A Life Lesson Courtesy of Goldman Sachs

I am a regular writer in Quora on topics such as life, work and careers in investment banking. As I was recently scrolling through some of the questions, one particularly stood out:

What type of math is required to become an investment banker?

It made me relive my first few weeks at Goldman Sachs.

Let me tell you a little story.

The “Default Setup” As A Self-limiting Belief

I was the archetypical “good student” at school.

I pulled the right effort at the right time to get the results I needed. In high-school I pursued a humanistic track, performing well at history, philosophy, English and Spanish literature.

In college, I enrolled in a dual law and business masters programme. I did very well in law school subjects, with decent grades all through. What about numbers? Well, let’s say that I was never the top guy at econometrics, maths or statistics.

And then, in 2005, I joined Goldman Sachs’ foreign exchange sales and trading business.

Philosophy Fan Meets Numbers Galore

My mom believed I would be on a flight back home soon. Adding to the “perfect banking skill set”, not only I was not “a natural” with numbers, but I also hopelessly insisted in forgetting important stuff.

“You won’t last more than 3 months!” — Mom insisted.

In all fairness to her assessment, the first few weeks were interesting.

It became clear to me that building the right reputation while having my screens covered with crumbling post-it notes and refusing to engage with traders without a calculator at hand was going to be hard.

The urgency of the problem became apparent rather quickly. My job often required quick mental calculations while closing trades with clients on the phone. Trading desks would not wait for me to punch numbers into the machine, and my boss would kindly encourage my efforts by hitting the desk with his fist once for every second I would fail to produce a quick and accurate number.

It was a steep curve back then. But now I am truly grateful.

I forced myself to learn how to work through percentages and decimals in a few seconds with acceptable accuracy. It took me a while, but I put the work and eventually it paid off. I also trained myself to listen more effectively, take notes of most things and use my calendar and other apps to keep my weekly to-do’s under control.

The post-its notes gradually disappeared from my screens, my mental math ability (dramatically) improved, and my professional effectiveness soared. A fulfilling 10-year career in banking followed until I co-founded ThirdWay Africa a few years ago.

My key takeaway from that experience: don’t become a hostage of your own natural limitations. We all have them. Focus on adding value by investing heavily in your strengths, while you work on the right tools and systems to hedge your key weaknesses to a “good-enough” level. That is, to a level in which those weaknesses stop getting in the way of producing effective work.

How to Shift Your Mindset To Craft The Skills You Need

  1. It is essential to rely on your “why” (your motives: why do you have to improve? Why is it important to you?), and to use it as a compass to support you as you learn the “how”. A sense of purpose will do magic in the darkest moments as you push through the process.
  2. Careful with the “planning block”. We tend to overcomplicate stuff, too much strategy and very little doing. Some questions may take you out of the block: “if you did have X or Y skill, but you were not allowed to use it, what could you accomplish anyway with the rest of your strengths?” “If you were told — as truth — that you can achieve that feat, what would be a good week-by-week plan to get there?”
  3. Focus on consistent action. Take a look at your calendar. How many high-impact activities aligned with your key 2018 resolutions have you deliberately planned and executed, week after week, so far this yearConsistency and perseverance trump any other character trait when it comes to achieving your goals. Not talent. Not relationships. Nothing else is as powerful as putting in the weekly and daily work. Yes, we have heard this a million times. But how much do we act on it? Achieving our goals is not an information issue. It is about acting on it and allowing time to yield results over time.
  4. Know yourself. Understand your working method, the way you learn and communicate. How your energy fluctuates through the day and how to use that rhythm to maximise your productivity. Know your (true) strengths and weaknesses. Consider taking the free VIA strengths test, which you can do online here. It is quick to complete, and you will be surprised with the results. A clear example that without help it is complicated to escape our blindspots.

A Final Note: Talent Without Effort Is Like A Pretty Photograph On A Shelf

It will gather dust, and probably end up in a box somewhere.

Deliberate effort beats talent every single day.

If we reward talent alone, we will get little incremental progress in return. Praising a naturally gifted athlete for a good run has little impact on his development. On the other hand, rewarding the effort of the average athlete as he works to become better does yield more incremental results over time.

Knowing the gaps in your skill set is a necessary first step, but knowledge alone will not trigger improvement.

Doing something outside of your comfort zone is a “decision” problem. Take Sir Richard Branson, for example. His dyslexia made him struggle in school, and he dropped out at 16. He is now worth over $5 billion.

How do you think that happened?

Next time you feel like you don’t have the necessary skills for a specific job or a particular task, stop and think: “what can I do about it?” “how can I rely on other parts of my skill set to get there instead?” “what tools are available?” “how can I rely on others in my team (or use technology) to get through the line?”.

If you combine self-awareness with real ownership over a daily actionable process you will be surprised with the results you will achieve.