Advice for a friend starting out in the world of finance

Sat, 20 Jun 2015

One of my friends is part way through a maths degree, and has got himself his first job in finance, for over the summer.  I was thinking about what advice I’d give him, having been in that position myself, and watched a lot of people go through it.  

In the hope that other people might find it useful, I decided to make it a blog post (I hope my friend doesn't mind - though I won’t mention the name of the friend or the company).

Firstly, congratulations. Having got yourself into a position in life where a commercially minded organisation think you are useful, or at very least worth investing in, is a good thing. It isn't the only thing that matters, but you should be happy about it.

Finance jobs pay a lot of money, relative to other jobs. You can try to argue that they deserve it because they work long hours or have lots of stress, or require lots of study - but plenty of other jobs have more hours/stress/qualifications.  I believe it is just a side effect of how the markets work (and that is difficult to fix without creating other undesired consequences).

I’m not saying you need to feel guilty about earning your pay.  Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that people who are paid more are inherently better or even economically more valuable than others.  Don’t develop a self-esteem around how much you get paid.  And try (even though it’s difficult) not to develop a lifestyle that relies on you having larger amounts of money than everyone else around you.

I’m not totally sure of the point of work, but I think it makes sense to maximise the real value you can add to other people and the world.  That should be a long term strategy, so you want to make sure you are working sustainably (ie you don’t want to burn out).  And it makes complete sense to invest time in developing skills and capabilities so you can add more value in the future.

So, in the early stages of a career, it is important to get a balance between adding immediate value and improving your ability to add value in future. If there’s a conflict trade-off between short term and long term value, I tend to treat the short term value as a constraint (I try to ensure my short term value exceeds my cost) and treat the long term value as what I’m optimising.

A lot of people have in their heads that work can’t be enjoyable.  On the contrary, I’d say that the people who add the most value in the world tend to really enjoy their jobs.  It is a lot easier to persist at something and develop skills if you enjoy what you are doing.  So, work at being very mindful of what things you enjoy doing and what things you don’t.  You won’t get to do just the things you like, at least at the start, but the more you can work towards doing the things you like doing, the happier you’ll be.

The next thing I’d say is about the importance of being both professional and genuine.  Your colleagues will want to see that you are there to help get a job done, and without being able to know what you are thinking, your professionalism is how they will judge that (particularly before you get a track record).  But if you are not genuine or sincere in how you are or how you treat people, you’ll struggle to get people to trust you, connect with you or like you.  And if you’re not being genuine, you are acting, which is exhausting and distracts you from adding value.  So, the sooner you can master being genuinely yourself and professional, the better.

Just because you are working for a company, don’t think of your colleagues as robots, or as nasty, selfish people.  It should be needless to say, they are human beings, each with their own complicated mix of motivations and fears.  So, enjoy working with them (subject to being professional and genuine), and let them enjoy working with you.  And be nice - despite what people outside think, the finance industry actually thrives on people building trust and looking for ways to help each other.

It is possible to have a really satisfying career in finance - I’ve had a great time working on interesting problems with some great people.  But it isn’t for everyone, and there are lots of people stuck doing it for unsustainable, unsatisfying reasons.  But at least if you go into this job with the right mindset (and guarded against the most common pitfalls), you’ll have a good chance of working out how you can best add value over the long term.

Good luck!