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My Biggest Mistake: I Did What I Could to Survive, Not Thrive

Welcome to The Daily Muse’s first-ever essay contest, “My Biggest Mistake at My First Job—And What I Learned From It.” We were blown away by your stories, and we’ve narrowed them down to six amazing finalists. Read all of the entries here, then vote for your favorite!  

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It is well known that top-quality college students, especially finance majors, are lured and also pushed into analyst roles at investment banks or consulting firms after graduation. It is also well understood that these students willingly sign on to give up their social lives, hobbies, friends, and family for a few years in exchange for an accelerated career launching pad. But despite years of stellar academic preparation, there are just some things you cannot be prepared for when you enter the workplace full-time.

I was not blessed with a genius level IQ or a photographic memory. I wasn’t born into a wealthy family that could help me down the Ivy League path and support me while I was in school. Instead, I used elbow grease to earn an academic-based full scholarship and, like I had the prior 18 years, I worked harder than anyone else I knew to graduate summa cum laude a year earlier than the rest of my class.

So the biggest surprise for me when I entered the world of investment banking was that I could no longer simply outwork my peers. I found myself working every weekend, eating three meals (sadly sometimes a fourth) at my desk every day, and pulling 100-hour weeks that left me physically incapable of doing more or being more prepared than my peers. Every analyst in the bullpen was swimming against the current of Niagara Falls, and it was all we could do to merely keep our heads above water, some of the time.

This is where I made the biggest mistake in my first job: I failed to thrive, and instead did everything I could to survive. I never cheated by any means, but sometimes the difference between going home at 11 PM and 1 AM meant using someone else’s model template or presentation outline, rather than digging deeper and creating things myself that could have been better or more relevant. Sometimes it meant that I did not understand every number in my model. Sometimes it meant that I skimmed over the final pitch book instead of going through it with a fine-toothed comb, because I knew I’d find some text that was out of alignment or some number that wasn’t formatted correctly, and I’d have to reprint and rebind the 80-page book for the fifth time that night.

Strangely, I missed out on the learning experience I could have gotten because I put so much time into it. Because I spent my every waking minute trying to just complete a work product, I didn’t take advantage of the full knowledge bank available for my use while working on each assignment. Don’t get me wrong—working more than double the typical 40-hour work-week loads an immense amount of knowledge, experience, and exposure into your brain that most other entry-level positions could never touch, but I left banking feeling like I’d left some financial knowledge on the table. Coming from a perfectionist, this is hard to admit.

I took away an invaluable experience and really am grateful for my time as an analyst alongside all those take-out containers. I was given the confidence that I could make it at any firm I went to next, and even the confidence to someday start my own business, which I never would have believed was possible before.

Yet still, the biggest takeaway from my first job was to never take any short-cuts. Understand every email in your inbox, every number in your excel files, and every piece of jargon on every page. Ask questions if you can’t figure it out yourself. And when everyone has left the office for the day and you’re the last one itching to make it home for some sleep, don’t let a little laziness keep you from soaking in every skill and shred of knowledge that will make you better at your job tomorrow, let alone in your next job.

After all, the first lesson in finance is to forego now in order to have more later—forego a few difficult minutes or hours if you have to, and better yourself in the moment so that you can truly get out what you put in to your work.

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Photo courtesy of David Paul Ohmer.