My Advice For Twenty-Somethings

I recently gave a speech to new graduates joining my bank. Rather than given a dull speech on the economic outlook, I thought I’d talk about transitions they are facing in the world, in banking and in their lives. The excerpt below is the part on their transition from being students to becoming workers. It could apply to twenty-somethings in any industry. Oh, and if you want the full speech, let me know and I’ll email it over.

“Now, the most important transition is your own: the  transition from student to worker. As a student you were in a protected environment with the college taking on the role of parent. Your goals were clear:  get an “A”, and the way to get that was straightforward : study the requisite papers, lectures and books. Whether you did that is another question, but the path was clearly defined.

As you sit here you have crossed the threshold into adulthood; you have to look after yourselves, the goals will be varied and the path to them will be murky. There is no text you can swat up on to assure you of a good trade or deal the next day. So how do you ensure the transition goes smoothly? Well, I would highlight 5 key guidelines:

1) Get a mentor. It could be your line manager (ideal), it could be a senior member of your team or it could be someone you regularly hijack as they walk to the coffee-shop. Either way, you need someone to give you guidance. It’s not just my view, this permeates the wisdom handed down to us from year dot. In religious stories, even the lead figures had early guides or helpers: Jesus had John the Baptist, Moses had his brother Aaron, Muhammad had his wife Khadijah and Buddha had Alara Kalama.

In our more secular times, these ideas have entered popular culture. Take movies, in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, when Harry leaves the muggle world of Privet Drive to enter the Wizarding world of Hogwarts, he has the giant Hagrid as his helper. In “The Matrix”, Neo had Morpheus and in “Star Wars”, Luke had Obi-Wan Kenobi. What happens if you don’t have a guide (or a bad one)? You end up like Draco Malfoy or Anakin Skywalker (after he ditched Obi-Wan).

2) Learn, learn, learn. Your early years are your foundational years when you build up your knowledge base. Later on, it can get embarrassing if you need to ask the difference between a swap and a bond. So ask away!  Don’t be embarrassed, if anything,  the supposedly more experienced banker/trader may struggle to answer the most basic questions.
You may argue that you won’t have time to read and learn:  you’re so busy with your head stuck in Excel. That is simply not true. There are more than enough hours in the day to read. Stop checking your smartphone/email every 15 minutes, read a book for 15 minutes before you veg out and watch Game of Thrones. My blog has a whole section productivity tips.

3) Understand the false god of money. As a human, money will wreak havoc with your mind, and in a bank, where your product is money, it could be destructive. Now I’m not saying that money is bad, all I’m saying is that you need to make sure you control money and not the other way around. I say this as it is very easy to fall into the trap of using money as the true measure of your worth. However, all the evidence points to contrary.

Let me give you a simple example. Let’s say tomorrow I tell you your pay will increase by $1bn. Yes, one b-i-l-l-i-o-n  dollars! You’d be over the moon! You’re a billionaire. But I can utter a single sentence you could burst your bubble of happiness: “oh,by the way, I paid the other analyst in the team $1.2bn”. Immediately, your mind will tell you how unfair that is, the other analyst didn’t deserve it and so on. Despite your new-found wealth, your mind has been trained to compare ourselves to others.

How about another example, let’s say your doctor tells you that you have a week to live. What will you do? Would you think about money. No!  Instead you’ll focus on the people you love, the passions you have and the legacy you may leave.  A less extreme version of this is that I can guarantee that at some point in your life you will earn less than before or you may lose your job. How will you cope? You’ve connected your entire self-worth to money, but now it’s gone.

The final point on money is that our lived experience is our thoughts and feelings. These stay with us no matter where we are. Let me ask you to do this exercise, close your eyes and focus on your breath for 60 seconds. If any thoughts come up, let them pass and return to focusing on your breath. Start now…(60 seconds later)…so how did that feel. Did you feel in control of your mind? Were things just randomly popping into your head: I need to pay a bill, I need to meet so-and-so, I’m bored. How is more money going to help your moment-by-moment experience?!

4) Give charity to inoculate yourself against the poison of money. When I say charity, I mean In the broader sense, so not just donating to charities, though this has proven to increase your happiness, but also give advice to others, share insights of yours, or simply just be there for others at their time of need. It may be tempting to get into a zero-sum competitive mind-set where you think that you don’t want to give your “secrets” away as you’d lose your “edge”, but it never works like that. Helping others makes others want to help you. In the end you’ll become attractor for ideas and opportunities either now or later in life.

5) Run towards pain. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound that appealing, but bear with me. You first need to become aware of your pain. Many people get numb to pain. Often we use business to mask pain, or ignore physical ailments as we demote our body to carrier of brain and nothing else. Understand what your fears are, why you’re nervous and whether you are angry. Behind many of these will lay a challenge you have to face. You can ignore that challenge, and remained blocked, but when you face you can grow. It could be the fear of presenting, working with numbers or simply being wrong. Whatever it is, face it, embrace it and grow.

So there you have it – your template for navigating through the three big transitions you are facing: we (humanity) are all in it together, you need to use the compass of trust as a banker and what worked for you at college won’t work for you at work. Oh and when you are all become big shots, remember little me and give me a helping hand . Thanks!”

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6 thoughts on “My Advice For Twenty-Somethings”

  1. As a “twenty-something” year old with an aspiration to puruse a career in Banking this was a great, insightful article. Could you please e-mail me the full speech?
    Many thanks.

  2. Thanks a lot for this thought provoking post. I believe that early introspection is the key to answer life questions that haven’t been asked yet. Questioning our motives for what we want to become, how we want to build it and to what extent it may transform us will protect us from the disappointment and frustration of the feeling of incapability we may endure due to the lack of projection.

    Thanks again Bilal

  3. Hi bilal
    I have enjoyed following your posts. I look forward to meeting you one of the days.

    And if it’s not a hassle, I would love to read the full speech you made.

  4. Very helpful. I loved the part on body mindfulness in particular – so important. I would love to read the whole speech.
    Many thanks,
    Ben Tannenbaum

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