Why I Went to Work on Wall Street, And Why I Left

A little background on where I’m coming from is warranted. Long story short, I was scouted to model as a teenager, ended up not signing with the agency that found me, but still spending the next 4 1/2 years in the business.

While I never made it onto a major runway (at 5'7", fashion was never going to be my niche), I did well enough taking jobs here and there in commercial print for fitness apparel and swimwear. By the time I graduated from college however, I was fed up with the industry. It was shallow, it was mean, and the glamour I had learned to live off of just no longer sustained me.

At the time, I was quasi-dating an options trader, and most of my friends from college were working at investment banks. It occurred to me that I was drawn to those people not because I had any interest in how money gets moved around (what Wall Street seems like to an Entrepreneurship major!) but because they were smart. Like really, really smart.

Growing up, I was an information sponge, always reading nonfiction and loved learning for the sake of it. And although I didn’t especially enjoy doing math, I loved what math could do. Data mining, regression analyses, combing through numbers to find the narrative — that’s what made it fun.

By some twist of fate along the way, I was thrown into a career that was as far from math- or science-related as could be. As a model, nobody cared that I read the paper cover to cover every morning, knew what our annual GDP was, or went to college where I graduated with a 3.7 GPA.

And I was bored. God, was I bored.

So shortly after graduating, I just decided to stop. I lived off my savings for four months while studying for the Level I CFA, passed it, and took a temp research associate job at a boutique corporate advisory firm, working my way up to a permanent M&A Analyst position there within a year.

I chose finance because I wanted to pit my brains against who I thought were the best and brightest in the world. I reasoned that although riches don’t excite me (I couldn’t care less about cars, or $20,000 Audemars) a place like Wall Street that runs on money will draw the smartest people who do want it.

In finance, it’s every man, team, fund, or group against each other for ever-bigger slices of the pie. When another team undercuts you on a deal, it’s not personal. You don’t get mad, or hate the party on the other side. You can only respect the hustle, put your nose to the grindstone, and try to beat them the next time. Money is the name of the game, but it was also just a way to keep score.

Money is the name of the game, but it was also just a way to keep score.

I knew I was made for this environment of competition and camaraderie. I wanted to play scrimmage with the English Premier League when the stakes were millions of dollars exchanged somewhere far away from us, and the bragging rights it netted right there in the room. And that’s what Wall Street is like.

So, what would make me want to leave all of that?

For one thing, I had chronic wrist pain, which my physical therapist attributed to sitting hunched over a desk for 12–16 hours a day. My body needed time to heal and strengthen. I was also uneasy where I was, and had to regroup. When they asked me to sign a non-compete, I took off for Asia.

In the weeks that followed, I fielded dozens of job offers from recruiters and friends who heard about my situation change, for positions ranging from business development at law firms, to consulting, to analyst jobs at reputable (though not bulge bracket) investment banks.

Then, a plot twist. I turned them all down to move to Costa Rica with my boyfriend and start a travel blog, supplementing my savings with occasional freelance writing work.

It’s not a story that’s unheard of these days: disenchanted 20-something leaves Wall Street, trading navy suits for baggy cotton pants with a tribal pattern (a friend aptly calls them “gap year pants”). I rarely have to explain the situation to anybody. Most people will hear we quit our Wall Street jobs, assume “burn-out” or “sabbatical” and expect us to go back in a year tanned, zen, and ready to resume life in front of four screens and a Bloomberg Terminal.

Except I’m not sure that I will.

As an analyst, my job was to sift through a chaotic, data-rich world and extract the pieces that would give my clients an edge. Clients that were usually multibillion dollar funds or corporations. If I was good at my job, it added another inconsequential gold coin to Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool safe.

To me, writing lets me channel my natural curiosity to explore the world, and to use my powers of deduction and dissemination for good.

Yet I can’t deny the part of me that misses the combat zone.

On a freelance modeling shoot in New York City a few days ago, I met a former Morgan Stanley ‘black box’ trader who said something that really resonated with me: everyone on Wall Street operates with a “graveyard mentality” because we know it can all fall apart at any time. The easy money can vanish, the investment strategy can go south, the economy could implode.

This seemingly unpleasant aspect of Wall Street culture actually reminded me why I’d wanted “in” in the first place. It’s intoxicating to be around some of the smartest people in the world, knowing we are all in the same, teetering boat — the Titanic after it hits the iceberg, but before we know there are no life boats left — and seeing how we deal with it. We all know the party is ending, the question is just how and when.

And what could make you feel more alive than that?

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