner of the caboose, hugging your knees, thinking you should have become a doctor instead… at least that would’ve delayed the decision-making for a few more years.
  • Your Job Actually Sucks: If you liked the train analogy above, then your standards for quality have obviously been lowered from your time spent on the job. Maybe all that modeling/formatting/Excel-ing is getting to your head. Or maybe your job actually sucks. Hey, it happens. Perhaps it’s time to go to business school then.

Regardless of all the reasons why many people hate their jobs, most of them are still in these jobs…so perhaps “hate” is a strong word. Only a few recent graduates I know have been so fed up that they decided to quit well-paying, respectable jobs and brave unemployment. Then, despite all the negatives, there must be some reason why we are still in the grind. Maybe it’s the money, or the benefits and perks, or the hope that things will get better. Or perhaps we are just paralyzed by fear that the next job will be worse. The main challenge is to balance the expectations of our jobs with a tempered ambition. There will always be days where unemployment looks preferable, but unless that starts to happen day-after-day, week-upon-week (meaning, Your Job Actually Sucks and you should start updating that resume), I’d say to just put your head down, put the hate aside, file it all under “Learning Experience”, and get to work.

Update (3/30/09): Why Do Young People Stay in Jobs They Hate?



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