Thursday, April 10, 2014

The School of Hard Knocks

My GPA is Fuhgeddaboutit
Power Figure, Kongo Peoples, 19th C.
I am no student (We’re going down to meet
Feel those vibrations) Of ancient culture
(I know a neat excavation)
Before I talk
I should read a book
But there’s one thing
That I do know:
There’s a lot of ruin
In Mesopotamia

— The B-52s, “Mesopotamia

Megan McArdle penned an impassioned plea last week for the (presumably elite, corporate, Bloomberg-View-reading)1 employers of America to consider hiring more ex-slackers. Notwithstanding her acknowledged bias as a self-described ex-slacker herself, Ms McArdle argued this made sense for two reasons: first, young slackers do not necessarily stay slackers as they age, and second, hiring the alternative—highly professionalized, directed, ambitious careerists—tends to result in fragile corporate monocultures which are subject to their own risks and flaws, including social and intellectual conformity and groupthink.

I am less persuaded by Ms McArdle’s first rationale. In my experience there are all kinds of slackers, including potentially promising ones who dicked around in their youth because they were restless and bored by the cookie cutter path of adolescence and completely irredeemable ones who dicked around because they were lazy bastards who preferred (and will always prefer) to get high on tasty weed rather than do their homework or take out the garbage. I guess the operative screen is ex-slacker, since someone who actually gets her shit together and tries to make something of herself does deserve a real opportunity. Like Ms McArdle, though, ambitious ex-slackers have a lot of proving to do.

Her second rationale resonates strongly with me, however. Over the course of my more than two-decade long career in investment banking, I have read the job applications and interviewed hundreds of young candidates for entry level Financial Analyst and Associate positions at a number of firms of different size, prestige, and culture. Over that same period, I have seen an increasing convergence in the kinds and qualifications of these candidates: predictably good or stellar grades in unobjectionable mainstream majors like finance, business, or economics, predictably hyperactive extracurricular activities centered around “leadership” building opportunities, and predictably careerist charitable and community service activities which only Scrooge could object to. My typical reaction to such candidates is ably captured by David Brooks:
When you read these résumés, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity. Either they have no desire to chart out an original life course or lack the courage to do so.
Now normally this is not these children’s fault. It is what they have been told to desire and groomed to accomplish their entire lives. But, with all due respect to Megan McArdle’s Harvard friends with 4.0 GPAs, my God these people are boring.

Most of them, if they ever had a personality or original thought in their head in the first place, have hammered it down so deep into their subconscious they couldn’t summon it on pain of death. Their résumés, their bearing, and their polished interview patter render them about as distinguishable and interesting to talk to as Brooks Brothers mannequins. Nothing in their conversation or revealed background indicates any appetite for adventure, risk, or enlightenment. Nothing they can relate indicates they have tried something they didn’t know they could succeed at, risked failure for a good reason (or any reason at all), or simply gave themselves up to powers greater than themselves—love, fate, chance—just because. They haven’t lived at all. They’ve followed a career path.

I call them carbon sinks.2

* * *

Now the more charitable among you (as well as the helicopter parents who spawned these pathetic simulacra of humanity) will object I am being too harsh on these special snowflakes. You will remind me they are young, and hence pathetically stupid and naïve about the world and their true opportunities in it. Give them time and space, you plead, and these button-downed zombies will blossom into fulfilled and meaningful personalities. You will scold me for dismissing naturally interesting and unusual individuals because they are too wise (or afraid) to run up their freak flags in an interview with a curmudgeonly old white man at a potential future employer. You will complain that I only seek for such adventurers and renegades because I miss my own long-lost adventuring, and I want to relive my halcyon youth in these eager tyros’ stories for the space of a half an hour.

And you would be right. A tiny, tiny bit. But not much. Because I am experienced and clever enough to know how to winkle most such secrets out of the prepackaged dross of most college and business school graduates, if they exist. But they usually don’t. The polished husk you see is usually all there is. And my youthful gallivanting is not something I need or want to recapture in the glazed eyes of some nervous, dissembling twenty-two year old.

No, I look for evidence of intellectual independence, untrammeled curiosity, and adventuresomeness because these are really, really valuable traits in a professional investment banker. A young person who has deviated from the beaten path, who has taken risks, who has ventured to explore something unknown is far more likely to develop the mental flexibility, toughness, and adaptability that will make him or her a valuable counselor and advisor to his or her clients. Sure, these traits are largely useless in the beginning of any investment banker’s career, when they are and must be suppressed in order to satisfy the pressing demands of intellectual drudgery and unimaginative detail work that investment banks expect of their indentured chattel. But they re-emerge later on, as a young banker increasingly grows into the role of a pure salesman who must earn the respect and trust of his or her clients, colleagues, and peers.

And when you do this, a youth spent stretching the envelope and taking risks comes back to pay dividends all out of proportion to its actual extent. For one thing, you have a lumber room of stories which you can share with your clients and colleagues over dinner and drinks that will make them laugh and look at you admiringly. You will not be boring. For another, you are likely to genuinely appreciate these very clients’ and colleagues’ own youthful peccadilloes, which will only endear you to them as a non-judgmental, non-asshole, which is a sadly rare commodity in my business. Most importantly, taking risks and exploring the unknown—whatever form that may take—will likely increase your store of that deeply unfashionable and socially awkward characteristic: wisdom. As Ms McArdle herself avers,

When the prodigal sons return to the fold, they often bring with them valuable information about the outside world.
Wisdom is nothing to sneer at in a professional advisor, much less in a normal human being.

* * *

So what does this mean for the average ambitious youngster reading these words? Well, it means I heartily recommend taking a flyer or two, mixing it up, and actually trying to explore who you are and what you want out of life other than a prestigious, well-paying job at Stereotype Brothers, LLC. For one thing, you may find out to your chagrin after 22 years of prepping for Goldman Sachs that you really want to be a professional chef. Or a skydiver. Or a paleobotanist. Your whole life is ahead of you. I’ve asked this before: why should you put all your youthful energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm into a basket you’re not sure you want to carry?

Plenty of college students nowadays—perhaps too many, in this old man’s opinion—spend all their time and energy in college acquiring what they believe to be marketable skills, without considering for a minute whether the employment to which they aspire is right for them, will exist in a meaningful form in the future, or even will hold their interest for more than a few years.

But don’t get me wrong, either. Taking risks, avoiding the beaten path, and cultivating adventure is not an easy road. It’s certainly no guarantee of success.3 But is conventional success all you want out of life? Please say no.

It is the brave ones who are not afraid to expose themselves to risk, earn scars, and take hard knocks who make the most interesting humans. And even if you stick to the halls of commerce, I bet you’ll find a lot more risk takers and nonconformists among the ranks of the truly successful than Harvard 4.0s.

Guess who they’d rather talk to over a beer at 3:00 am.

Related reading:
The Standard Model (February 18, 2012)
No Country for Young Children (October 21, 2012)
Curriculum Vitae (March 10, 2013)

1 As opposed, say, to the vast unwashed non-elite, non-Bloomberg-View-reading firms who have to compete for their employees in less exalted realms.
2 As in somewhere a carbon atom goes to wait for 30 to 60 years before it can do something interesting, like get sucked into a supernova. Or become a charcoal briquet.
3 For one thing, if you do decide you want to get into investment banking, you’re going to have to run a gauntlet of dozens of junior bankers who are just as blinkered and one-dimensional as the straw men I have been eviscerating in this post. And very few of them, by definition, will be able to appreciate your non-conformity to the career model and professional values they have staked their entire young lives upon. I can’t tell you how many polite arguments I’ve had in group recruiting meetings with tyros who only want to hire (really smart, really accomplished) cardboard cutouts like themselves. And I don’t always win. Caveat interviewee.

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