Goldman Sachs’ second most powerful exec pulled an audacious move to get his first job on Wall Street

Gary Cohn
Gary Cohn’s old employee ID badge.

Wall Street titan Gary Cohn, the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, celebrated his 25th anniversary at the bank last week.

Cohn, 54, actually has an incredibly inspirational backstory, which is detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller “David And Goliath.” And since the summer interns have just arrived, we thought we’d share it again. 

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Cohn was diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disorder. He struggled in school. By the time he was in sixth grade, he had attended four different schools. Teachers and classmates had written him off as an “idiot.” Cohn has even said publicly that he was a “horrible” student. 

What’s more is his teachers were unsure of his trajectory in life. One teacher even told his parents if they were really lucky that he might grow up to be a truck driver.

Cohn graduated from high school. He also graduated from American University in 1982. 

After college, though, Cohn didn’t immediately have a job or any interviews lined up. He did have “passion for financial markets,” but that was pretty much it. By July, he took a job “to appease” his father selling window frames and aluminium siding for the home products division of United States Steel in Cleveland.

Around Thanksgiving, he went on a work trip to the company’s offices in Long Island. Cohn convinced his manager to give him Friday off to visit New York City for the first time. There, he headed for Wall Street and the commodities exchange at Four World Trade Center. From the observation gallery, he watched the action in the trading pits with other Wall Street hopefuls. 

Gary Cohn

That’s when he came up with a clever plan to make an introduction to one of the brokers.  He left the visitors’ gallery, and waited by the security entrance to the trading floor for a few hours. Nothing happened. He was about to give up.

“And then literally right after the market’s closed, I see this pretty well-dressed guy running off the floor, yelling to his clerk, ‘I’ve got to go, I’m running to LaGuardia, I’m late, I’ll call you when I get to the airport,’ I jump in the elevator, and say, ‘I hear you’re going to LaGuardia.’ He says, ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Can we share a cab?’ He says, ‘Sure.’ I think this is awesome. With Friday afternoon traffic, I can spend the next hour in the taxi getting a job,” Cohn told Gladwell in the book. 

It was truly a brilliant move, and one that most people wouldn’t have the guts to do. 

It turned out the man he was sharing the cab with was also running the options business for one of the big brokerage firms. Cohn didn’t know what an option was, but he pretended like he did. 

“I lied to him all the way to the airport,” Cohn told Gladwell. “When he said, ‘Do you know what an option is?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, I know everything, I can do anything for you.’ Basically by the time we got out of the taxi, I had his number. He said, ‘Call me Monday.’ I called him Monday, flew back to New York Tuesday or Wednesday, had an interview, and started working the next Monday. In that period of time, I read McMillan’s Options as a Strategic Investment book. It’s like the Bible of options trading.” 

(By the way, Gladwell notes that it still takes Cohn about six hours to read 22 pages.)

After a few years working on the floor of the commodities exchange, Goldman Sachs reached out to him. In 1990, Cohn accepted a position in Goldman’s commodities trading unit, J. Aron. In 1994, he was made partner — one of the most coveted titles on Wall Street.

Now he holds one of the top spots at the Wall Street investment banking giant. What’s more is he has said that he wouldn’t be there without his dyslexia. 

“The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed,” Cohn told Gladwell. “And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside. It doesn’t faze us.

“I’ve thought about it many times, I really have, because it defined who I am. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia. I never would have taken that first chance.” 

Bottom line: You have to take risks. 

If  you have an inspirational story about your first experience on the Street, or perhaps a cautionary tale about an experience in your early days at work to share as a lesson for the younger generation, feel free to email [email protected] We can keep you anonymous if you wish. 

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