Business journalist Bethany McLean is best known for her work exposing corruption at Enron in the early 2000s, but her first job out of college was actually as an analyst in Goldman Sachs’ mergers and acquisitions department.
In a LinkedIn post earlier this year, McLean writes that while her years at Goldman Sachs were “miserable,” she came away from the experience having learned a great deal. So much, in fact, that she today recommends that anyone given the opportunity should take a job in finance.
Here are four valuable lessons she learned from working at Goldman Sachs:
1. Always pay attention to details.
Prior to arriving at Goldman in 1992, McLean was primarily interested in big ideas, without much regard for small details. This changed quickly when she accidentally mixed up a pair of data sets in a chart depicting growth rates in the ice cream and frozen yogurt markets.
The anger directed at her by her boss during a flight from New York City to Mexico has stuck with her to this day.
She writes, “I have made mistakes as a journalist, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. But I’ve never again disrespected the details.”
2. Be sceptical of statistics.
At Goldman Sachs, McLean’s managers would frequently ask her to alter her mathematical formulas in order to change how a financial projection looked. This taught her that using numbers in an argument doesn’t always make your argument true.
“Many numbers are nothing more than the wobbly assumptions that go into them,” she writes.
This understanding would be crucial to exposing Enron’s fraudulent accounting practices in her 2004 book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
3. The only way to solve a problem is to keep working at it.
While she could always get help from other students and professors as a maths major at Williams College, McLean says the only way to complete a difficult analysis at Goldman Sachs was to figure it out herself — even if it took all night.
This lack of assistance forced her to be self-sufficient in a way she previously had not been, a skill that has served her well when reporting open-ended, complex magazine stories.
“As a magazine journalist who starts most stories cold, I often get that same slightly panicked feeling of not knowing where to begin,” she writes. “But now I know that if I somehow get started, even if I’m not sure where to start, what seemed incomprehensible somehow will become steadily clearer.”
4. Finance isn’t so confusing once you know a little bit about it.
While she was initially intimidated by the financial system, McLean’s work as an analyst allowed her to understand the industry’s language in a way that would allow her to write intelligently about it later on.
“People at Goldman also used to say, ‘This isn’t rocket science,'” she writes. “It isn’t — although the only way I would have learned that was by doing it. From what I’ve seen as a journalist, I am not alone.
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