Set a goal and restlessly pursue that goal. It might take a few turns, a number of unexpected pivots, and a couple of disappointments.
On the surface, Mike’s (not real name) career experience looks like a typical one. Grown up in a suburban neighborhood of Texas, Mike is the oldest son of a local entrepreneur. He graduated from University of Texas at Austin with a business degree, worked a few different jobs before pursing an MBA. He’s now working in a hedge fund. However, once one flips through the pages of his life, one will discover that under the cover of a “smooth career” sits waves of turbulence. Mike has undergone numerous changes before he made his dream come true.
“20 years later, I became a stock analyst.”
What if at age 13 you decided to become a stock analyst, yet it took you 20 years to reach that goal?
In his grade 8 algebra class, Mike’s teacher taught a lesson on the stock market. That gave Mike the idea of starting a stock club in school. He collected $10 a month from about 15 members and ran the club for 4 years. mike loves analyzing stocks. It has been his passion since he was young.
Mike did not get a job as a stock analyst after college, because most of his jobs in college were manual labor work. He had worked in auto-body shops, construction fields, and restaurants, not in tall office buildings downtown. “I had no exposure to office positions back then. All I did was looking into newspapers to see who was hiring so that I could pay my rent,” said Mike. He was a car salesman for 5 months after graduation. This was quite a surprise to me. The first surprise was even though Mike’s father had the ability to pay for his college tuition and lodging, Mike supported himself through school. More interestingly, Mike did not pursue an internship in stock brokerage firms while he was in college. He actually had a slow start comparing to some of his peers.
Mike did eventually get a job at a stock brokerage firm named Paine Webber. But he had no idea it was a sales job that entailed cold calling people and got them to buy stocks. One day his manager saw him working on a paper model and told him to throw that into the trash. “Your job is to get people to invest in the analysts’ ideas, not yours”. Since then, Mike was very certain that although he was working in a stock firm, he was in the wrong role. “I wish I had done more research on my own to learn about the industry. When I was young, I was ignorant, assuming I knew what I wanted and never felt I was “off plan”. I thought as long as I did well in classes, I would have no problem getting a job.”
Mike’s reflection here prompted me to think about my own experience out of undergrad. I had one of the highest GPAs in class and held leadership positions in 4 different student clubs. But I made a huge mistake when I was transitioning from college to work place – I did not reach out to professionals to build solid connections and was too shy to ask people in my limited network for favors. I did not get my dream job fresh out of school.
Today I understand the importance of taking risks to reach out. It not only gives me an opportunity to learn about a role in an industry, but also provides me a chance to get to know a person. This opens doors to potential future relationships. The person I met or spoke to could be my manager or mentor. Even if the conversation does not lead to any tangible result, just by talking to people who’ve been through ups and downs in their careers broadens my horizon.
Talking to Mike made me a bit nervous, since I had yet to figure out if the intersection between “what I could do” and “what I want to do” was large enough, or if there was any opportunity in it. On another thought, if it took someone as determined as Mike 20 years to reach his goal, it might take me 5 to 10 years. I just need to be flexible and keep building my knowledge and skills, which brings to the second point Mike and I discussed.
“After 4 different colleges in five-and-a-half years, I graduated.”
I got blown away by Mike’s college education experience. It was a roller coaster ride of changes and uncertainties. Mike plays trumpet and piano and went to a small university in Texas to pursue a degree in music education after high school. He switched his major to finance in his sophomore year to attend the University of Houston. He then decided to study abroad for a year in Lancaster University in the U.K. He came back from the U.K., only discovered he has missed the transfer deadline, so decided to work in Home Depot for a bit. He eventually graduated from University of Texas at Austin with a BBA degree in Finance. This was the period of time in which Mike made “quick” decisions about his education. He went after an education that would support his goal, but did not link all the pieces together to figure out a career path. This level of disruptions could also be a contributing factor to Mike’s inability to start his career in equity research – he was facing with too many personal changes that he could not focus on internship search.
Mike’s post-college work experience followed a similar pattern to his college experience. It was one major change after another. In fact, he had worked in 4 different companies in the 6 years prior to SOM. After he left the stock broker, he joined his dad’s 80-person computer company to become a business analyst. When the IT bubble busted in 2001, the company was selling off assets and he was about to become unemployed. The CFO of the buyer firm called him and asked him to go do some accounting work in the new company. After a year, he went for a new opportunity in a software company, but had a huge issue with the company CFO. He told the company’s CFO never to walk into his office, finished his project, left the firm after 6 months and applied to Yale. One interesting insight I got out of our conversation was that although there were a lot of changes in his work environment and roles, Mike was very focused on the types of skills he wanted to develop out of each job. He targeted tasks relate to accounting and finance, and paid special attentions to financial statements at all times. When he was working for the new software company, he listed 10 skills he wanted out of the new job. Once he believed he had acquired those skills, he decided to leave the job and wasted no time. To me, Mike followed his heart when he made decisions. Instead of putting up with a role with stagnant learning or a horrible boss like most people, he made the risky decisions to leave. This shows his confidence in his abilities. I am similar to Mike in this aspect. I worked for 3 different companies in the past 3 years and started a side project on my own. I left these companies not because I was unsatisfied with my life, but because I believed I could do more. I left the comfortable places to seek new challenges.
When I went visit Mike in his office, I immediately sensed the layback culture of the firm. It was a small office, enclosed environment, nothing like the Wall Street. Mike works 8:30 to 5:30 every day, goes home and spends time with his wife and children. His future goal is to open and to manage his own fund.
Knowing that Mike is doing so well, even with all the changes he had gone through, I am confident that I will find a fulfilling career, while living a happy life.