First impressions are important. Because of this, I time my trips to the water cooler and the bowl of mints carefully. I once saw a girl unwrap a mint at the very moment her interviewer appeared in the doorway and called her name. She froze for a split second, mint in hand, unsure of whether to walk straight over to the interviewer and shake his hand or to go back and get her stuff from her chair. And what was she supposed to do with the mint? She tossed it into her mouth, waved nervously, retrieved her stuff, and then shook his hands. For all I know, she might have been Warren Buffett’s daughter, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The mint killed her.
To avert a similar fate, I have drunk two extra glasses of water at lunch today and gone through an entire packet of citrus-flavored breath strips. When my interviewer appears in the doorway, I rise calmly, extend my hand and bathe him in the warmth of my mint-free smile.
I am applying for a Sales and Trading analyst position, which I have been told is the most stressful job on the Street, the one with the worst hours and the hardest interviews. As I sit down, I try to push these thoughts aside and focus on the human being across the table. One thing I’ve learned is that the stereotype of the macho, white I-banking asshole is not really true. This guy is Asian, soft-spoken and cordial.
He starts grilling me about bond investment. A week ago I thought a fixed instrument was a piano, but I find I can field most of the early questions. I even get to slip in a joke on one of them:
“Why will I pay you more than a dollar in a year for a dollar you give me today?”
“Because I don’t trust you. You look risky.”
Does that even count as a joke? Still he smiles and the questions start to change. These interviews have inflection points, moments of opportunity when the interviewer starts to really consider you because of something you said and turns up the heat to see if you’re the real deal. Alas, I disappoint. I flub a question about continuous compounding of interest and smile my cutest smile when he mentions rating-adjusted yield-to-maturity. We respond in tandem to this letdown: I become more charming and long-winded; he starts pitching lowballs. We are running down the clock.
Our waiting game is cut short by a knock on the door. Apparently, they’ve split the interview in half to make two mini-interviews, and it’s time for me to move along.
Waiting in the next room is a barely five-foot tall Colombian woman with a beautiful accent. She reminds me of one of my mother’s good friends, Viviana. She speaks with Viviana’s lilt and, when I start screwing up the questions, appraises me with Viviana’s signature look: an uncomposed, but not blank, face that registers more disappointment than unkindness at the fact that I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.
Her questions come thick and fast. At least in the first room, I knew where things were going even if I didn’t know what to say.
“You are on a deserted island. What are the items you brought with you?”
I say this immediately and only because of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I think it’s pretty clever until “Why a towel?”
“Well, I could use it as a pillow. Or as a, um, towel. Or I could use it as a flag to get the attention of rescue ships or planes or something.”
“Rescue is not a possibility on this island.”
“Oh, well. Okay. A shovel then.”
“Why a shovel?”
“I could hit things with it, like small birds and animals, so I could eat them. You know metal is always a good thing to have around.”
I see myself on my island, my towel in my left hand and my shovel in my right. I wonder how I got there. Was it bad decisions or bad luck? Would I have the heart to kill and eat a small bird? Rescue is not a possibility.
“What is the worst part of you?”
“I think I try to do too many things.”
“Come on. Really? I mean something so bad.”
“That’s good. I like honesty. It’s so refreshing. What is your dream job?”
I answer the question I have been dreading for this whole interview, for all my interviews, for many months, without even thinking about it.
“I want to be a writer.”
Viviana’s signature look appears.
“If you didn’t have to worry about money at all and could do whatever you wanted, you would write stories all day?”
“Tell me a story.”
I stare at the ceiling as though I were thinking.
“A story. Okay. My parents moved from Texas to Massachusetts last year, but they haven’t moved out of their house down there yet. My father is staying there for a few weeks by himself, trying to clean things out, and he keeps calling me and telling me about how I need to come down there and help him. He’s angry that he’s down there alone, doing all the work.”
She tilts her head and smiles at me. Then she shuts the notebook she’s been writing in. It seems time is up. She holds the door open for me and, on my way out, puts her hand on my shoulder.
“No matter what they tell you, remember, in any business, it’s all about luck.”