The Virtues of Living Your Life Driving

1:13a.m. In a car with two friends, pulled over, they on the phone figuring out which dimly lit alley we should take to get to another guy’s apartment. Downtown Los Angeles, just outside of the ring of skyscrapers that form the nexus of L.A. proper, is full of dimly lit alleys. Two garage doors were the only openings of a low rectangular building across from the street from us. They were sprayed with words I couldn’t make out. No other car had its lights on and no other car crossed the intersection where we were. As my friends were hammering out the lefts and rights to take, a collarless dark-gold German Shepard galloped across the street, eyes crazed and sparkling. It stopped abruptly, hunkered on its haunches, surveyed the area straight ahead, and lunged into the horizon with the determination of the predator familiar to anyone who watches National Geographic HD. A minute later, another dog, similarly singleminded, followed hot on the trail of the first one.

Photo first appeared in

Figureoa - a step away and light years apart from downtown (first appeared in

I had flown to L.A. for the weekend, and now, 2 hours after touching down, I was in Figueroa, in a street that had become the expropriated territory of rabid dogs. What did I get myself into???

Although the rest of the night involved carrying a new queen mattress and box spring from a truck up the stairs to that guy’s apartment, and taking the nastiest puff from a most makeshift of water bongs, I calmed down a lot. I got rewarded for my toil: the guy in whose apartment we were hanging out was a very good host. He let us use his netbook. He offered us green-white cans of apple cider, as well as trail mix. He caught me eyeing a box of spicy chicken wings and he offered those to me as well. They were too hot for me. I learned that one of my friends has had a huge crash on a hometown girl for years (how could he have kept it a secret?). I certainly learned never to smoke from a fishy-looking water bong. I got to pass some time with old friends without remembering what the heck we had been talking about for three hours. I felt I learned something that night. It was cushy landing in Southern California after all.

“You live your life driving,” a San Francisco friend said when she heard about my flying down to L.A. That was my experience, pretty much. You have to drive everywhere. L.A. is huggge. Beverly Hills? Its own city. UCLA might as well be. we drove 15 minuets to cover about 15% of the gorgeous campus. And they call the area around it Westwood Village. Village my butt. The area has its own several zip codes.

You get the feel of what people are like when they have to spend significant amounts of time in their cars. My L.A. friend and I, for example, approach driving slightly differently, as a result. I just get in the car and drive. My L.A. friend will not back out of the driveway until he’s completely down with the music, and he’s satisfied with the position of dashboard dials, the height of the seat, and the cleanliness of the windshield. I would have flipped out if I stood in traffic this long in San Francisco. My friend was resigned. We talked a lot in the car during the weekend. Might as well. Much of my trip was spent there.

And you go to the ocean in L.A. That was my second day. Santa Monica is its own city, and apparently the shabby-looking houses right on the beach costs more than a million bucks each, according to my friend. There’s a pile of zany people at Venice Beach, kind of like the Mission in my familiar, manageable town. We were going to hang in Westwood on my second night, but after spending 40 (whattt) minutes pathetically looking for parking there, we decided to cap my second night at a sports bar in Brentwood. Flatscreen in every booth, so you could watch the baseball game very closely. People were filing in and out, in cliques. Some mingling among cliques, usually guys attempt an infiltration into packs of girls. A lot of blondes, some tall, some not so much. Some drinking, not too crazy. The whole scene seemed surprisingly matter-of-factly.

L.A. is impersonal, and my friend knows his place in the metropolis. He knows the acceptable behavior in recurring social situations. He knows the acceptable routes to take to get certain places. He knows that to keep his job he needs to do his job, no shortcuts or complaints. For a city stigmatized as full of prima donnas, it seems full of people who know and obey their place.

Where are you going from here, in life, I mean? I ask him. I don’t know, man, he says. Is he happy? I wonder. He goes through his days, relatively smoothly. He got the routines down. Another friend of mine actually transitioned from one job to another. It wasn’t a clear-cut decision so much as a long, gradual, psychological departing from his current job, until his head was completely in something other than work for days at a time. Even then, it wasn’t like he was searching and interviewing non-stop. He sent in resumes here and there, “whatever came up, you know,” until one of them triggered a phone call from an HR person, which led to an interview and viola.

People understand here that living is a process. You don’t do things out of the blue. I wanted to go to Beverly Hills, also its own city these days, I remind you. Sure, my friend said. I wanted to talk to people there, hang out. Unlikely, he responded. I insisted.

“Get this through your head, they have no interest talking to you,” he said.

We settled for Google-mapping and having the “little dude” (my friend’s words) walk us through the streets of Beverly Hills. “Multi-million dollar homes,” my friend noted with each new screen. I didn’t think they were that impressive, for the most part. I gave up on going there.

“So what do you want to do,” my friend said.

“What real people do here.”

What? It got a rise out of him. There’s no such thing, he said. He counted the things people do in Santa Monica and Venice. We tried to walk through those places with the little Google dude, but he can’t go on the beach, apparently. “That’s bullshit,” my friend said. I was also miffed for the little dude.

We ended up taking a drive to Santa Monica and Venice, as well as Marina Del Rey. Then we just did In-and-Out for dinner and came back to watch Amadeus on DVD. Even though driving involves minimal physical activity, a whole weekend of it would get you as tired as if you’d gone to the gym.

My friends would not have the desire to dissect the young professional’s life as I do on this blog. It’s not what they’re about, challenging the status quo. Instead, they take comfort in what they like about it. In a way, the L.A. reality of long waits, curt conversations, admiration of ‘multi-million dollar’ homes, and a life amid millions of cold and complete strangers, makes one invariably live for the part of the glass that’s half full.

Maybe I should be more like that, I thought. There’s value in staying in line sometimes. Would I be able to do it? Not for long, I’m sure. Already the Monday after coming back, I found myself deep in thought about the dilemma of reacting to an overzealous MBAer who is too enthusiastic for his own good. Would visible irritation or cloying obedience get me through this problem? “Try to roll with it, see what happens,” my L.A. friend said in an email when I asked him for advice.

All the I-hope-you-don’t-minds and please-let-me-knows

Mr. [my last name],

I hope you don’t mind me contacting you, I found your name on our college’s website. My name is ____ and I am very interested in working in banking. I am a senior economics major and captain of the swim team. I have attached a CV for you to learn a little more about me.

I am interested in banking mostly and I wanted to see if you had any advice as to how I should go about this process. Please let me know if you are willing to chat. I certainly don’t want to put you out or take too much of your time, so whatever you can do is much appreciated.


This, more or less, is an email I got about, oh, 3 months into my professional career. Since when did I become Mr. anything? And all the I-hope-you-don’t-minds and please-let-me-knows. Here was a person, but one year behind me chronologically, who invested time in drafting this letter. I got the same feeling as when I interviewed for my current job: One of the interviewers took his time to get out a highlighter. I’m pretty sure I’ve never said anything worth highlighting. So that was a shock. But someone drafting a whole email to impress me? Clearly uncharted territory we’re stepping into.

I suppose this person was following the rules of the game. It’s always complimentary to get an email like that, and in return the targeted young professional is likely to lend his or her ever-increasing wisdom and connections. I happened to have taken the first major step forward in my career before he did, so that qualifies me for a carefully drafted email that hopefully does not “put me out or takes too much of my time.”

It’s ok, reading the email didn’t put me out at all. And actually, offering my help is going to take very little of my time. But dear mr. person, I should warn. Coming to me for the inside scoop about corporate jobs…I don’t know about that. First of all, what can I possibly write about. I know next to nothing, especially compared to, well, almost anyone. And that is not even my biggest shortcoming. My biggest shortcoming is the complete loss of ability to play the game. The sad truth is, once I was hired, I couldn’t do it anymore. Some people have corporate jobs and can still pull it off. Not me. I’d be a horrible career adviser.

I thought about how I’d answer this email. For example, getting hired. The email kind of asks me for tips about that. Great question, mr. person! Here’s the secret:

You apply to the stuff that they post on the college career website, and then some random companies through websites. You write up a generic resume and cover letters that you change only perfunctorily from one job app to the next. You don’t waste your time – most people read it for 30 secs and make a decision on the fly! You get your interviews, in which you are asked such questions as, “why did you major in psychology/economics/math?” and “why do you want to work here?” You answer in optimistic and character-enhancing stories, never mind the obvious hyperbole. Hopefully you get a couple of callbacks in which you repeat this exercise. With luck, you then have a couple of offers in your hand, and you make decisions by blindly focusing on stereotypes and prevailing gossip about this or that industry or company.

That’s it, mr. person. Hope my advice was useful – go get ’em!


A bit cynical, eh? Now that’s an understatement. But I believe there’s a lot of truth to that description. The point is not to make informed decisions or impress corporate recruiters with genuine skills and thought-out opinions. The point is to play the game, which means doing what I just described. If you play the game you engender trust that you’ll do your job if they hire you.

Anyway, this is obviously not the material of sound advice to our mr. person.

But that’s how you get hired!!!!

Ok, ok, deep breaths.


How about if I talked about something other than getting hired. Mr. person did mention that they are considering banking. Well, let’s say mr. person gets hired into banking. Now they have to decide which company to go to, and in which industry or sub-industry. Mutual funds? Hedge funds? Wealth management? Corporate finance? So, even though you might have to pretend to be someone you’re not during the recruiting process, you enjoy real options to choose from once you’ve been hired.

But it’s unfortunate that once we get the job and can really delve into researching what we would be getting ourselves into, we usually don’t. At least I didn’t, so let me use the singular from now on. Enough people have gone through the automated college recruiting process to create a steady stream of gossip and urban myths, and that’s what I listened to mostly. Company A is always respectful of your weekends. The Chicago office of that Company B gets only the leftovers from the New York office. Working Company C means long hours and rude managers. Etc.

Are all these things true? There’s no way of telling.

The basic truth, for both me and I fear for mr. person, is that we’ve probably gotten into something without having any idea of what it was. That’s how it works, and that’s how almost everybody does it.

In my job apps, even if I wanted to make my skills the true centerpiece of my apps, I couldn’t. You had no idea what these companies really wanted. I had no idea what the job would be like. The only thing I could sell myself on were hyperbolized stories about why I chose my major and how I effectively handled situations of conflict. So that’s what I did.

I must have gotten good at all this to some extent, since I was hired someplace. Maybe that was something I could tell mr. person. The part I still feel guilty about in this whole thing was that I never replied to that email. I felt that my outlook had become too jaded, too weird, to spread around. Mr. person was just starting out, and he was about to feel the rush of getting hired. I wasn’t going to rain on his parade. But the best part of work comes after the rush of getting hired, and after the ensuing disappointment of realizing that the promises made in interviews about important analysis and challenging tasks are seen for their emptiness. The best part of work comes when you actually learn what it is your job is about, and how to get good at it. That was when, instead of comparing my job to some stereotype or gossip, I got to enjoy what I do.

The People of Tuesday Afternoons

One of the undeniable oddities of work and school life is that we absolutely love to get sick. We watch our weight, what we eat, we may exercise, and go through physicals to preempt serious medical conditions. We get asked what like to do and invariably one of the things many of us say is, “I love to work out.” But despite of all this, the thought of a mild sickness jolts the all the pleasure centers in our brain like the thought of cookie dough ice cream we promised ourselves after a spinning class.

Diseases mean discomfort, pills, weakness, aching, and these days thoughts of genetic mutations of pigs. But once we hit school age, we no longer care about that. From that day forward, diseases come to mean one thing: a day off.

A day off!

Surely, this is a problem of evolutionary proportions. Surely, all of us working folk will be extinct by natural selection by anyone who views diseases with the proper life-death pro and con arguments (i.e., life = good, death = bad). These level-headed people will rightly not rejoice when they are sick, even if it means spending a day in bed after 2 months of 60-hour weeks.

A day in bed…Ooooooh yeah.

Clearly, I am not of part of that superior group. I will be one of the millions to become extinct. But people of my kind, despair not. It’s not our fault. We must blame society. Why? For it is society that has made a safe harbor out of getting a slight headache. You only get three weeks off a year (hasn’t it occurred to these people running our companies that days off to us are like oxygen in our blood?! And that giving us more of them would catapult productivity on the days we come to work straight to the moon? Has it? If it has, they’re certainly hiding it pretty well. Phhhh), but if you’re sick – well, in that case you’re basically allowed another two weeks of unaccounted for, uncorroborated, personal time.

As long as you don’t overdo it, you basically have complete jurisdiction over when and why to take a sick day. Try to take a vacation, they’ll want to confirm or deny the request based on business needs. Sickdays they’ll never question. “I hope you’re feeling ok today Tom,” they’d say. “No need to overwork yourself right after being sick Dick,” they’d add. “Can I make you some tea, Harry?” a particularly zealous few of them would offer.

So, it’s completely society’s fault. Society makes it beneficial for any rational individual to take a sick day. If you’re sick, people understand you and even fawn over you, and you can spend a day in bed. Conclusion: sick = good. Derived conclusion I: sick = death. Derived conclusion II: death = good. That last one will really do us in as a sub-specie.

Tuesday this week, I took a sick day. We get 9 of them a year. It’s like reaching for the cookie jar – you can’t do it too often, but when you do it… well, it’s a guilty pleasure. very guilty pleasure. This time, however, I was actually sick. No lying necessary. Honest. Boy scouts’ honor. Stick a needle in my eye. All that.

I woke up to find my body weak and aching. Clearly, it wasn’t going to carry me all the way to the bus stop. I’m not that much into pills. My strategy in dealing with illness is to sleep it out. I generally enjoy coziness more than the average guy. Also, there is medicinal value to sleeping, so say I. Your body is resting, and is gathering strength. Strength defeats illness, not pills.

Faithful to my strategy, I called in sick and slept in till 2 (yes! yes!). I slept so hard it hurt to be awake. When I wobbled out of bed there was a deep crease on my skin, all along on the right side of my torso. Apparently my right hand was aggressively clutching the side of my bed, and the pointy edge dug a laced pattern into my skin. Amusing. Not necessarily related, but amusing.

2 o’clock on a Tuesday. What to do? I haven’t encountered a situation in which I had to ask this question for the last 7 months. At work, the most common choice I make is whether to do work or procrastinate, but there’s never a complete loss as to what to do.

My choice of activities was constrained by my geriatric-like condition. My body was aching all over, I was coughing and probably burning up, and my head felt light. I ambled to the kitchen and then to the living room and then back again, mainly to test out what I could do in this state. I decided that I’d feel less of a bum if I went outside of the apartment. There’s a coffee shop in my neighborhood, one of the independent coffee shops San Francisco residents take indigenous pride in. Well, there are a lot of coffee shops in my neighborhood, but that’s the one I went to.

I was basically taken by complete shock when I came in. I must have looked like a nutter, standing there, mouth maybe agape, maybe not, bu no one really seemed to have noticed. Nutters are another common element of San Francisco life, incidentally.

The place isn’t weird or anything. It has gray floor tiles that look like they’re made of marble. Maybe they are, maybe it’s something cheaper. Armchairs are scattered in groups of four, and there are wooden chairs to fill up the leftover space. The tables are made of some kind of stone, probably, and some of them are connected to the floor. There were two barristas, both women with tattoos, one had heavy-framed glasses and the other lip piercing. The latter seemed like the shift manager. I came up to her and ordered a cafe mocha. Yuppie coffees are an emerging trend in my consumer spending behavior. Then I kind of fell into an armchair.

Who were all these people?

The place wasn’t packed, but it was pretty well filled up. I might as well have walked in on a Sunday afternoon. It seemed incomprehensible to me that these people had time to hang out on a Tuesday afternoon. Jobs? Anyone here has jobs?

The shift manager lady walked to my armchair and gave me the cafe mocha. They had some jagged blues playing, but I kept trying to be in a different mood. Maybe more like this. I was fascinated by all these people around. They were girls and boys, old and young, a few wearing unfortunate headgear, most everybody wearing cloth shoes. I had expected the place to be nearly empty.

To my right was sitting a rather cuddley fellow, black windbreaker and black windbreaking pants. He was old, white goatee, and had reading glasses. He was looking ostensibly nowhere in particular. But he noticed I was looking at him. If he thought he was fooling anybody, he was mistaken. There are a lot of people like in San Francisco: putting a lot of weight on ephemeral social interaction. We’re just sitting close to each other in a coffee shop, Mr. Cuddley Fellow, nothing special.

“Did you serve in the military?”

He suddenly asked. I said no, I did not serve in the U.S. military.

“I saw your ring, thought it was from the Air Force Academy.”

I explained it was my graduation ring from a liberal arts college from Massachusetts. Good catch on his part, nonetheless. I asked him about his ring. Mine was a thin silver one. His was far more thick and golden. It also had a blue rock.

“Graduated in the first class of the Air Force Academy, the proudest moment of my life,” said he. He indicated the year, and I thought I heard “1964.” After the conversation I checked it out. Maybe I heard it wrong – he must have said “1954.” I didn’t doubt him.

He had a baseball cap on, embroidered with the Air Force logo. Talked about his service in a radar station somewhere in Colorado, and how he transferred to Arizona at some point. “Really hot over there,” he laughed.

He changed the subject on his own to discuss the JCC and how he used to use the gym there until the building moved or something. He likes his current gym, too. “74 years old and I’m in good shape, but I can’t walk all the way over to the JCC now.” We talked a bit about California in the 70s, and how Reagan threw out all the mental patients living until then in government mental institution. “Threw them out on the street.”

It was a good talk. After a while, I got antsy. It happens to me a lot of I’m talking people considerably older than I. Why did I get antsy? In any case, I said goodbye and it was nice talking. He looked he was about to say something about the JCC before I bid farewell, but he immediately stopped himself and got with the program. It looked like he experienced abrupt goodbyes like that.

I got back home and lay on the couch. I had learned a few things about this John, a 1954 Air Force Academy graduate, formerly known as Mr. Cuddley Fellow. Probably useless things in any other context, but still, it was interesting. He told me he hadn’t missed a day visiting this coffee shop for last 8 years or something like that. I told myself maybe I’ll see him again. It definitely took me out of the sick day mentality. There are people out there who live outside of the working world, young professional, grindstone. It was fun to encounter one of them.

“I’m Bored.” And Then She Turned In Her Chair

Some people find their friends in their co-workers. Some find their friends elsewhere. But everybody hangs out at work. That’s the reality of spending 30% of your total time on this earth in the office (under the best of circumstances). This creates layers and layers of social relationships that don’t vary from each other that much. Basically, how close you are to someone in the office can be measured by the number of sentences exchanged after the words, “how are you?”

The rule is you have to be cordial. When you walk by people, you say ‘hello.’ At least I do, which, come to think of it, might kind of force them to to say it back. Can you imagine how they’d feel ignoring someone who just walked by them with a smile? Smiling is of the best ways of shaming people into greeting you.

OK, so maybe saying hello is not a real rule. But in any case, I say hello. I mean, I know who these people are, I see them every day. If you ask me, it’d be dumb for me and them to ignore each other for the rest of our lives.

So that’s the easy part of social life at the office. It’s safe. Most of the time, my chosen level of politeness usually leads to equal level of politeness from the other side. 1+1 is 2. You have to be a real a-hole not to say hi back.

I belong to the group of us who don’t see the value of mixing work and play and consequently do not look for friends in my co-workers. It wasn’t like I wasn’t open for it to happen. It just didn’t. Like what hope is the habit of a reasonable beekeeper who doesn’t particularly like being stung, I don’t take my work surroundings home with me. So whenever my real-life friends, or roommates, or parents, or anyone else I hang out with on a voluntary basis, ask me, ‘what’s the people like at your work?’ and I say, ‘they’re pretty cool,’ I realize that my answer is so blah because of how I’ve come to view my officemates: as one, uninteresting, unimaginative, nondescript, manufactured, person.

It’s horrible. Without taking the time to think about it, I basically cannot access that part of my brain that has the files on all of these different people who roam around the halls and occupy 35% of their lives in cubes. The solidarity alone should have made me treat them with more respect. It’s my brain taking a shortcut.

So I hereby proclaim, with due humility and apologies:

There are differences between the people in my office.

That’s not exactly a load off my shoulders, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. I also tried to take another right step this past week: I sat down and had lunch with my co-workers – for real.

What do I mean by ‘for real’? I’ve obviously had lunch with them before; everyone who works has lunch with their co-workers sometimes. That’s like more than 130 million workers in the United States, having lunch with one another.

What I mean is that I chose to come to lunch with them in order to hang out. Shoot the breeze. Gossip about this and that. I really tried.

…Except it wasn’t. There was banter – but it was mostly identical. And generalized. You couldn’t tell who said what comment because most of them were about the same thing and even using almost the same words. The jokes were all about the same. Make fun of how there’s nothing to do in obscure states, i.e. states that are not California or New York. Make fun of other obscure or oft-derided countries, i.e. Canada. Make fun of oft-derided politicians, i.e. Bush. But every topic gets discussed the same way:

  1. Start out with a disparaging yet simplistic fact about the topic.
    I heard there’s nothing to do in Ohio
  2. Continue with affirmation that the comment is totally valid.
    Yeah, what’s over there, potatoes?
    Dude, that’s Idaho. They don’t even have potatoes there.
  3. …And move on to the next topic to attack:
    Yeah, dude, I’d kind of rather go to Canada
    (turning to an analyst/associate from Canada)Now That’s boring.

How can a dozen people have the same sense of humor? How can they express themselves in the exact same way? How can they talk about such a variety of issues in such a simplistic way? I know not. Needless to say, this lunch did not bring me the differentiation I had sought.

But perhaps change comes in one fell swoop, completely unexpected and unplannable.

It happened on a Friday. Friday is a day when my office is perpetually winding down. Whatever things can be postponed to next week are postponed. Whatever meetings can be cut short are cut short.

At 4pm all of us in my cube could definitely congratulate ourselves on a winding down job well done. My cube is composed of me, another first-year, and a third-year person, who basically lives a little bit above the fray. She’s also a master of the prop-’em-up-to-knock-’em-down type of conversation described above. In any case, it was 4 o’clock and all of us already had Facebook and GChat on our screens. What a way to finish a week and start a weekend.

And then, it happened.


“I’m bored,” said the illustrious third-year, and then she turned in her chair.

Was it me she was talking to? Could it be? Usually, when she talked to us first-years, she talked to the other cubemate, who’s a girl. Girl bond sometimes beat seniority-based hierarchy.

It must have been what it felt like for Yizhak Rabin in 1993 on the White House Lawn to see Yassir Arafat’s hand extended in his direction for him to shake. You think I exaggerate? I’ll be the first to admit, I sometimes have doubts in my own credibility, but let me assure you, this “I’m bored” and swivel-in-her-chair was the equivalent, if not the inferior, of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

I didn’t quite know how to respond to a gesture of that magnitude. I don’t quite remember how I did. I know I did do something, because after a few minutes the third-year and I were engaged in a state-of the-art prop-’em-up-to-knock-’em-down conversation. It was the same hollow, simplistic, jeering conversation I had been railing on. But this one felt different. This time I felt included.

I was included!

For all my self-justification, there’s something very satisfactory in being let into the realms of the big guys (and girls). The third-year and I may have a meaningless exchange, but it was a line in the sand, a stone in the water, the peek of a hill surmounted. Was I included forever into their fold? Hmmm. Well, this is a lot like Stewie Griffin ostensibly rejecting Lois’s babying but then regresses into being the baby he is.

So, will I choose the higher ground ever again? Or will I become a slave of the system, the system that beguiles you with attention from the seniors while draining you from intellectual depth and real humor.

Well, I again know not. But it’s interesting to point out this whole episode, which is why I wrote it up for the Young Professional’s Blog. It’s how this whole corporate world works. Some might say it’s hollow, that it’s not worth getting into in the first place. But you know what? On that Friday, I was included.

Living in The New Economy

The new economy has turned the entire incentive system on which the modern corporate world is built on its head.

Of the many people who aimed for college growing up, many of us who eventually would become young professionals bought on to the notion of being a “businessman.” They sold it to us and we bought it lock, stock, and barrel.

It’s ironic that by the time we got here no one refers to us as businesspeople. But nonetheless, we grew up with an ideal in mind. TV brought it to us, corporate advertising brought it to us. Oh, and the unpleasant reality that laptops and cars and flight+hotel packages to Europe don’t come cheap brought it to us. They can, of course, come relatively cheap, but we young professionals have a taste for the latest and best.

What was this ideal, this aspiration to be part of Corporate America, all about? It was about men in ties and black suits, marching with purpose and poise into and out of very tall buildings with glossy windows. It was about women in pants suits and sensible shoes, looking sharp and talking fast, and running meetings in boardrooms full of men. Personally, businesspeople weren’t the only group I looked up to, but looking up to them, or at least my idealized version of them, determined to a large extent the perspective I took on my career. It looked to me like these were people who worked hard, long hours, under amounts of stress and competition, and succeeded because of the merit of their work. That seemed cool enough to aspire to.

But I knew there’d be a downside. All the ties, all the black suits, the flight+hotels, as well as the women in pants suits would have to take a backseat to work. The ironies abound. The material and social benefits for which we chose our careers can be obtained only if we performed at work, seemingly a byproduct of the lifestyle. Do corporate employees choose their careers for the work they’d be doing? In part, surely, but if it weren’t for the surrounding perks, corporate headcounts might be a lot lower.

Basically, when you’re right out of college and the only office-relevant task you really have experience in is making coffee, “putting work first” and “succeeding on the merits” mean working long hours. What else are you going to be judged on? There are very few things you do that are eligible for real review. When you stay long hours, you show something to your supervisor. Well, even that is a bit misleading, since as a first-year analyst or associate rarely do you make a decision such as “should I stay late tonight or can I leave this work for tomorrow?” Those decisions are made for you. All you’re expected to do after getting hired is show up – and stay up.

In turn, this led people to yearn for work to be over and done with. As piles of work came in, people generally tried to cut the pile to size. If you have to stay late anyway, and if you can’t leave until everyone on your team leaves, then it’d be best if you didn’t have to slave throughout the entire day. There were periods during the day when shirking was possible, because something wasn’t due until two hours from now or the manager happened to be gone for the afternoon. If that happened, well that was swell. Excel wouldn’t mind taking a rest. Not to mention, the Internet’s there, right on your computer. The Internet is many a splendor thing. Facebook, YouTube, GChat, Skype, Hulu, RealClearPolitics. Even WordPress. As long as you knew how to parse out the really urgent tasks from the fake urgent tasks, you had room to maneuver. What did you do when there was nothing to do? You hung out. Shirking used to be nice work if you could get it.


That was then.

And now? Just like CNN and Fox and the other news networks keep saying, there’s a recession around us. We might have treated it like the fog in San Francisco, that is complain about the weather while strolling about in flip-flops in mid-January.

But now business is palpably slow. They were telling us about the recession in October last year, but we kind of shrug them off coming home at midnight only to wake at 7:00 the next day. Ever since New Year’s though, we’ve been having a lot more Facebook time. There just wasn’t any work. Clients were becoming stingy. “Cost-conscious.” The once insatiable workplans now sat empty in their Excel sheets.

This change brought about feelings I never thought I’d have about my job. The same thing happened to my friends and co-workers. The first reaction was, naturally, to go on GChat. But as the weeks went by, guilt started to creep in. And concern. And then solidarity – firm-wide solidarity. Solidarity with all the young professionals, especially for those unfortunate enough to get laid off. And solidarity for our managers and officers, too, for they have to face this whole mess head-on.

So now what might have been unthinkable a few months ago is happening. People want to work. People don’t want to shirk. Who’d have thought.

Many offices hold monthly staff meetings. For cohesion purposes. Sure, everybody comes mainly for the free food and because they have to, but still. The keynote speaker is usually the office head. And he or she goes on about the culture and the values of the firm and so on, but also talks about last month’s revenue and performance. In my office, the last three or four months have been increasingly worrisome to watch.

I don’t know that a grandiose moralism like “it’s ironic that we had to wait for a crisis to appreciate the opportunity we have in our work.” It’s natural for people to want kick back a little bit, especially if they were working 12 hours a day, most of it formatting spreadsheets. All I will say is that I do feel for the officers in my firm, and I am grateful for being able to keep my own job. It’s rough out there. Hope it gets better.

Exodus at Midday

Multiple-Choice Question Time:

What do all these times have in common?

  1. 9:11am.
  2. 10:33am.
  3. 8:45am.
  4. 11:58am.

Answer: Anyone who’s ever worked in an office will never look at them as they are. They do not have an identity of their own. They shall forever be considered only in relation to another time:


It is the time when you have permission to get up and walk around. Stretch your legs. Get a meal. Simple enough. Nice of employers to let us do that. A nice custom for a society to develop.

Except we all know that lunchtime has another dimension on top of the nutritional one. It is an escape. Everyone getting to work in the morning, whether it be choice c (not likely in California), choice a (can happen in California), or even choice b (also can happen in California), everyone experiences a sort of early morning blues.

You get to work, sleepy and rigid, and the monitor stares at you,
the keyboard stares, the phone stares, the doggy-eared papers from yesterday all stare at you, and invariably you long for hope. No, it’s not like work is torture, and especially in this economy everyone with a job is thankful for it, but still, a sliver of hope is helpful; no need for a rainbow to appear in the window, nothing quite like A Change We Can Believe In, but still, a sliver is helpful.

Lunchtime has a couple of characteristics that make it a good candidate for a shining beacon. Lunchtime is definite. It makes the morning shorter than the afternoons. Afternoons can turn into evenings that can turn into nights that can sometimes turn into mornings again. We can make educated guesses, but we can never really know when we’re going home on a given day. We may sometimes work through lunch, but that rarely diminishes the sense of relief that lunch brings: Typing away feels so different when it’s 12:12pm than when it’s 11:44am.

Lunch is also a signpost. It’s when ante meridiem turns into post meridiem. It’s when the big hand and the small hand meet at exactly 12. It’s a clear sign of progress. At work, we have explicit tasks to do and we check them off as we complete them, but we also have implicit and personal tasks: Get through the day; Get through the week. Get through the year. Attain “professional experience.” Few of us like to work. Many of us like to have worked.


So, what happens exactly when lunchtime finally, blissfully, arrives? As pre-MBA analysts and associates, we usually send emails or place calls, or pop into each other’s cubicles with the question: “What do you feel like for lunch?” There is a certain horde mentality for pre-MBAs. You can do what you like at lunchtime, but what percentage of people go to get food because they see a group of their peers going out to get food? It’s the Keynesian multiplier without government intervention.

On one such midday, we were waiting in the lobby of our office building, a bunch of us. There are always latecomers, and so there are always people standing in a circle, girls with bags on their shoulders, guys with hands in their pockets. (I don’t know what in dress slacks and buttoned shirts entices us to put our hands in our pockets.) So this is a situation necessitating small talk. Lunchtime in general necessitates small talk.

More often than not, there are silences in the circle. Virtually always, there are clipped and awkward exchanges. Exchanges that start with a question about a mundane detail and end with a factual one-liner answering that question. Sometimes the topic is sufficiently weighty, or the response has been sufficiently surprising, so as to require a follow-up. Example:

Question about mundane detail: “how do you get to work?”

Factual answer: “From now on, driving. Just got a new Mini Cooper.”

Optional follow-up: “Nice…”

Talking during lunch mostly consists of such exchanges, with occasional extensions if two people know enough about a topic to generate enough mundane details for a full-on conversation that consists of details only, with few or no judgments. And definitely no strong judgments. They’re general not allowed when socializing with your co-workers. At the very least, a subtle but distinct tension is in the air most of the time.

I’m sure some co-workers are also good friends, which would mean that their lunches are more normal conversation-wise. And less awkward. But for those co-workers who aren’t friends, and I would venture to presume that this group includes most pre-MBAs, the fact that this awkwardness at lunchtime happens day in and day out begs the question: Is this really what we’d been yearning for all morning?

The truth is that lunchtime is so promising, or else work is so depressing, that the quality of the conversation is not an issue. Who cares if you’re not really friends with your co-workers? You get to get out of the office. Stretch your legs. Get a meal. Mainly get out of the office. It’s worth that much to us. It doesn’t matter that we’d probably not tolerate this level of boredom in our truly social meals. The promise of lunchtime does not entail fun – it simply entails escape.

Work in an office seems to engender a kind of camaraderie that supersedes social mismatches. It’s important to commiserate, to share the burden of enduring the daily routines. The filing, the Excel formatting, the summary statistics, the checking, the phone calls from the MBAs, the uncertainty about when you’d be going home. The routines.

Perhaps this is a real connection, then, between all of us office dwellers, as real as the connections we have with our friends. Just of a different kind. What kind of relationships would remain among all of us when we’re past the MBA stage? Would we just ignore each other if we saw each other at a party or just down a street in a financial district somewhere under the shadows of skyscrapers that house other professionals?

I predict yes. Call me romantic. Or a lunatic. Or any other name. Why? Well, here’s my theory: Although we may not have chosen each other, although we may not find each other interesting, and although we not even like each other, we’ve been young professionals together. And that’s saying something.

A Job as a Panorama

The outcome of reaching into your pocket represents one of the most important ways in which life changes once you get a job.

There is money in there.


Which comes in handy when you go out. So now instead of keg parties in a dorm room all the time you go to keg parties in some friends’ rented house some of the time, a house which would have served a nice family if it were clean and would have been clean if it were servicing a nice family. Long story short, my friends’ houses are almost never clean.

But sometimes you go out to a bar. I’m talking a legit bar, not a place where you go to eat boneless wings and watch Peyton Manning.

Those are nice bars, with mixed drinks and imported beers and the expectation that you knew the differences between them and also how to pronounce their names, so that you could actually order them.

Invariably, alcohol brings about conversation. And invariably, some conversations are with people you just met. After all, that’s partly why people go to bars – to meet people.

Frequenting legit bars obviously took some mild getting-used-to after college keg parties, but generally the typical bar conversation sounded much like the college party conversation, especially once people got hammered. So I was feeling pretty much at home in those legit bars. Until, of course, I got the following question:

“So what do you do?”


Well, I suppose the question should have been anticipated. What do you do? Easy question. I am a consultant. A consultant am I. Well, to be truthful, at this point I’m kind of a consultant’s apprentice (and speedily gaining expertise in matters relating to Excel formatting).

So what’s the problem?

No problem. Just when I was asked the question, for the first couple of times I hesitated. And I got to thinking: why would I hesitate at what seems like a simple factual question?

Maybe being a consultant is not impressive? That’s ridiculous. There are a million types of consultants. I’m convinced some companies that have nothing to do with consulting dub some of their positions as consulting positions because they think it would raise interest among college kids, all of whom obviously would like to culminate their undergrads with a ‘consulting’ appointment.

But there is more to talking about your work than just naming the general sector of the economy you belong to. The conversation can actually settle on the topic for quite a few minutes. In which case people start talking about what they actually do.

Which is a challenge for me, because my role in the whole affair is to analyze data, which basically means creating codes to beat the data down to manageable form and creating charts to make it all pretty. Whenever I think about it in those terms I can see why some people might find that not impressive.

Other people have stories to tell. Take one woman I met at a friend’s birthday party, let’s call her… Kendra. She got out of college right into a job with an NBA team. She did “PR” there. “You know all the post-game interviews and all that?” She was in charge of that. She “didn’t travel with the players all the time.” Just some of the time. She got all kinds of free stuff, signed jerseys, regular jerseys, etc. Threw them all out when she got her second job.

Her second and current job is in “brand management.” A big apparel company. She works on clothing brands, apparently, and in the evening is very busy all the time because she has to attend social events for the purpose of mixing it with media and PR people in the city. It’s part of the job. “For example, last week we did this promotion on the website; we basically gave away a lot of free shit. I needed a piece written about it and it helped that I could pick up the phone to an editor and say, ‘Sarah, can you include this in the next issue.'”

Kendra, then, has a job that she can tell a pretty good story about. How good? Well, good enough for 2 paragraphs in a WordPress blog, that’s how. Not to mention the priceless ability to both break the ice with and impress people she’d just met.

I, in comparison, do not have any of those. Or at least I don’t consider my job to be that interesting. It is interesting to me (at times) but I have never seen anyone from my office talk a stranger’s head off about the intricacies of consulting work.

Talking about my job with people not in my line of work invariably makes me try to evaluate it from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a bit of a shallow evaluation, of course. How would I react if I knew some guy with the same background as me was working where I am working now?

It comes down to rules of thumb we use during senior year of college  to make decision that will affect the next 2 or so years of our lives. Is it cool to go management consulting? How about investment banking (back when the industry was healthier)? For many of us, the universe of firms and therefore careers to choose from consists of firms that come to interview on campus. Good decision on their part – they indoctrinate us early.

And moreover – after everyone interviews there inevitably comes the time of comparing what offers I have versus what offers another person has. And there’s the talk about all those offers. Those few weeks basically create a certain landscape of how jobs and comapnies are “ranked” and at that point, implicitly if not explicitly, everyone tries to get the “highest ranking” job. What makes a job high-ranked according to this system? It’s pretty simple, actually: it needs to fall on the right side of several black-and-white dimensions. There’s hours (long or ‘alright’), pay (‘investment banking money’ or only regular pay), location (New York City or a non-NYC location), and challenge (challenging or ‘boring’). The best job? Alright hours, investment banking money, in Manhattan, and plenty challenging.  

Obviously, this rakning system lacks depth, not to mention any way of reliably knowing whether a job would be challenging or boring. It is immature. But that kind of thinking affected the decisions of plenty of people I know, me included. I think that it takes discipline to think hard about what you want to do while you’re in college, and then go for it regardless of whether the job passes those make-up benchmarks. It is much easier when you get a job that everyone approves of – no need for serious thought, since if everyone approves of it, it must be a good job. Kendra’s company doesn’t really come to any campus to interview students. But Kendra told me she was set on getting a short-term experience in PR and brand management and she went for it. Good for you, Kendra.

As for me, I’ve decided to periodically check the website of Kendra’s company. If they give away free shit, they pass my benchmark.

The Complicity Doctrine

Did the good folks at Microsoft foresee when they created it that Excel would become the formative introduction for a generation of college graduates to Corporate America?

We ask it to do our bidding, we get angry at it when it just won’t cooperate, we get a happy-happy feeling when we see how cute a bar chart looks in blue-gray, we feel a sense of accomplishment when we’ve managed to correctly ‘pivot’ our data in a pivot table.

We think it responds to us. The other day I heard someone in my office in a moment of utter frustration scold it: ‘Why can’t you just do what I’m telling you?”

Well, it won’t ‘just do.’ It is not one of those click-and-open calculater that you get from some Windows Accessories Start Menu. It needs someone who knows it well to work properly.

How many people in a given office really know Excel? I’m not talking about ‘know’ like you know where Bob’s Donuts is (Polk at Sacramento in San Francisco – their apple fritters…words cannot do justice, they simply can’t). I’m talking about knowing it like you know – can’t believe I’m saying this – a friend.

You might think I’m pathetic. Well, you’d be right. What is the corporate world coming to when a sophisticated collection of zeros and ones is elevated to the level of a friend? But you know what? It’s reality. We spend SO much time in front of spreadsheets we might as well face facts. I present for your consideration a hypothetical: if you rated the interactions you had in a given day in terms of personal satisfaction, pleasantness of counterparty, and willingness to interact more with this counterparty, who would finish first: your supervisor, your friend co-worker, your non-friend co-worker, or Excel? I suspect Excel would come a respectable second.

So as the runner-up for most pleasant interaction partner at the workplace, Excel should at least deserve our effort to get to know it. I repeat my earlier question: How many people in a given office really know Excel?

I don’t know. But I think the answer to another question might correlate well with the answer to the original one: How many entry-level professionals work in a given office?

Let’s face it: who else works with Excel but us? Who shares its day with Excel but us? Our fellow MBAs might open Excel once in a while, but they don’t have the time for that kind of hot-and-heavy get-to-know-you. Us, we got loads of time to do that. They call us analysts or associates, but our job title can easily be “Excel Formatter.”

And the ludicrous stuff they ask us to do with it! Here is an example of a simple bar chart, as simple as can be:


This chart basically shows that those who issue us orders are incidentally also the least knowledeable. I know, I know, the data is non-existent, because no one ever cared to conduct such a research. But anyone who wants to bet against it, go ahead. Personally, I’ll take my chances with the Dow.

The way our fellow MBAs issue orders would make them honorary citizens among those living on another planet.

-“Can you shade one part of the bar with diagonal lines and another part with straight lines?” Excel doesn’t let you do that, sorry (they think you’re a software version of the rubber man , dear Excel).

-“Can you make it a line chart? I want to see some continuity.” Ok, will do.

At about 5:45 pm: “Can you go back to the bars? I like them better.” Sure… (AAAAAAHH!!!)

Not only do they change their minds faster than our dream of leaving for once at 6pm crashes and burns, they also justify the lowness of their bar on the chart.

-“I want to see more precision. I was trying to get it to show decimals. How do I do that?”


How do you deal with a situation where you know more than your superior. Co-workers of mine respond with the complicity doctrine, which is composed of two fundemental rules:

1) Fulfill every request if you can, no matter how ridiculuous, because in the end, even if you have to repeat and undo things, you’ll get home earlier than if you argued for your ideas.

2) If the reuqest is too outlandish for Excel, don’t say that right away, but wait at least 5-10 minutes so that the MBA would assume you tried.

My co-workers believe they cumulatively save 500-1,000 hours a year of staying at the office longer than they should. Impressive. Can’t argue with results.

The question, of course, has a deeper meaning, which is about how you motivate yourself in the workplace when you know that despite comparatively superior knowledge you will always be asked to do the grunt work, and you will (almost) never be able to lead a project or a task when the person you’re working with is an MBA. Don’t look at me, I don’t have the answers. I have been trying to invent a doctrine of my own, which I call the individual communist doctrine (Soviet is the new black). Basically, it means that you think of everything you do as helping out the whole team, and ignore any inkling of sentiment that tells you that the team is fundamentally asymmetric and dysfunctional.

Self-discipline is probably the most important skill for succees when you’re entry-level. MBAs eat up the individual communist doctrine. “Team player” are very important buzz words in their planet. They might even say hello to you in the kitchen after a while.

This also goes to show how much a difference two years at business school make. Perhaps this is why an MBA costs so much.

Long Hours: Why? Why oh why?

Why do we work long hours? Why oh why oh why do we work long hours?

Long Hours

Everyone who’s ever worked in an office knows the feeling, when 6:00pm is creeping up. I have heard of people getting this feeling as early as 5:00 (!), but in order to not become bummed about my consulting job, I am determined to treat such rumors as exotic fairy tales.

6:00pm is almost here, and the feeling creeps in. Stealthily. Insidiously. Unmistakenly. It manifests in slight discomfort that grows into a great one in a matter of minutes, until, finally, you simply have to stop whatever you’re doing. You have to grab your face and mosh it thoroughly. You have to take a really deep breath. You have to close your eyes really hard so that the next time you open them you have to adjust to visualize your cube again. During the next 5 minutes will not be done. It’s like your brain telling you: “I need a break.”

I’m sure the gray sponge doesn’t need a break from deep thinking, which does happen in my job, but not that often. It’s psychological fatigue: The brain needs to know when the daily routine will be over.

It’s the routine that kills us. Obviously, that’s my opinion, it’s not like I’m an expert in workplace psychology. But if personal experience is a guide, I think my brain just cannot stand the routine any more. The sad truth is that once you’ve accumulated about 3 months experience in a job, 80% of the tasks become routine. Tolerance for routine is absolutely key to success in pre-MBA jobs.

But the problem is that when 6:00pm is rolling around, and even if we’ve accomplished stuff during preceding 9 hours, the end is not so near in sight. The individual tasks might be highly specific, but the overall plan is not. That’s what they pay MBAs to think about. They don’t usually tell us their thoughts.

So we are left with an unpleasant truth: we don’t know when we’ll get done with these incoming piles of increasingly specific tasks. In the morning it was create this analysis. In the afternoon, change the assumptions. By evening it becomes to bold every reference to short sales because this is the key to our case. Should we have known that beforehand? We end up mired in the torrent of specifics while drowning in the sea of the general agenda of the case.

And home! We have one, an apartment with roommates, and people with whom we can chat and chill and forget all about work. But since we don’t know the agenda, we can’t predict the end to the torrent of specifics. It’s like the yoked dogs that get zapped regardless of their actions in that psychology experiment: they stop trying to escape. They surrender to despair.


But the question is: why? Why do we have to stay late? Surely, sometimes there is a tight deadline outside of anyone’s control, and everyone has to stay late. But does this happen so often as to make the brain shiver, not knowing when the end to the mind-numbing routine will come? If we just knew, with certain certainty, what is expected of us at the end of each day, what the grand agenda that the MBAs created is, our gray sponge would be relieved of so much stress.

I honestly can’t find a good answer to why we staying late is so paramount. I don’t know that the workload necessitates it. I find myself a lot of times thinking: if I had just known, if only I had just known what the grand agenda is and where my bit of analysis fits within it, I would have made short work of it, and by the time 6:00pm rolled around I’d be done with even the nitpickest of small, bold-this-word-and-unbold-that-one, tasks.

If only.

So why then? One probable reason is that it shows commitment, perhaps superiority, to be willing to stay late. Long hours probably mean the person is working hard. That is, as you and I know, Bullshit. With a capital “B.” It practically makes the act of going home into a defeat. Some people can take the long hours, some can’t. Take it? They’re happy to do it. Stay until 8:00? Oh come on. We can do 10:00 standing on our heads. Talk to me when you get serious. It’s natural selection at the workplace. Way it is, dude. Survival of the fittest.

Another probable reason is that the ‘general agenda’ is not known early enough so that when crafting the specific tasks that make up our young professional careers, the MBAs can separate out the relevant from the irrelevant. They just haven’t gotten that far. But “for now,” and “in the meantime,” we can focus on these specifics, 1, 2, 3. They might be needed in the end. They might not.

After the 6:00pm jitters, when the sighing, grabbing of the face, rubbing of the eyes and re-adjusting are concluded, I sometimes want to just scream:


And sometimes I can’t take it so much I even go through with it.

Internally, of course.