The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. […] The ordinary objects of human endeavour—property, outward success, luxury—have always seemed to me contemptible. — Einstein
(the below continues my ramblings about life, success, whatever, here are parts 1 and 2)
New York and McKinsey
I said yes to McKinsey and joined its New York office upon graduating. This was 2006. Together with two college friends who were to become bankers at Goldman Sachs, we crammed into a small luxury apartment in Murray Hill and began our adult working lives. Yes, the whole thing was very much a cliche.
My roommates worked 90-hour weeks with the Sunday night conference calls and the $50 expensed dinners. I watched the job and its lifestyle take its toll on their bodies and their relationships. Despite sleeping less than 10 feet away from both guys, sometimes I’d go weeks where I fell asleep before they returned home (usually between 1-2am). I’d hear at least one of them return in the middle of the night. And when I awoke in the morning (usually between 8-9am), that person had already left. Brutal.
My McKinsey tenure was tough, but in a different way: the struggle was mostly internal. Strategy consulting was an introduction to a demanding, high-speed version of adulthood. Looking back on that period, I’d compare the recruiting process to an audition for a dramatic play. And the job itself to a daily live performance of that play. You were thrust onstage and made to learn the lines and skills as you go.
They put a lot of trust in you – the Goldmans, the McKinseys, the Googles. They let 21 year olds have access to information and conversations that were light years beyond anything they’d experienced previously. Some people thrived in this environment. They had dreamed of such an opportunity, had planned and prepared for years. Finally, here was the real deal. Like premiering on Broadway. Performance time.
I was by comparison a bad and lazy actor, always struggling with the sense that I was faking it. To me, we were little kids playing expensive dress. That feeling never went away. As an analyst, the job sometimes felt like a recipe for instant ramen: soak in Powerpoint presentations for three hours, and voila, you have a steaming cup of insights and solutions. How people do this with a straight face, day after day, project after project, is beyond me. But that’s probably why I’m not a natural.
To succeed at a place like McKinsey, it is crucial that you learn and then follow its unspoken rules. There are the rules put down on paper, such as the number of vacation days and the timing of performance reviews. But far more important are the ones left unsaid. For example, as the youngest person on the team you should generally be the first person to arrive in the morning and the last one to leave. You should bring energy and curiosity to the team, and the occasional crazy idea. You should master the numbers, the data. The managers and partners will rely on you for them.
I slowly divined the rules. But while I understood them, I could not for my life follow them. Some internal part of me simply wouldn’t obey. I had sensed that hot energy in earlier periods. A rebellious repressed energy that had been there in high school, had grown hotter in college, and was amassing new force and momentum now. It was the same defiance that caused me to curse out Chinese school in front of my parents, the same anger that made me a bully to some kids in grade school, the same stubborn masochism that was now hurting my career.
Thank god for the city. New York was like a giant coping mechanism. If Stanford was the love of my life, then New York was the crazy rebound. In the words of EB White, “the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin-the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled”. Our vitamins were more tangible: alcohol and parties, mostly, enhanced by the same self-assured wildness of young and employed college grads everywhere. We were all growed up. We were on top of the world.
My body was treated more like the festival grounds of Coachella than a Zen Buddhist garden. I slept 5-6 hours a night, which is like paying $6 for a morning coffee. It’s silly, and it adds up. The binge drinking didn’t help, nor did the occasional joint or all the sloppy 5am afterparty meals in Ktown. In Facebook photos from that time, what I notice first are my swollen chipmunk cheeks, then the puffy and folded eyes, like a teenager with a light peanut allergy.
Then there was the weather. In my childhood hometown of Austin, we were oppressed by 100+ degree heat for three months. Most of the remaining nine were by comparison balmy, tranquil, lazy. And Bay Area weather has a great and deserved reputation (ignoring SF, of course): like a Vegas slot machine with a frequent payout, it had just enough bad weather days to make you appreciate that golden delicious sun. There is something about Bay Area sunlight and the angle of its approach, filtered through those majestic oaks and conifers, that cuts deep.
New York weather? Not as bad as Boston or even Chicago, say the hardy East Coast natives. But it was an opponent and not a friend. Something to endure. It wrestled you into submission in the winter. Not satisfied with this victory, it returned with the hot humid summer and struck sweaty body blows until you wilted. Of course I am exaggerating. Nothing beats a nice Big Apple spring, when the entire city is beaming and basking. The air is charged with energy and bathed in heavy fragrance and young hormones that waft alongside the shawarma lamb of the halal food carts and the decaying piles of curbside garbage.
And of course how can I forget the people. New York is where ambitious people come to do two things: meet and succeed. You don’t throw yourself into a tornado of human interaction unless you want sometimes to be hit by the debris. My most treasured memories from this time are of close new friendships. People whom were gifted by sheer circumstance. They say that traveling together is the best way to bond. New York, then, even for its locals, is an urban safari, an enduring voyage.
But of my parents, I have few memories. My dad and I hadn’t spoken since graduation, the result of a miscommunication that I assumed was a trivial event but was for him the match that lit the fuse that detonated a life’s worth of sacrifice and disapproval. Of course he’s not here to defend himself, but not to worry, I will return to this topic and dig deeper. While dad and I gave each other the silent treatment, mom had moved to China. Her official reason was to become primary caretaker for her dad / my grandfather in the tradition of Confucius filial piety. This was a move she’d longed to make for many years. Mostly, she had tired of America, of the immigrant grind. We kept in touch through weekly phone calls. She visited me in NYC once, stayed in our Murray Hill apartment, experienced the appropriate motherly shock and disgust upon seeing the filth of our shared bathroom. I remember too a nice meal together at Sushiden in Midtown, a warm feeling that I could treat her to good fish and a dinner between adults.
The time at McKinsey eventually ended. In those two years – or twenty two months, to be precise – I had gained fifteen pounds. I began to smoke cigarettes during the day, even bought my own packs. Thought it was cool. But towards the experience, the sum adventure, there was no regret. No lingering what ifs. Mostly, the feeling was one of disappointment. I had been an A+ student in high school and an A student in college. But at McKinsey I distinctly felt like a B.
My then-girlfriend was also newly unemployed, a victim of the 2008 Wall Street shenanigans. We were watching the financial crisis unfold on CNBC when news arrived that Bear Stearns was collapsing. She worked at Bear. A few weeks later, she, too, quit her job.
With little savings, no backup plan, and unwilling to get a regular job, New York was no longer an option. A city that thrives on get rich quick, it has no time for patient experimentation.
I wanted to start a startup. The logic went as follows: the corporate life was terrible, so why not do the exact opposite and become an entrepreneur? To take the startup thing seriously, there was only one choice: return to the Bay Area, to entrepreneurship’s epicenter. Back, back, to Cali Cali. My girlfriend agreed to join me. Together we rented a remodeled one-bedroom in San Francisco’s Lower Haight. It was time to start a company.
Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.