07/20/2010 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Don't Know About You, But Working At Goldman Sachs Sounds Like A Harrowing, Existential Ordeal

One of the items on offer in today's "Morning Take Out" on Dealbook is a link to a speech given by Alison Mass, "co-head of financial sponsors" at Goldman Sachs. She really, really loves her job! And so she came to NYU's Stern School to tell the assembled students and families at Stern's commencement how much she loves it loves it loves it!!

First let me state the obvious: I truly love my work. I wake up excited to come to the office each day. And yes..... I am completely sane. Look, obviously not every day is perfect. But, you better find a job that you love, or else long term, you won't be any good at it and you certainly won't have a long career.

There's something about having to remind people that you are compos mentis when you tell others that you love your work that makes one suspicious. But let's follow Mass down the rabbit hole a little further:

There's an all too familiar stereotype about those who inhabit the Wall Street world -- we're all supposed to be hard driving, high-intensity people, focused solely on making it big and retiring young. The idea of an intense, short-term career has a certain appeal for some, but I can honestly say that it never really did for me.

To me, that approach didn't allow room for much else in my life. And over time, I've come to realize that the shortest path isn't likely to be the most scenic one. I remember reading a poem about journeys and destinations, by the Greek poet Cavafy. It begins, "When you set out for Ithaka, ask that your way be long, full of adventures and knowledge.

Hmmm. I think I've seen the dark side of this story of adventure and knowledge, ably laid out by former Goldmanite and Naked Capitalism blogger Yves Smith in the most recent edition of The Baffler (available online at Naked Capitalism):

You do not know how hard you can work, short of slavery, unless you have been an investment banking analyst or associate. It is not merely the hours, but the extreme and unrelenting time pressure. Priorities are revised every day, numerous times during the day, as markets move. You have many bosses, each with independent demands and deadlines, and none cares what the others want done when. You are not allowed to say no to unreasonable demands. The sense of urgency is so great that waiting for an elevator is typically agonizing. If you manage to get your bills paid and your laundry done, you are managing your personal life well. Exhaustion is normal. On a quick run home en route to the airport after an all-nighter, a co-worker tried to shower fully clothed.


In my day, it wasn't uncommon for the firm to ask associates to reschedule weddings if they conflicted with a deal. It wasn't that firms were opposed to marriage; indeed, the partners knew a young man was theirs once he procured a wife and, better yet, kids. He was tied hopelessly into a personal overhead structure that would keep him in the business.

Back to Mass:

I have a quotation pinned above my desk in my office. The quote is from James Michener, and it captures eloquently what I mean by blending the different elements. He writes: "The Master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both."

Smash-cut to Smith:

Not that there was any real risk that someone would leave voluntarily. Exhaustion and loss of personal boundaries are an ideal setting for brainwashing, which is why people who have spent much of their career in finance have such difficulty understanding why their firm and their worldview might not be the center of the universe, why they might not be deserving of their outsized pay.

The finance community has other elements in common with cults. One is the implicit and explicit reinforcement of bankers' "specialness," their elite status. In how many lines of work do you get to meet with CEOs at a tender age, much less work on matters where hundreds of millions, often billion, are routine? Senior people in the investment banks are political fundraising heavyweights and sit on high-prestige nonprofit boards. Anyone of a Calvinist persuasion would be impressed.

Another parallel to cult indoctrination is that the demands of the job remove new hires from established friends and family and plunge them into a new environment. Most people who come to Wall Street are not New York natives, and the extreme and erratic hours make it difficult to maintain old ties. Season tickets are likely to be given away. Vacations (save for the week before Labor Day and the Christmas-New Year's period) are frequently rescheduled.

I'm not sure that James Michener ever intended his work to be used as a tether to reality. But Mass is in need of one, seeing as how she seems to live outside the construct of the standard, twenty-four hour day:

I typically work 70-80 hours a week. I'm also married, raising two children, I work out 3-4x per week and I make sure that I spend no less than 20 days a year on the ski slopes. I'm also on the Boards of three not-for-profit organizations in healthcare, arts and education and I still have dinner with my parents every Sunday night. (Let me repeat that for all of the Moms and Dads out there.... I still have dinner w/ my parents every Sunday night).

You see where this is going, right? She sort of reminds me of a woman from Smith's story:

One buddy, a vice president in hard-charging, testosterone-filled M&A, spent the better part of a weekend lying on her side on the floor of her office, reading deal documents. She kept reassuring concerned colleagues that she was fine, until the pain got so bad that she relented and called her boyfriend. He came and took her straight to the hospital. The doctors operated immediately, assuming she had appendicitis. They found instead diverticulitis, which usually afflicts the elderly, and she was so close to a colon rupture that they had to remove half of it.

The partners at her firm instructed her to not to return until she had recovered fully. But this was September. Bonuses were paid at year end, and as she read the unwritten code, and knew that staying away too long would be seen as a sign of weakness. She was back at the office three weeks later, looking wan.

She later became the first woman investment banking partner at her prestigious firm. Her instincts served her well. Or maybe not. She later lost 90 percent of the vision in one eye to glaucoma, an easily treated disease, because her overloaded schedule made eye exams seem like a luxury.

Mass apparently "achieves work/life balance" by falling back on her totemic faith in business school jargon:

I've actually come up with a model that helps keep me on track in this regard. In
business school, we learned about the "weighted average cost of capital" and the "capital asset pricing model". My idea is built on the same concept -- it's called the "weighted average week".

For a Type A person like me ... and I suspect I'm not alone here - it's hard to even consider not being outstanding at everything I do every day. But the truth is, that's just not possible. There are too many competing demands: a career, a husband, a family, volunteer work, recreation, friends... and so I've learned to accept that I cannot be an A+ at everything every day ... but I've also learned that I CAN be an A, on average, over the course of a week in my life.

I don't know about you, but this sounds like a terrible way to live your life. But I'll just take Mass' word for it. She loves her job! And she's totally sane, she swears! SERIOUSLY, SHE IS, SHE JUST IS.

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