how to interview for a job -- 4/30/18

Today's selection -- from Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis. In 1982, Michael Lewis, soon to be famous for writing such best-sellers as Liar's Poker and The Big Short, was a Princeton undergraduate aspiring to a job with Lehman Brothers, an esteemed Wall Street investment bank:

"To get the interview [with Lehman Brothers], I had stood in six inches of snow with about fifty other students, awaiting the opening of the Princeton University career services office. All through the winter the office resembled a ticket booth at a Michael Jackson concert, with lines of motley students staging all-night vigils to get ahead. When the doors finally swung open, we rushed in and squeezed our names onto the Lehman interview schedule.

"Although I wasn't ready to be an investment banker, I was, in a funny way, prepared for my interview. I had memorized those few facts widely accepted by Princeton undergraduates to be part of an investment banking interview survival kit. Investment banking applicants were expected to be culturally literate. For example, in 1982 at least, they had to be able to define the following terms: commercial banking, investment banking, ambition, hard work, stock, bond, private placement, partnership, and the Glass-Steagall Act. ...

"[We believed that] the investment banker was a breed apart, a member of a mas­ter race of deal makers. He possessed vast, almost unimaginable talent and ambition. If he had a dog, it snarled. He had two little red sports cars yet wanted four. To get them, he was, for a man in a suit, surprisingly willing to cause trouble. For example, he enjoyed harassing college seniors like me. Investment bankers had a technique known as the stress interview. If you were invited to Lehman's New York offices, your first interview might begin with the interviewer asking you to open the window. You were on the forty-third floor overlooking Water Street. The window was sealed shut. That was, of course, the point. The interviewer just wanted to see whether your inability to comply with his request led you to yank, pull, and sweat until finally you melted into a puddle of foiled ambition. Or, as one sad applicant was rumored to have done, threw a chair through the window.

"Another stress-inducing trick was the silent treatment. You'd walk into the interview chamber. The man in the chair would say nothing. You'd say hello. He'd stare. You'd say that you'd come for a job interview. He'd stare some more. You'd make a stupid joke. He'd stare and shake his head. You were on tenterhooks. Then he'd pick up a newspaper (or, worse, your resume) and begin to read. He was testing your ability to take control of a meeting. In this case, presumably, it was acceptable to throw a chair through a window.

Michael Lewis

"I want to be an investment banker. Lehman Brothers is the best. I want to be rich. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, I rubbed two sweaty palms together outside the interview chamber and tried to think only pure thoughts (half-truths), such as these. I did a quick equipment check, like an astronaut preparing for lift­off. My strengths: I was an overachiever, a team player, and a peo­ple person, whatever that meant. My weaknesses: I worked too hard and tended to move too fast for the organizations I joined.

"My name was called. Lehman interviewed in pairs. I wasn't sure I stood much of a chance against one of these people, much less two. ... Between the two of them they had two years of investment banking experience. The greatest absurdity of the college invest­ment banking interview was the people the investment banks sent to conduct them. Many of them hadn't worked on Wall Street for more than a year, but they had acquired Wall Street personas. One of their favorite words was professional. Sitting stiffly, shak­ing firmly, speaking crisply, and sipping a glass of ice water were professional. Laughing and scratching your armpits were not. ...

The young man took the seat behind the cold metal desk and began to fire questions at me. Perhaps the best way to describe our encounter is to recount, as best as memory will allow, what passed for our conversation:

SQUARE YOUNG MAN: Why don't you explain to me the differ­ence between commercial banking and investment banking?

ME (making my first mistake by neglecting to seize the chance to praise investment bankers and heap ridicule on the short work hours and Lilliputian ambition of commercial bankers): Invest­ment bankers underwrite securities. You know, stocks and bonds. Commercial bankers just make loans.

SQUARE YOUNG MAN: I see you majored in art history. Why?Aren't you worried about getting a job?

ME (clinging to the party line of the Princeton art history department): Well, art history interested me most, and the depart­ment here is superb. Since Princeton doesn't offer any vocational training, I don't believe that my choice of concentration will make much difference in finding a job.

SQUARE YOUNG MAN: Do you know the size of U.S. GNP?

ME: I'm not sure. Isn't it about five hundred billion dollars?

SQUARE YOUNG MAN (casts a meaningful glance at the woman who I thought was my friend): More like three trillion. You know we interview hundreds of people for each position. You're up against a lot of economics majors who know their stuff. Why do you want to be an investment banker?

ME (obviously, the honest answer was that I didn't know. That was unacceptable. After a waffle or two, I gave him what I figured he wanted to hear): Well, really, when you get right down to it, I want to make money.

SQUARE YOUNG MAN: That's not a good reason. You work long hours in this job, and you have to be motivated by more than just money. It's true, our compensation is in line with our contribu­tion. But frankly, we try to discourage people from our business who are too interested in money. That's all.

"That's all? The words ring in my ears. Before I could stop it from happening, I was standing outside the cubicle in a cold sweat listening to the next candidate being grilled. Never for a moment did I doubt the acceptability to an investment banker of a professed love of money. I had thought that investment bankers made money for a living, the way Ford made cars. Even if ana­lysts were not paid as well as the older investment bankers, I had thought they were meant to be at least a tiny bit greedy. Why did the square young man from Lehman take offense at the sugges­tion? A friend who eventually won a job with Lehman Brothers later explained. 'It's taboo,' he said. 'When they ask you why you want to be an investment banker, you're supposed to talk about the challenges, and the thrill of doing deals, and the excitement of working with such high-caliber people, but never, ever mention money.'

"Learning a new lie was easy. Believing it was another matter. From then on, whenever an investment banker asked for my motives, I dutifully handed him the correct answers: the challenge; the people; the thrill of the deal. It was several years before I convinced myself that this one was remotely plausible (I think I even fed some variant of it to the Salomon Brothers manag­ing director's wife). That money wasn't the binding force was, of course, complete and utter bullshit. But inside the Princeton University career services office in 1982 you didn't let the truth get in the way of a job. I flattered the bankers. At the same time I seethed at their hypocrisy. I mean, did anyone, even in those innocent days, doubt the importance of money on Wall Street other than people from Wall Street when talking to people from elsewhere?"


Michael Lewis


Liar's Poker


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 1989 by Michael Lewis


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment