January 2020 – “You see you mate, you’re incredible! You really deserve this. No one deserves this more than you do, big fella.” I wasn’t sure what was worse. Robert’s clap on my back that threatened to knock me over face first, or the kick coming from his alcohol-laced breath. “Thanks Robert,” I replied. “I appreciate your support; it means a lot.” I genuinely meant it despite the physical and mental exhaustion I had experienced to get here.
It was a drizzly, January evening. The office was packed into a claustrophobic bar in the city, some celebrating promotions, and others comforting disgruntled members of their team who were appalled there wasn’t an extra zero on the end of their bonus cheques. I had just been promoted to an officer of the firm, by far the highlight of my career. However, despite all the festivities, I wanted nothing more than to get home, curl up in a ball and get some sleep.
“Ah gents, both enjoying your good news I see!” The head of the floor bumped into us on his way to the bar, pulling with him an insistent group of sycophants. “Ah yes Chris, I was just congratulating PB on his promotion.” Robert clapped me on the back again, and some of my drink sloshed over onto the carpet. “Yes, a fantastic year,” Chris continued. “I was really impressed with your acceptance speech, as well. You really have come a long way here!” The small group that had now circled us were nodding in approval, their smiles more self-indulgent than happy. Chris, however, was shooting me a piercing look, as if to detect any chinks in my armour, making sure he had promoted one of the good ones. I held eye contact, ensuring I kept my nerve to pass the only real test that mattered that night. “It’s been a surreal journey Chris, but I’m delighted I’ve been able to add value to the business. I’m excited to push on and do even better going forward.” I smiled warmly, still holding eye contact before Chris broke out into a wild smile and put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s what we want to hear, sir! In any case, the real work starts from here – you’re back to being a small fish in a big pond. You’re really well-liked around here, and you have a shot at really making an impact in this industry! Keep at it.” Chris gave me a friendly shake and faded into the crowd again with Robert and his crew hurriedly following. I slumped into a nearby seat of coats and embraced the smooth rub of the velvet as I was left to contemplate the magnitude of what I’d achieved, and on the more daunting ocean still left for me to navigate. Today – As I have progressed throughout my career, I have struggled increasingly with one particular aspect: The Curse of Success. This is not to be arrogant, there are infinitely more talented and successful people than me, but on the flip side, I’ve been no slouch in the race to make a name for myself in my field. I was by far one of the highest achieving associates in my class and have continued to be so as an officer of the firm. I have reached career and remuneration milestones that I never could’ve expected. Yet somehow, I battle daily to figure out one thing. Is it all worth it? You see, the more successful I become, the more I wonder why I’m working so hard. Is it to leave the ends? Is it to get my Mum out? Is it to defy odds that I have long beaten? What am I proving, and who am I proving it to? I’ll try and hash some self-therapy out in the next few paragraphs – hopefully, you’ll find it insightful. During my “come up”, even as a kid, I made a big deal about being the underdog and proving people wrong. It was the biggest buzz for me, whilst my peers validated themselves with girls, credit from the road or money, my biggest high was proving my teachers, careers advisors, friends and parents wrong. When you have nothing to lose, you approach life with an unbridled fearlessness and the feeling of knowing that you have succeeded in the face of adversity is something which still drives me to this day. However, as I count my blessings that increase by the day, I wonder what more there is left to chase? As I have developed and continue to reset the bar higher for myself, I think on when it will all stop? There will always be someone more successful who will be able to exercise privilege, money or power over me. It sounds juvenile and this is something I have to come to terms with myself, but for now, it’s my reality. The conviction I have that I will continue to exceed the expectations I had when I was young, is something I don’t think I can easily shake at all.
The other factor in this is my love for the competition. Whether it be the trading floor or dominoes, I hate to lose. Being from ends, you tend to take your fair amount of losses from the very start. You’re born in a shit estate, go to a failing school and deal with situations you only find out are abnormal when you go out into the real world. Taking losses elsewhere in life seems unacceptable, and it’s why people from the ends are the most defensive, the most prone to get upset over trivial matters and will always defend their last views and pennies to the furthest extent. That’s also why we tend to settle for the shortest straw and protect it even though we deserve better, because what’s the alternative? The love of competition can be unhealthy, but it can also give you an edge in the corporate environment. It can be the difference in thinking more creatively about how to win more business and getting ahead of people who are happy to cruise in their day to day work. However, the willingness to outwork, win and prove doubters wrong, comes at pretty severe costs.
One overriding feeling I battle with though is the sheer exhaustion that trying to win comes with. I often tell young people coming into the industry that the most useful trait you can have outside of raw ability is stamina. It really is a case of last person standing sometimes. The attrition rate in finance is a testament to this. It’s a field that actively encourages pushing yourself to intellectual and physical limits. You can see why people give up once they notice the pattern behaviour in finance. The industry encourages being long-term greedy: “Put the work in and you can end up like me, with millions in the bank, a massive house in Notting Hill and ego to match it.” With the way bank business models are changing, though, a lot of people in the industry find that this isn’t viable anymore. Fewer bank profits are paid out in compensation than previously, and banks are burdened by more stringent regulation and capital requirements, which means it’s harder to reward talent than it was in days past. The carrot at the end of the stick keeps getting further away, and many people burn out before they get anywhere near it.
The other conflicting feeling I have with doing well in finance is the sheer loneliness of the situation sometimes. I’m not really one for dwelling on emotional sentiments or a strong need for consistent validation, but being from a black, working-class background in finance can be extremely difficult, especially as you progress through the ranks. You constantly grapple with the fact that you’re the only one that looks like you in meetings, that you’re vastly out-earning the peers you grew up with and that you have a tiny circle of people to lean on when you’re at your lows. This in no way discredits the support network I have, but the majority of feedback you get from friends and family is normally along the lines of, “Well, you’re well paid for it.” How can I tell my Mum that I turned down working for money she could only dream of in the village she grew up in? Or turned down an opportunity to be in an industry with money people on my old estate would literally take lives for? Often this means I dismiss the hardships I go through because, well it could always be worse. A build-up of these frustrations can really take a heavy toll on you.
To bring it all full circle, I ask the question again, “Is it all worth it?” If I’m honest, it’s something which I change my mind about often, but it’s never brought me close to quitting my job or finding something else to do with my life. Considering finance was never originally my passion in life, this points to a pretty profound conclusion for me. Firstly, I’ve always felt it’s a long, long way down for me if I were to step away from finance. I realise in some ways this is a coward’s approach; the risk of me losing it all weighs heavily on my mind. The truth is though; I have further to fall than many of my peers at the office. I don’t have a legacy to fall back on, and even with my experience, I still fight the battle of being from the background I’m from, even if only psychologically. In some ways, the fear of going back to the person I was before I made anything for myself holds me to ransom. There is a fear of letting people down, especially when I may be the only person in their life they look up to as a real example of someone who has transcended their circumstances and become hyper-successful. For me, it’s not even about that money (although it’s obviously a huge factor), it’s about figuring out how I’d deal with the inevitable regret I’d feel if I stepped away from it all.
The Poor Banker