It was two weeks prior to the end of my summer internship. I was on the ‘E’ subway train back from World Financial Center. Got myself a seat during rush hour, sat down, and started reading Complete Money & Investing Guidebook by The Wall Street Journal, a reading requirement for summer interns at Merrill Lynch.
“Hey, do you work in the financial services industry,” said a young City College student standing in front of me, wearing a City College t-shirt and a black leather messenger bag with his student I.D. clipped onto his jean’s belt loop. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you, but I see you are reading an investment book and was curious about your background.”
“Yes,” I replied, hoping he noticed my tone that I wasn’t in the mood for small talk on the subway, and didn’t mind just one question. I got back to my reading on how stocks and bonds work.
“Sorry,” the City College student said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but do you mind if I ask what do you do? It’s just that you seem young, as if you recently graduated from college and started working in the financial services industry. I am thinking about working in finance, too.”
I folded the corner of the page to remind myself where I left off, closed the book, and placed it inside my backpack. I was not in the mood to talk, but given he had my alma mater’s t-shirt and I.D., I felt obliged to help the guy out.
“I see you have a City College t-shirt. Do you go there,” I asked.
“Yes, I am a junior studying electrical engineering.”
“I went to City College and studied engineering, too. I studied mechanical engineering, though. Now I am in grad school at Boston University, studying mathematical finance, or financial engineering. Whatever you want to call it.”
“Wow,” he exclaimed. “You went to City College, too? And studied engineering? Man, I have so many questions! This is so cool! I finally meet someone who switched from engineering to finance. Are you an intern? Where are you interning?”
“Yeah, I’m an intern at Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center.”
“That is fucking awesome! You must be making bank! Dude, what do you do at Merrill Lynch?”
I knew this question was coming. What do you do at Merrill Lynch?
I paused for a few seconds, not sure what to say. Why, you ask? Well, because for the past two-and-a-half months, a typical day at Merrill Lynch was not your Wolf-of-Wall-Street kind of experience.
I wake up, shower, brush teeth, eat breakfast, iron clothes, and commute on public transportation, which consist of twenty minutes of walking, twenty minutes of waiting, twenty minutes on the unreliable ‘Q72’ bus, five minutes on the ‘7’ subway line, and thirty minutes on the ‘E’ subway line.
As soon as I enter Merrill Lynch’s office, I grab boss’s newspapers at front desk, lay them neatly on his desk, and wait for his arrival.
My boss arrives and first thing is to grab coffee. I then listen to his morning thoughts on various newspaper articles while fighting sleep and extreme boredom, and ask for the day’s assignment. My assignments for the summer consisted of cutting newspaper articles, cataloging articles, tidying up drawers, and organizing files.
Ten hours later, my boss leaves. I then repeat the same morning commute, but in reverse.
After a long two hour commute, I finally arrive at home.
I repeat this same sequence of events five times a week, for three months.
Monetary Reward? None. It’s an unpaid internship.
Now, I couldn’t tell this college student that my entire summer internship at Merrill Lynch consisted of listening to my boss talk about “interesting” articles in the newspaper, clipping articles together, and tidying up files and drawers. I couldn’t tell him that I would wake up at 5:00am and waste four hours commuting every day just to listen to a man talk about himself trying to “make it big” one day. On top of all that, I couldn’t tell him I did this for zero pay.
It wasn’t some fancy internship where I had to assist in the management of a portfolio or analyze the stock market. It was an internship where I learned how to fight sleep, pretend I am awake, and where the highlight of the day was eating lunch by the Battery Park City pier, watch multi-million dollar yachts entering and exiting the harbor, and contemplating on how someone can afford those floating mansions.
So, what did I tell this guy?
“I assist my manager in the management of a $50 million in assets-under-management of an extensive book of private Ultra-High-Net-Worth clients by performing market research, asset allocations, and stock trade input. I monitor market activities to gather investment ideas and opportunities for client portfolios. My summer project is to analyze up-and-coming energy-tech firms and their performances on the stock market.”
“Holy shit,” the student exclaimed. “That is fucking awesome!”
Technically, it wasn’t a lie. My boss did manage a book of Ultra-High-Net-Worth clients, but it was more like $2.5 million in assets-under-management, not $50 million. Did I perform market research? Kind of. My boss’s co-worker showed me how to use a Bloomberg computer terminal, a software to monitor and analyze real-time financial market data and prices. I used it once, for less than an hour. Did I input stock trades and allocate assets for clients? No, I wasn’t licensed, but I did watch my boss do it. Does that count?
And that’s how I learned to glamorize the most mundane tasks and roles in the financial services industry. If others in the industry were doing it to get themselves ahead, why shouldn’t I? It was the beginning of learning how to sell myself in a cutthroat industry swamped by elites.