Most people carry them as a blue and wrinkly badge of honor. Some still try to fight them. The big and swollen bags under your eyes after an allnighter. Even better if it’s been three in a row.
Colleagues give you approving nods and superiors send around pleased emails with you on cc, bragging about your work ethics.
You’re part of the team, and you’re performing. With the audience staring partly because they’re fascinated, and partly because they want to see how it ends.
Staring numbly at the mirror in the locker room, I can see them on myself as well. The blue, hollow stripes of dry skin. They’re a part of my face now.
Luring you in
I remember acting surprised the first time one of my VPs told me he had a bottle of whisky standing below his desk for rainy days.
I wasn’t that surprised anymore when he poured me a glass one Sunday night at 2 AM when we and an analyst were standing in the printer room, trying to bind hundreds of management presentations that were being shipped off on a 7 AM flight.
The morning after, our MD had sent a photo to the management group, bragging about how motivated and hard-working we were. It felt good. The approval. Belonging to a team where everything outside of it was expected to be sacrificed.
The first taste of high
Nothing beats the rush of closing a deal after working 100-hour weeks. It’s the rush of winning.
For some of the fiercely competitive people who steer themselves towards an investment banking career, that rush means everything.
I didn’t believe all the talk about working hours before I began my summer internship. And I didn’t really believe it after either. Summer was slow. A lot of people were on holiday, and we were doing research.
Yeah, 70 hours were much more than I was used to spending at school, but it wasn’t horrible. I could live with that.
We all drank the Kool-Aid
Then it slowly began to dawn on me what I had entered into. Most of the time, I loved it.
My friends became fewer. I learned how to cancel a weekend trip or a dinner on 5-minutes notice. And I lost a boyfriend I had been with for the past 6 years.
The pay was better than my peers had at some other non-banking firms, but not that much better. I envied classmates at McKinsey who got to go home on the weekends.
The help that doesn’t help
There are some darker sides to banking.
We were sent to speak with a life coach about surviving our new job. With him, we talked about self-discipline, becoming more efficient, and choosing areas to improve on.
We also talked about literal survival.
Some days people were asked to wear heart monitors to check their stress levels. One of the girls I knew quit just after she got her results. She had been there for less than a year, and couldn’t take it anymore.
No one in my department died or tried to die. We sometimes joked about it. “I’m gonna jump”, we sarcastically said to each other when the pressure became too much. When we had worked ourselves into depression and agony only to see the deal fail.
The last taste of low
Then someone actually did jump. Down to the reception. He was smashed in front of several bystanders.
We didn’t know him. He was at a competing bank in the same building. His death might have been completely unrelated. But we never mentioned jumping again. It wasn’t a joke anymore.
No pain, no gain
I pushed myself. Didn’t dare to be sick. Didn’t have time to go to the doctor. I was so dizzy one morning when I ran down some stairs to get to a meeting. Trying to reply to an email at the same time, I fell down almost two stories.
The lovely old lady in our reception cut my panty-hose open with a pair of scissors and brought me bandages. My legs turned completely blue, and there was blood running down my knees.
I still put my high heels on and kept going. My teammate had just thrown up from exhaustion the same morning. I didn’t want to seem weak.
Our VP smiled and said he was proud of us being the most hardworking team in the Investment Bank. “A bit of nosebleeding just shows you that you’re alive”, he smirked. Telling us about a time he was so stressed on a call, he started to bleed uncontrollably.
The break that never comes
I looked out of the window. It didn’t matter if it was spring or fall. Officially, we were encouraged to go on vacation and take it slower after a time of hard pressure.
In reality, we weren’t allowed to book holidays in advance. It was strongly frowned upon. It wasn’t until my second year I finally had an entire week “0ff”. I say “off” because it clearly wasn’t.
But I was out of the office for the first time. If we did go somewhere on holiday, chances were high that we were called back home again after a few days.
Then you don’t want out
I had even fewer friends left now. And no boyfriend. I had already decided that I couldn’t date anyone outside of finance. They didn’t understand.
And I couldn’t date anyone who didn’t understand that I had to leave him alone by the dinner table to run back after an email. They couldn’t date me either.
The men in finance were as busy as I was, so there was never anything more than uncomplicated fun. Maybe when we were at the same airport or in the same town for meetings.
I told myself this was youth. This was the freedom we were all basking in.
Make you go to rehab
I quit after a few more years. It was hard. I didn’t know what to do with the 4 weeks I had off between quitting my old job and going to the new.
No friends were left, and I had completely lost the urge to sit down on my couch and relax with a movie. I had to crawl back to the life I didn’t remember having.
I still work in finance, and I still work a lot. But I do have vacations, and I sleep every night. I can even go out for dinner with friends.
The blue bags under my eyes are smaller now, but only thanks to fillers from a doctor.
I didn’t find the answer
I haven’t found “the perfect balance”. Neither did I learn “the lesson of my life”. Because I wasn’t crashing headfirst into the wall. But I did realize that it’s not sustainable in the long run.
When people now brag about clocking in 100 hour weeks, I usually ask them if they are able to be effective all those hours.
I know I was working like that at the worst. Not because all I had to do couldn’t fit into 100 hours, but because tasks were unpredictable and ill-planned. And I wasn’t performing well.
Several companies in finance are trying to improve their junior’s lifestyles. But only after suffering public dismay after the death of interns.
Working long hours can be addictive and thrilling, but I’m not sure I want to work for someone who will demand that from me all the time, just because they are unwilling to work efficiently.
I don’t want to know if there’s another bottom out there for me.