“When you get off the underground train and get on the escalator, do you walk or stand?”
It was November 6, 2018, the day of my final interview for a job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. I had made it through eight prior interviews in eight days while continuing to work full-time at another firm. I was 24. Now, one last interviewer sat opposite me, staring in silence as I squirmed in my chair and tried to guess what the right answer was.
“I walk,” I said. “But if I’ve been training for an ultramarathon and I’m feeling tired, I might stand.” It was transparently try-hard. But this was Goldman Sachs, I rationalized, where the slow surely get left behind.
Three weeks later, I was offered the job. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I was about to become part of what felt to me like the world’s preeminent financial institution. The team I was joining managed portfolios of alternative assets, predominantly hedge funds and private equity. They allocated funds to strategies run by some of the world’s greatest investors, which only high-net-worth individuals or institutions could access. While I didn’t have a seat at the table yet, it was exhilarating just to be in the room.
If I had known then that I would walk away from it all within three years, without another job lined up, in a market of rising graduate unemployment, I wouldn’t have believed it. But then there was a pandemic.
When the U.K. went into lockdown in March 2020, I was at my desk in Plumtree Court, Goldman’s London headquarters. Many of my colleagues had already chosen to work from home, and I watched the once-bustling hub go quiet. For those who remained, there was a last-man-standing mentality. We would bump into each other in empty hallways and joke about the strange times ahead.
The arduous interview process and prestige of Goldman had made the job offer, when it arrived, all the more meaningful. It was an exciting place to be. My bosses were experts in their fields. They made split-second judgments, their instincts perfectly attuned to the pulse of the markets and their clients’ needs. They were doing important work, I thought, and I was trying my best to support them and have my own small piece of the action.
The pay was more than most people my age could ever dream of, and I imagined an illustrious career ahead of me. If I worked hard, I could progress from analyst to associate to vice-president. Maybe one day I would even join the rarefied cohort of Goldman’s managing directors and partners.
Back then, I was unhappy only in the way I assumed everyone who had a job was: knowing that, ultimately, there was probably something else I would rather be doing, something that didn’t involve sitting at a desk for long hours every day, filling out spreadsheets, placing trades, listening to conference calls. But I knew I was privileged to be where I was.
Fictional presentations of the industry often veer between extremes. They tend to glamorize or vilify. I repeatedly had to deny to friends and family that my job was anything like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short. Yet these fictionalizations insidiously shaped the way we thought of ourselves at work, feeding the idea that we were part of the most powerful club in the world. I shook hands with Wall Street titans who had inspired characters in the television show Billions. I was on calls with the heroes and villains of the hedge-fund world, and our clients were in the upper tiers of the global elite. The adrenaline of it all kept me going.
The most accurate representation of life within the walls of an international investment bank is actually the thriller Margin Call, set on the cusp of the global financial crisis at a firm that closely resembles the one I worked for. Goldman is a quiet place where serious decisions are made and a veneer of calm hides the inherent drama of what is happening beneath. People speak in buzzwords and jargon, and poker faces hide what they’re really feeling. I had quickly learned to fit in, but, during lockdown, my shell wore thin. My ability to put on a front was tested to its limit and, eventually, failed.
The first thing I noticed when I started working from home was how important the in-office perks at Goldman had become. I realized, from the confines of my flat, that the firm’s luxurious 850,000-square-foot headquarters had served as an inspiration and an anchor. The imposing wall of marble when you enter through one of the three ground-floor entrances. The American, European, and U.K. flags flying high above. And the medical center, where nurses, doctors, dentists, physiotherapists, and psychotherapists sit ready to serve the immediate needs of 6,000 very important, busy people.
I especially liked the on-site gym. The firm provides employees with athletic gear, so all you need to bring are toiletries, sneakers, and stress to sweat out. If I ignored the grunts from the traders deadlifting twice my body weight and the ex-Olympians generating mind-boggling amounts of wattage on stationary bikes, I could see what Goldman was about. There’s something about striving to achieve the exceptional alongside others, whether by working late nights in the office or putting in a hard hour in the gym, that pulls people together.
And that can’t happen in a virtual environment. It might sound trite, but working out with my colleagues in our matching navy-blue shorts and T-shirts, I felt I belonged to something greater than the sum of emails, PowerPoints, and spreadsheets that filled my days. In a firm obsessed with image and reputation, the gym felt like a place where people were themselves. That’s the kind of pragmatism financial institutions operate on. Soft touches keep the scales ever so finely tipped in the right direction. Sitting in my flat on seemingly endless Zoom calls, the scales started to unbalance.
High finance, like many high-octane industries, requires extreme dedication to the job. The flip side of this is that everything unrelated to work or performance can seem trivial. I never met anyone at Goldman who yelled at juniors or bragged about their money. (Those behaviors are generally looked down upon.) But even before the pandemic, there was sometimes a ruthless efficiency to workplace interactions. One day I ran into a managing director I knew at the tea point and asked how things were going. “I’m making a cup of coffee,” she replied before walking off.
Lockdown exacerbated this dynamic. Physically separated from colleagues, work became more and more transactional. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, when you’re trying to fit 30 hours of work into a 14-hour day, among the first things to go are “please” and “thank you,” and this was compounded when the main method of communication was via a computer screen.
Without the camaraderie and perks of office life, I realized I had become a simple input-output moneymaking machine. Deliverables that normally had 24-hour turnarounds were expected before lunch on the same day. Normal business hours were scrapped as seniors moved their schedules to fit their personal needs. Some logged on at five in the morning, others slogged it out until midnight, and juniors like me were caught in between. Quality of life deteriorated for us all in different ways. My peers were pulling 100-hour weeks in cramped apartments with no ability to blow off steam at the pub. Senior staff had to generate revenue while taking charge of their children’s education and dealing with an increasingly demanding book of clients.
This was the case in many companies, but in February 2021, the well-being of Goldman employees became a hot topic after a group of junior analysts presented their managers with a survey decrying their working conditions. The slide deck leaked and prompted a burst of scrutiny from the outside world. David Solomon, Goldman’s CEO, applauded the analysts for speaking out and pledged to step up enforcement of the “Saturday rule” that is meant to safeguard the time from 9 p.m. on Fridays until Sunday morning. But he also said, “Just remember: If we all go an extra mile for our client, even when we feel that we’re reaching our limit, it can really make a difference in our performance.” It was as though, even when he was trying to prove that Goldman cared about our well-being, he couldn’t help but remind us to push past our limits. To remember that a rule was a rule — right up until a client needed something extra.
Some banks reacted to the media storm by throwing money at the problem. They raised salaries, bought Peloton bikes for staff, or handed out ad hoc bonuses. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the young analysts whose slide deck had cried out for a change in working practices and culture, not a boost to their already exceptional pay packets or exercise equipment that could barely fit in their bedrooms.
A few of those working in upper management told juniors this was simply the way things were done: 100-hour weeks and last-minute requests were the modus operandi of the financial sector. We could accept it or get out. This response — and its implicit message that the issues were structural, not a result of the pandemic — was pivotal for me. I realized I had been naïve, kidding myself that a job at Goldman was about anything other than enriching clients, enriching Goldman, and, in the process, enriching myself.
I hadn’t been lying when I told the interviewer about training for ultramarathons. Aside from teaching me about the real nature of my job, the pandemic forced me to see my own problematic, at times destructive relationship with achievement. In my first year at Goldman, I had taken a week’s holiday to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s tallest mountain. When I got back to London, having reached the summit in one 18-hour push, I was exhausted but threw myself straight back into work. I spent a week in a complete haze until I felt so depleted that I went to the on-site GP, who sent me immediately to the hospital for blood tests.
I was fine, but the hour I sat in a private room waiting for results felt like the most relaxing 60 minutes of my life. No phone, no emails, no pressure to make up for lost time outside the office. Just being.
At the time, I didn’t learn my lesson. Some months later, I started training for a 60-mile ultramarathon. On race day, I managed 45 miles before dropping out and spending the next month nursing sore muscles, a sense of defeat, and a set of blackened toenails. What I did to my body could be repaired. What I was doing to my mental health, meanwhile, took longer to discover.
Throughout my time at Goldman, like all employees, I had my ups and downs and moments of extreme stress. I wasn’t the best at dealing with it. I suffered bouts of depression that, at their worst times, led to suicidal thoughts and sessions with the on-site psychiatrist. The first thing the psychiatrist told me was that I wasn’t alone, that many employees sought counseling.
That made sense, I thought at the time. Goldman employees are exceptionally driven and hardworking. But when I read the leaked analyst survey, I felt others had put into words what I hadn’t been able to. On the penultimate page is a list of quotes from junior employees. One in particular hit home: “My body physically hurts all the time and mentally I’m in a really dark place.” I realized there was a connection between the way I was working and how I felt.
It was hard for me to admit to myself that I was suffering mental-health problems. When you’ve had it drilled into you that you’re a winner, that you are at your desk because you’re the best, and that any obstacle can be overcome if you just work hard enough, any admission of weakness becomes taboo.
But I realized that for me, the Goldman lifestyle was playing with fire. It seemed darkly comic that the department responsible for my well-being was called “Human Capital Management,” as though we were ourselves little widgets to be paid, worked, moved about, repaired when broken.
In March 2021, I burned out. Between my managers, our team’s hundreds of clients and counterpart teams in the U.S. and Asia, I was juggling demands at all hours of the day. Turnaround times were increasingly tight. Deadlines had been short to start with, the philosophy being that the work would get done faster even if the target wasn’t met. But a year into the pandemic, it felt as though everyone had lost touch with reality in terms of what was reasonable.
After one of the most stressful two-week periods of my life, I broke down and sent an email to my bosses saying I was struggling and needed time off. The response was admirable. My bosses acted like the people that I had missed over the pandemic year, and Human Capital Management stepped in with a list of resources, emphasizing that I should only return when ready. I took five days off, went for long walks, decompressed. But my mind-set fundamentally changed. I looked at my bank account and saw that I didn’t need to worry in the short term. I looked at myself and thought, Health comes before everything.
When I resigned, I don’t think anyone was surprised. One of my bosses started planning my work handover. The other told me I was doing the right thing. On the day I left, I went into the office one last time. Around a third of my team had trickled back in. I took the card everyone had signed that said “Sorry you’re leaving,” grabbed the detritus from my desk, and walked out. I wish I could say that all my worries melted away, but I was scared. While it’s a high-stakes, risk-loving industry, finance is also one of the safest places an indebted, uncertain graduate can end up.
As I stood at an empty underground station, months of feeling there was no route out of the career I had so enthusiastically signed up for came flooding back. I got on the train and told myself that, however long it took, I was starting over. I was going to stand on escalators, resisting the urge to run, for as long as it would take to become myself again.