Alpha Lane Logo

Investment Banking And Meaning Of Life: A Spiritual Guide To Cope With The Blast Furnace of Investment Banking

IB hell

Are you tired of hearing “pls fix” from your MD for the 23rd time in a day? Is your body sending you warning signs after burning the midnight oil for 7 days in a row? Are you having existential questions about your life, wondering if you’ve made the wrong choice by joining the investment banking inferno? If you can relate to this, then this article is for you.

How the "El Dorado" of investment banking can quickly turn into a living hell
depressed man

IB is often seen as the “royal” career path for many ambitious students. They want a job in M&A at Goldman because they keep hearing from their seniors that it’s the best possible job they can have, the one granting them the most social prestige and financial power. 

The myth that was created around investment banking has reached near-Biblical proportions. I know some students who would literally pray every single day to have the privilege of having an interview at a bulge-bracket investment bank, indexing their whole self-esteem on the achievement of that sacred goal. 

Now, what really drives so many students to apply en masse to investment banking roles? Well, if we cut all the BS, the two driving motivations are 1) prestige and 2) money. 

Prestige first: they want to feel powerful socially, be admired by their peers, and feel important by being associated with an organization that commands respect and admiration. They want to feel “at the top of the food chain”. Money second: they want to be able to afford anything, to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, to have the best cars, the biggest penthouses, to live THE life. 

Any reason that students mention that is not prestige or money – steep learning curve, intellectual stimulation, the chance to work with brilliant people, etc – are ancillary reasons that only serve to rationalize the first primary ones, prestige and money. 

People use these ancillary reasons to camouflage their true motivations during interviews. “If I say that I only want to make some big cash and buy a Bentley, what will the recruiter think of me? I have to find something else… Oh, I know, let’s say a steep learning curve!”

At the end of the day, if IB candidates had a gun pointed at their heads when answering the question “Why investment banking”, they would either say money or prestige. Very attractive attributes indeed. 

For those reasons, investment banking continues to be a vacuum that sucks some of the best, brightest, and most ambitious students out there. 

They go in there with their eyes closed. They start working. And many realize that reality doesn’t really live up to their dreams. They’re wondering what the hell they are doing with their lives, asking themselves: “Money is great, but is it really worth all the sacrifices? Do I really want to work 80 hours a week for the next decade or more?” 

It’s 1am. They’re finishing a PowerPoint presentation that has been edited 46 times in two days. They’re exhausted. They’re angry. They feel trapped. They really don’t want to do this, but they do it anyway. 

They tell themselves: “I haven’t worked this hard for no reason”. They know it’s not for them. But they don’t move. Why is it so hard to get out of this industry once you’re in it? 

First, what’s the alternative? What job or industry can compete with IB when it comes to pay? Very few. Every job feels like a lower paid, less prestigious alternative in comparison. Any move feels like a social downgrade. This leads them to adopt a melancholic mindset that could be summarized as “if you’re going to be miserable, you might as well be miserable at the top”. 

Second, because of the effort justification bias. After so much effort to get in (years of study, hundreds of applications, hours spent on online tests, CV building, networking, and fortunes spent on student debt), it feels like an impossible task to let it go. The effort has to be justified. The question is: how do you cope with that?

How do you cope with that?
Tip #1: Weigh the pros and cons, and think about their emotional impact on you

First, make a list of all the pros and cons of working in IB. On the “pros” side, people usually think about money, social prestige, smart teammates, exposure to C-level executives, etc. The cons: terrible work-life balance, gruelling hours, unpredictable workflow, etc. Then, even more importantly, assess how each of these pros and cons affects you emotionally. 

For example, thinking about your massive annual bonus at the end of the year may create a cocktail of positive emotions in your brain. 

However, maybe you feel absolutely terrible for working past midnight every day, so that triggers some strong negative emotions. If, by doing this exercise for all pros and cons, the intensity of negative emotions overpowers that of positive ones, then perhaps you should reconsider your career path. 

What’s the point of doing a job that makes you feel worse than it makes you feel good?  

Tip #2: Immerse yourself in the darkest times of humanity to force your mind to relativise

This one is quite extreme, but can nonetheless help you put things into perspective: remind yourself that, compared to other humans that lived before you, you’re actually very lucky to live such a lifestyle, no matter how hard it seems to be. 

During World War II, between 45 and 60 million people were killed, some of them in horrible circumstances, as we all know. Young men had no choice but to go to war, face a near-certain death on the battlefield, and say goodbye to their spouses without knowing if they’ll ever see them again. 

It was only about 80 years ago. If you offered these young men the chance of working 90+ hours per week for $100k/year instead of leaving their whole family behind to face death, they would arguably have been very happy to choose the first option. 

So whenever you think your life sucks, just remember that millions of people your age used to fight for their lives in the trenches, consumed by the worst fear of all, tortured by the thought that they may never see their family again. 

Tip #3: Leverage your pain 

According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be converted. Pain is energy. The pain you feel when you’re working until 2 a.m. on a slide you don’t want to do, for an MD you hate, wondering what the hell you are doing with your life, is pure energy. Negative energy. But energy. 

You can either let this energy consume you, by ruminating over the fact that you hate your life. Or you can use this dark energy as fuel to go after your goals even more aggressively. 

If your long-term goal is to become a Partner at a bulge-bracket investment bank, and you know you have to make some sacrifices in the first few years of your career, try to embrace that pain, use it to become an absolute master at your craft, and leverage it to become the best investment banker the Earth has ever seen. Convert your pain into motivation to achieve greatness. 

Tip #4: Find beauty in mastering the game

Everything in life can be conceived as a game. A game has rules, winners, and losers. If you master the rules of the game, and know how to exploit these rules to win consistently, you may find great satisfaction in the process of winning. 

Investment banking can also be seen as one of life’s games. You can be a second-tier banker who never makes it to the top. Or you can become a legendary rainmaker. 

Finding beauty in the game itself can be another way to appease your IB existential frustrations, or at least put them into perspective. 

Don’t hate the game. Play the game to the best of your abilities and find beauty in the act of playing at a high level.

Tip #5: If you really cannot stand it, reinvent yourself 

If you really cannot stand it, there are other ways. You can reinvent yourself whenever you want. You will always have options to do something you like and which brings you good money. Some examples below:

  • Corporate finance: Corporate finance professionals work with companies to manage their finances, including raising capital, analyzing investments, and managing financial risks. These roles can offer competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement within the company. With experience, professionals in corporate finance can become CFOs, treasurers, or other high-level financial executives.
  • Venture capital: Venture capitalists invest in early-stage startups with high growth potential. Professionals in this field can earn significant salaries and have the opportunity to advance to partner-level positions, as well as the potential for lucrative bonuses if their investments perform well. Venture capitalists are typically responsible for identifying promising companies, conducting due diligence, negotiating deals, and providing ongoing support to portfolio companies.
  • Real estate: Real estate professionals work in areas such as property management, development, and investment. These roles can offer competitive salaries and the potential for career advancement, particularly in the commercial real estate sector. Real estate professionals typically work with property owners, tenants, and investors to maximize the value of their assets.
  • Business development: Business development professionals work to identify and pursue growth opportunities for their companies. This can involve identifying new markets, developing new products or services, or pursuing strategic partnerships. Business development roles can offer competitive salaries and the potential for career advancement, particularly for those with a talent for identifying and executing on new business opportunities.
  • Join a startup and try to get some capital: Joining a startup can offer the potential for high returns if the company is successful, as well as the opportunity to participate in the creation and growth of a new business. Professionals who are able to secure funding for their startups can potentially earn significant returns, either through equity or through a successful exit such as an acquisition or IPO.
  • Start your own business: Starting your own business can be a challenging and risky endeavor, but it can also offer the potential for significant rewards if the business is successful. Entrepreneurship is not as glamorous as people make it to be, it takes years to build a functional, profitable business, and you’ll potentially have to work even more than in IB to make it work (without the safety of a consistent paycheck). So it’s more of a high-risk, high-reward path. 

Always keep in mind that you are free to do whatever you want at any time. No one requires you to stay in IB if you don’t want to. You always have options and always will. 

If you still want a job in investment banking after reading this, then check out this page.


A word about the author

Aurelian Tran is the founder of Alpha Lane and an ex-Goldman Sachs analyst who has spent 4+ years working in the investment banking industry.

He founded Alpha Lane to help students and young professionals achieve their highest professional ambitions, by securing offers at top-tier financial institutions.