10 Things I Learned About Life from My Career in Finance

Uncategorized Apr 19, 2017 No Comments

By Sanjay Shah

Most people know me as the founder of Autism Rocks. Maybe, on a good day, I’ll jog someone’s memory as one of the executive producers of Under the Shadow, an Iranian-British film that won the 2016 BAFTA for Outstanding Debut. (No thanks to me.)

Before I devoted my life to philanthropy and discovered autism as my signature cause, I worked in finance. After deciding I didn’t want to be a doctor, contra my parents’ fervent wishes, I went to work in the City—London’s buzzing financial district. I spent more than a decade climbing the ladder of global finance, barely pausing to catch my breath along the way.

I thought I’d take a jog down memory lane and share a few things I learned during my time in the high finance trenches. Take notes, kids.

1. It’s Not As Glamorous As It Looks

Think every finance job is glamorous? It’s not all Wolf of Wall Street out there. For every dash of glitz, there’s a heaping helping of drudgery and boredom.

When you first start out, you must be prepared to toil in obscurity. Unless you’re fortunate to have a very supportive boss—which certainly is not the norm—you’re going to do a tremendous amount of excellent work for which you receive precisely zero credit. In fact, others will very likely try to take your credit (and succeed).

As you rise through the ranks, this may change. But you’ll have to prove yourself first.

2. Be Prepared To Work Long Hours

Proving yourself inevitably means working long hours. Really long hours.

My back-office Merrill Lynch job, my first proper position in finance, pretty much killed my social life. For the duration, I basically lived in a basement (well, technically, a windowless aboveground floor); I’d often enter before dawn and leave after dark, and I felt more comfortable there than in my own flat.

My work-life balance improved as my career advanced, but I certainly won’t be accused of not paying my dues. And neither will you.

3. Learn Whom To Trust, Fast

One of the first lessons I learned in finance was also one of the most painful: Smiles don’t mean anything. You’re going to encounter lots of people who seem very nice. But there’s a big difference between being nice and being genuine. It’s on you to figure out who’s who—and defend yourself against those who charm you to your face, only to stab you in the back later.

4. Don’t Cut Corners

Insincerity is a cornerstone of, well, corner-cutting. At various points during your finance career, you’re going to be tempted to cut corners. Often, the matter at hand won’t seem consequential. But these things have a way of snowballing—or, at least, creating a permissive atmosphere in which breaking the rules becomes the norm. In the long run, it’s better to do your work correctly, even if the short-term calculus seems to suggest otherwise.

5. Know Where You Add Value

You have value. The question is, how can you best put it to use for your employer? After all, that’s why you’re there. When in doubt, ask your superiors—once. They’ll be happy to set you on course, as long as you don’t need to be told twice.

6. You Need To Keep Your Skills Sharp

The finance industry moves fast. Today’s 20-something university grads were barely born when I started out at Merrill Lynch. They wouldn’t recognise the world I lived and worked in, just as I struggle to adjust to theirs. I saw plenty of changes during my nearly 15 years in the trenches, and had I stayed fully engaged beyond 2008, I would have seen even more. In such a dynamic environment, the importance of keeping yourself relevant is a foregone conclusion. If you’re fortunate, your employer will help, but you can’t expect that.

7. It’s Better to Be Yourself

Even if you’re toiling in a quantitative subspecialty, you’re not an automaton. Nor are you expected to be. I know for a fact that I got my first job because I was personable and charming, not because I was immensely qualified for the work. I was blessed with soft skills from the start; the hard skills I built over time.

8. If You’re Prepared to Work Hard, You’ll Rise Fast

Remember those long hours? That’s the bare minimum. To catch your superiors’ attention and rise quickly, you need to do more. Always remain open to new projects and opportunities—and don’t worry about looking overeager when higher-ups ask you to take on new work.

9. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

This adage isn’t limited to the world of finance, but it’s especially appropriate in a high-risk, high-reward environment. The biggest wins of my career derived from risky moves that I spent plenty of time second-guessing. By the same token, the biggest near-misses of my career—the disasters that weren’t—occurred because I knew when to cut my losses and move on.

10. Expect the Unexpected

Hard work will definitely take you far in finance, but your path is unlikely to follow a straight line. On paper, my career trajectory appeared standard for someone my age in my line of work. But there were plenty of twists and turns along the way: clashes with superiors, department or company setbacks that ricocheted back on me, huge successes that advanced my career out of all proportion, and more.

Still thinking about a career in finance?

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