How Lloyd Blankfein Changed My Life, And How Jack Dorsey Changed It Again
I can never forget that day.
It was the fall of my freshman year at Princeton. I was seated in the first row of chairs in the Nassau Inn Ballroom – a room overflowing with students dressed in impeccable suits – all indistinguishable from each other. The occasion? We were all gathered to hear Lloyd Blankfein – the CEO of Goldman Sachs – speak.
I couldn’t believe it. At that time, as a freshman with stars (and dreams of money) in my eyes, net worth was a primary metric by which I evaluated successful public figures. I couldn’t believe that *the* CEO of Goldman Sachs, *the* Lloyd Blankfein, “that guy” who made $70 mn in the last year alone was coming to speak to me – a freshman at a liberal arts school who had never taken an economics course and had no idea what working in finance meant! Yet, this guy, whose every minute was worth literally several thousand dollars, was coming all the way from New York City to grace me with his presence, for a barely hour-long event. In fact, I still find it hard to believe.
When he walked into the room, my mouth fell open; the babble died immediately. As he started speaking, my mouth was still hanging open.
“Why are CEOs of a certain industry sought-after by companies belonging to other clearly un-related industries? It’s because they have developed a certain set of life skills they can use to manage whichever company they lead, regardless of industry.”
Articulating life lesson after life lesson, anecdote after anecdote, Blankfein was eloquent, engaging, smart; with his bald pate shining under the fancy yellow lighting and with that trademark smile across his face, he had the entire room hooked. For the ~30 minutes he spoke, you could have heard a pin drop.
I remember feeling humbled – extremely humbled – as I left the hotel that night. I was inspired. What an amazing guy. So…sophisticated. I wish I could be like him. Most importantly, I remember thinking, He really cares for us.
Fast-forward ~2 years.
It’s fall break of my junior year, and I’m sitting in a conference room in the new office of Square in downtown San Francisco. We are ~20 students from Princeton visiting the Valley, and we are waiting for Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and co-founder and CEO of Square.
“I suspect he’ll be here only for 5-10 minutes. He is involved with two companies, what are you expecting?” one of the student organizers tells us.
Jack Dorsey walks in. My mouth drops open – so wide I am afraid it’s noticeable. For the next five minutes, I don’t hear anything that’s going on around me. I am just staring at Jack, as if in a trance, afraid to believe this is actually happening.
I regain my composure eventually, and I listen as Jack has the entire room spellbound. He talks about his two babies, Twitter and Square. He talks about how, as a teenager, he was fascinated with how the emergency services organized transport within cities – and how that kind of broadcasting system was his inspiration for Twitter. He talks about how the Golden Gate Bridge has been a big inspiration in design for him (if you see Square, you will realize how amazing his sense of product design actually is).(1)
10 minutes. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes.
We are asking him questions now. And he’s still there. With his hands resting on the table and forming a firm steeple, and with his zen-like calm. I almost feel like shouting out at him – “We ordinary minions don’t deserve your time. Don’t you have two companies to run?”
He is so fucking awesome. Man, what wouldn’t I give to work here just so I can get a glimpse of this guy every day. Heck, I would work for free if it meant I get to interact with him every other day.
We file out of the room for the customary picture. We head to lunch, still dazed and in disbelief.
Fast-forward ~5 days.
I meet Mark Zuckerberg, serendipitously, at a dinner in New York. In him I observe the same passion for technology, and the same desire to change the world as I saw in Jack. Visionaries.
Post these amazing experiences, I have been thinking a lot about career choices and life in general. Many of my friends have been going through the same phase. I list some of my observations below, in the hope that they will provide some perspective.–
Don’t do anything just for the money.
Whether you are going into finance, consulting, tech or any other sector, don’t take up a job just for the money. Remember the time when you were a kid, and your parents dangled candy in front of you so you would work your way through your tedious, mind-numbingly boring homework? If you’re considering doing something just for the money, you are doing it just for the candy – and it’s time to grow up.
Net worth matters, sure, but it’s far from being the only thing that matters.(2)
Explore non-finance tracks – and remember, 21 doesn’t come again.
I am not anti-finance or anti-consulting – some of my best friends are taking up jobs in these fields. However, I am anti-jobs-that-don’t-take-full-advantage-of-one’s-capabilities.
You need to ask yourself if, after receiving a broad-based, $200,000 liberal arts education, punching numbers into spreadsheets is the best use of your time. It isn’t rocket science to figure that out. Someone I know who left the Boston Consulting Group (one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the world) barely six month into her job said, “I just felt like I could be doing so much more than just sitting around making powerpoint presentations.”
In your early 20’s i.e. your five years right out of college, you are going to be the most productive, intellectually creative, youthful, energetic, capable of working hard and motivated than you will ever be in the rest of your life. Your early 20’s are also the time when your parents aren’t dependent on you financially, you don’t have a wife or kids, you don’t have a mortgage, and you can, if it came to it, survive the worst-case scenario (which, realistically, is never bad enough). You need to ask yourself if figuring out whether Dell should outsource it’s call centers to India, whether Starbucks should enter the Kenyan market, or if NJTransit should raise $100 mn in equity or $200 mn in bonds is what you really want to be doing during the prime of your working life.(3)
Take a minute and do this exercise – for one moment, think that ALL your resume states is your undergrad education i.e. the fact that you went to Princeton/some school. And that nothing, NOTHING, you will do professionally will ever figure on that resume – again, all it will show is your education. In such a situation, what would you do? What would you do if you weren’t afraid of or obsessed with how good/bad it looked on your resume? Where would you work? Who would you want to work with?(4) In a hyper-competitive environment like Princeton where a lot of people are obsessed with resume-padding (and I include myself in this group), such an exercise can help.
Consider Teaching For America. Consider joining your dad’s business and, using your skills and networks, overhauling it to make it into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Consider working in the government and trying to change the ailing system that’s in place today. Consider helping underprivileged kids in your home neighborhood. Consider starting your own company in something you love. From my perspective,
Consider working for technology companies that are literally changing the world and shaping our lives everyday.
Consider working for Facebook, which, whether you like it or not, is defining and constantly evolving how 800 million people – including you and I – interact with their circles of friends.
Consider working for Twitter, which is revolutionizing how people communicate with each other – across social strata, and across national and international boundaries.
Consider working for Square, that is enabling millions of small merchants to significantly expand their business and increase revenue, at the same time challenging established payment service monopolies.
Consider working for SpaceX, which has had the audacity to take on a challenge as daunting as space travel.
Consider working for Dropbox, which enabled my Dad to seamlessly share ~ 1 Gigabyte of videos with me that were life-critical for a class project of mine. If Dropbox didn’t exist, I would have had to spend hours trying to explain some complicated file-uploading system to him.
Consider playing on the court instead of watching from the sidelines. Consider making a dent in the universe.
back (2) Ironically enough, at the time Blankfein spoke to us, no one beyond the geek community knew Dorsey. Today, Jack Dorsey’s net worth is ~ $300 mn, and he’s on track to be the next Silicon Valley billionaire.
back (3) I’m not being patronizing here – just in case that’s an accusation. I continue to struggle with my own advice – I’m in the same boat as you are.
back (4) Also think about the question – If you don’t change the world, who will? I know that this comes across as a very idealistic question, but it’s true – if the brightest graduates of the world’s best universities don’t dare take on the task of making the world a better place, who else will?