To Change Yourself, Change Your Environment
Did you know I almost didn’t start this site?
But do you know why?
Part of it was procrastination.
But part of it was also due to a terrible co-worker.
He was the most negative person I had met in my entire life.
He dismissed all my business and career ideas as “stupid” and said “nothing would ever work”; he even said my resume at the time was terrible (the irony…).
One day I ran the idea of an “investment banking interview guide” by him, and he responded that no one would ever pay $10 for it, let alone $100.
When I finally launched this site in November 2007, there was a catalyst: this co-worker finally quit and moved to another job.
Now that I was no longer arguing with an idiot for half the day, I had so much free time that I had no choice but to get started.
I often tell this story to illustrate how your environment can make a bigger impact than your efforts and intentions.
Change Your Environment
Whenever I hear from someone who’s “stuck” or who “has tried everything,” my answer is the same: change your environment.
Obviously, going to a more positive environment helps you.
Who wouldn’t want to move to a firm that treats its employees better, or one with better promotion and exit opportunities?
But the environment doesn’t need to be “better” for you to benefit from it.
You could well benefit from a change to a “neutral” environment – or even to a more negative environment.
This “environmental change” could be switching geographies, companies, jobs, apartments, physical workspaces, friends, or even significant others (no recommendations there…).
When you’re in the same place, company, or job for a long time, you develop patterns and routines.
Some of these – your commitments to run 5 kilometers per day and lift weights 3x per week – can be helpful.
But you often start doing things without even understanding why you’re doing them.
This happens all the time with alumni of elite universities who became complacent after graduating:
- Get a high-paying job at Google/Facebook/Apple, or in consulting or finance.
- “Settle down” into an overpriced apartment in NYC / SF / London / Hong Kong / [Insert another expensive city here].
- Spend 90% of your time at work; come home, watch TV for an hour, and fall sleep.
- Go to the gym… if you remember, or if you can summon the energy for it.
- On weekends, hang out with the same social circle you developed in high school or university.
- Rinse, wash, and repeat. Two years pass… five years pass… whoops, has it been ten years already?
Maybe you’re advancing up the ladder… but you are still going to the same office every day, doing the same things.
I call it “automated life mode.”
Once you get stuck in “automated life mode,” you prevent yourself from seeing other opportunities and advancing in any direction.
To break the cycle, you need shock therapy.
And unless you want to place the electrodes on your body and throw the switch, the best way to get that shock therapy is to change your environment.
Changing your environment helps you in four main ways:
- You get exposed to new ideas and you re-think your assumptions.
- You acquire new positioning and might be able to pitch yourself more effectively.
- You meet new people and develop a broader network.
- And you often encounter new constraints that force you to become more efficient or learn new skills.
How I’ve Implemented This Advice
When I first moved to Korea in 2009, I did so to completely change my environment.
I knew that outside of the California/Silicon Valley bubble, I would not encounter naysayers, tech startup groupies, or any other silliness.
Like my terrible co-worker in the beginning, too many of those people would have prevented me from making progress.
And since I knew almost no one there, I would be forced to develop a completely new social circle.
Even better, rather than being “another guy with a CS degree who’s starting a tech business in California,” I would be “the random foreigner who’s starting an online business in Korea, while doing part-time acting and voiceover gigs.”
Which one sounds more memorable?
Years after that, I had left Asia and was spending most of my time in Europe and South America.
It was a bit of a cultural shock at first, as I realized that most people do not actually work non-stop all day and all weekend.
So I had to re-examine my assumptions: was it necessary to work 65-70 hours per week, every week?
Or was I an inefficient control freak who was pursuing the wrong goals?
An environmental change can force reality up to the surface.
Got Stock Pitches?
The same is true of coming up with investment ideas for stock pitches or case studies: you’ll often get the best insights from completely random sources you had never considered before.
Maybe you’ll go on a trip, find a business or service that seems ridiculous to you but which is highly successful in that region…. and then you’ll start thinking about how it could apply to the markets you analyze.
And then you stumble upon a great company you had never even considered.
If you could generate great ideas solely from your existing knowledge and experiences, wouldn’t you already have a basket of excellent ones?
Negative Environments Help You as Well
A neutral environment – a location, firm, or routine that’s no better or worse but simply different – might introduce you to new ideas or people.
But an adverse environment could also assist you by introducing constraints that enhance your thinking and problem-solving abilities.
It might also force you to re-examine your daily routines and what you “need” to be doing vs. what you are doing.
On one recent trip to South America, the wi-fi in my room was so awful that I had to go downstairs to get a decent signal.
That was super-annoying at first, but after a few days I realized the benefit: that constraint forced me to stop browsing the Internet and checking email constantly.
In the world of finance, an example might be moving from a bulge bracket bank to a boutique firm dominated and run by the founder.
You go from nearly unlimited resources to almost nothing, and the founder might be a psychopathic serial killer who sacrifices animals in the basement.
He or she probably doesn’t treat you too well, either.
So far, so bad.
But consider the benefits:
- In a resource-constrained environment, you’re forced to focus on the essentials: no more 150-slide presentations; just the 10-pager will do this time.
- With so few people in between you and the top person, you have to do more of the client communications yourself.
- And you’ll get practice soothing a serial killer, which will be essential for any finance firm you work at in the future.
But How Can You Possibly Implement This Advice?
“OK,” you say, “but these are ridiculous examples. Yes, you can go off and work inside Iguazu Falls, but someone with a normal job can’t do that.”
True, but “changing your environment” doesn’t mean you have to move to another country.
You could switch groups, job functions, companies, social circles, living spots, or even organizational systems.
And that might move you closer to your goals, even if it doesn’t seem like a distinctly positive change.
Here are a few examples:
Example #1: The Failed Capital Markets to M&A Switch
You followed all the tips in our article on this topic, but nothing worked.
For one, you might get experience that can be spun into sounding more relevant (“This group had a lot of M&A exposure, so I figured I could learn more there” / “A lot of the debt deals were related to acquisitions, which would give me more exposure”).
Also, you never know whom you will encounter in other groups.
Maybe the MD in one group knows the M&A team well and can put in a good word for you; maybe someone else there can help you make the move with a connection he/she has.
And finally, switching groups might make you question your basic assumption: do you want to move into the M&A group specifically?
Or are you just looking for a change outside of ECM?
If it’s the latter, your work is done… for now.
Example #2: From Venture Capital to Startup… with a Few Bumps Along the Way
Now let’s say that you’re working at a venture capital firm, but you’re more interested in joining a startup and working in a sales or business development role.
You’ve contacted your firm’s portfolio companies and have set up several informational interviews, and the Partners fully support your move.
Moving from an investment firm to a portfolio company seems simple.
But no one’s biting.
If you’re at a dead end, you might just want to find any job at a normal, non-finance company – even if it’s unrelated to sales or business development.
That move helps you in the four areas I mentioned above:
- New Ideas: Are there other companies out there you haven’t considered, but which you should think about? Why limit yourself to only portfolio companies or venture-backed startups? What about other upstart businesses that need help?
- New Positioning: Now it seems like you have more of an interest in working at a real company that makes tangible products and services.
- New People/Network: You can tap into a broader network at almost any mid-sized-to-large company and uncover option you had missed before.
- New Constraints: You’ll probably get frustrated with the bureaucracy and big-company nonsense in a few months, which will really motivate you to exit to a startup instead.
It’s not exactly a “logical” move, but it might be what you need.
Example #3: Stuck in a Rut with Networking – Time to Hit the Gym?
Now let’s say you’re a student networking your way into the industry.
You’ve contacted dozens of people via LinkedIn, your alumni network, and in-person information sessions.
And they’ve all led nowhere.
Maybe it was bad luck; maybe you weren’t presenting yourself in the right way; or maybe you didn’t have the right experience.
In this case, you might want to consider a non-traditional approach.
Instead of lurking on LinkedIn, you could join an upscale gym.
This one might sound crazy, but I’m basing it on the story of one reader who networked his way into a bulge-bracket bank coming from a Big 4 firm.
It doesn’t have to be a gym specifically; it could be any environment where you’re likely to encounter finance professionals and where their guard is down.
It’s easier to strike up a casual conversation in that setting and get real advice, because you’ve changed your positioning.
You are not a “job seeker” looking for connections or an interview at their firm, but rather someone else who is also into [Hobby X] and who happens to have a few questions on other topics.
You’re also more likely to get brutally honest feedback on why your networking efforts haven’t worked well so far.
Environment vs. Intention: Deathmatch
Most goals are internally focused: go to the gym, study for the CFA or GMAT, or prepare for interviews.
But if you focus exclusively on your intentions, you overlook external changes that can make an even bigger impact.
Even if these changes seem neutral or negative, they can help you by introducing you to new ideas, new positioning, new people, and new constraints.
You break out of your old habits and routines.
And you might even come up with a new investment idea or two.
So as you think about what you want to accomplish this year, you might want to add “Change your environment” to the list.
Not because you need to move to a better environment.
But just because… well, just because.
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