Can a Wall Street Career Be Fulfilling?

by Derek Loosvelt | July 19, 2016

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There's no doubt that a career in investment banking, sales and trading, hedge funds, private equity, or venture capital can be, and almost always is, very lucrative. There are few other careers outside of Wall Street that pay, even to the most average employee, as much money over the length of a career. This is widely known, and few will dispute it. However, what is not as certain, and what is certainly up for dispute, is how fulfilling a career on Wall Street can be.

And the latest ex-Wall Streeter to chime on in this subject is Sam "Wealth Addict/Bro Talk" Polk, whose memoir, For the Love of Money, is now available on digital shelves ready to be read on sand-proof iPads everywhere (including on the South Fork of Long Island where, apparently, the largest and most racous Wall Street soirees are thrown each summer). Last week, in advance of his book's release, Polk, a former head trader at a hedge fund who walked away from his several-million-dollar-a-year job at the age of 30, gave a highly informative interview with Salon in which, among other things, he broke down what For the Love of Money is all about.

I would say that, in general, the book is about my awakening to a new definition of success that includes making an intentional contribution in the world. People sort of assume that I hate Wall Street, but I don’t. There were so many things that I loved about Wall Street, like how competitive it was, and how smart the people were, and how fun it was to basically play this huge video game for a living. But at the end of the day, the driving value system behind all of it was accumulating money for yourself. My fundamental realization on Wall Street was that, if that was the primary goal in my life, then I would never feel—call it what you will—“fulfilled,” “balanced,” or really, I would never feel like I had spent my brief years in the world wisely.

Polk emphasizes that he really has nothing against Wall Street itself. Rather, he has something against Wall Street as well as a host of other industries and careers. In other words, Wall Street isn't the only place where greed and hubris and a lack of career fulfillment thrive. It happens just as often in other places. Wall Street, says Polk, is like an essential oil.

In some senses, Wall Street is almost like the most concentrated and most emblematic of the type of capitalism that is rife and rampant in the world. And what I mean by that is there are so many industries—whether it’s the food business or the medical business or the oil business—that are really about creating wealth at the expense of other people. So I just think Wall Street is the most concentrated form of that.
But I do think there is responsibility there. When people go to Wall Street, they think that how you judge the quality of a job is basically whether you like your day-to-day skills. Is it fun to break down business reports? Is it fun to trade bonds and trade derivatives? And, if it is, then it’s a great career.
For me, I went through a process that was about saying, “OK, that stuff is fun. But when I start to situate myself in the broader context, then I have to face the reality that my whole job is about [increasing] profit margins and cutting down wages so that the companies I own securities in can be the most profitable. And all of it is about me basically accumulating without really producing anything except a good percentage return, on an annual basis.”

In other words, if you don't love and/or don't find much meaning in creating profit margins for others, then you might one day find yourself with little of something Polk refers to as happiness, and a lot of something that he calls sadness.

I’m very close friends with a lot of people on Wall Street. I got tons of emails from people on Wall Street saying they really identified with what I was doing [writing about his lack of fulfillment]. I can tell you this, incontrovertible—at least, in my own mind—there are not a lot of happy people on Wall Street. Most people I know on Wall Street are sad, or wish they were doing something else, or feel trapped by the money. So what I’m talking about, I think, has some resonance for them. And it doesn’t mean people have to … leave their finance careers. But it does mean taking responsibility and making space for the parts of themselves that aren’t acknowledged in Wall Street culture, currently.

And so, what are we supposed to make of Polk's position and the intent of his book? Is he onto something inherent in Wall Street's culture and thus careers on Wall Street? Does this something also hold true for careers in many other sectors of the corporate, capitalistic world? And/or is Polk speaking about the addictive allure and dark side of earning boatloads of money (Polk is, after all, a self-proclaimed wealth addict)?

A contrarian (and two Bloomberg analysts) might say to Polk and of his book, 'Suck it up, man. So your work isn't saving lives. You and your fellow Wall Streeters can take all that money you're making and go save all the polar bears in the world with it. And other jobs aren't exactly that spiritually satisfying either. Should I go into the tech industry and create stupid video games for people to play in the middle of night and risk getting shot at by their fellow citizens? Should I try to create the next best app to provide my fellow man with a more seamless way to receive his vodka? Etc.'

But, if you are feeling Polk's position, what might come to mind is this: 'I sure don't want to be like Sam Polk.' Which is not to say that you don't want to work on Wall Street but that you don't want to do something for too long before realizing you don't like that something and don't find it too fulfilling and are so far onto a path that you can't find your way back to the fork where you went wrong. And so, perhaps the takeaway here is something that we all can be doing right now, and not just those who work on Wall Street, and that something is this: Asking ourselves some rather difficult questions on a daily basis.

For example, no matter if you are in the final weeks of your first summer internship, or in your first few weeks of your first job after college or grad school, or wherever you are on your career path, you can start looking at your supervisors and those colleagues ahead of you in years and rank and ask yourself: Do I want to be in their shoes in x number of years? Do I want to be like them? Do I hope to be the type of people they are? Do I want to have the types of things and lives they have? Do I want to work on, think about, and say the types of the things they are working on, thinking about, and saying? Are there are other people in other career paths that might fit my personality and idea of fulfillment better?

In addition, you might ask yourself how you feel when you wake up and are getting ready to head off to your place of work each day. Am I looking forward to my day? If so, why? And, if not, why not?

And you can also ask yourself: Is the work I'm doing now, even if I don't love it, going to lead me to what I believe will be fulfilling work in the future? Of course, it isn't easy to determine how you will think in the future, and so you will have to engage in a lot of active imagination and abstract thinking. And there are no right answers. And you will have to keep checking in with yourself and keep asking and answering.

In any case, it seems likely that trying to answer these and other questions like them will lead you to a better understanding of what a fulfilling job looks like to you. And then, chances are, when you begin to find some concrete, clear answers to your questions, you'll begin to make moves to place yourself on a more fulfilling career path, and you will likely do so much sooner than Sam Polk did. Which, I believe, at its essence, is all Sam Polk's book is trying to accomplish.

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Filed Under: Finance | Job Search | Workplace Issues

Tags: career switching | hedge funds | sam polk | wall street | wealth addiction

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