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Erik Trautman

Technical entrepreneurship, business strategy and product development

Sometimes You Need a Slap in the Face

When I was in college I played poker online and did well enough that it steered me towards an interest in trading on Wall Street. I liked what I learned about trading and decided that I wanted to someday start a hedge fund. My friend's father headed a public company at the time and he put me in touch with two fund managers so I could get some advice.

The first guy I called worked within an old-style bank. I don't remember much of anything from our conversation except that he seemed a bit... "traditional"? My questions weren't very good and his answers were pure vanilla. I learned nothing.

The second guy was a different story. He ran a nimble long/short fund with a few hundred million under management and had needed to scrap for every victory. From the second he picked up the phone I could tell he was short on time and low on patience. I kind of stammered through my list of questions and he gave me answers that appropriately reflected the poorly researched nature of my queries, which included things like "what is a long/short fund exactly?".

He wasn't unfriendly or hostile but entirely matter of fact when he explained how far I was from where I wanted to be and how hard I'd have to work to get there. His responses showed me the depth of knowledge one needs to survive at all in that world and the low likelihood anyone has of actually achieving it. He completely eviscerated the fuzzy roses-and-sunshine picture I'd imagined about how I was going to go out and cowboy my way into starting a hedge fund someday.

After I hung up the phone, I sat in my chair staring at the wall, completely shell-shocked. The first call had gone so pleasantly and this one felt like a slap in the face.

But it also made me hungry in a way I hadn't felt before. There's a certain freedom that comes with having the wool pulled from your eyes and reality staring at you because you can finally take a clear step forward. From that day on I devoted myself to becoming a student of the industry like I never had before and it allowed me to eventually eek my way, through sheer force of will, into my first job on Wall Street.

It's far too easy to just dream and assume you'll do fine. Far too easy to construct grand castles of imagination that embody half-defined successes yet to come. Far too easy to ideate wildly without following through.

Did you think an industry where hundreds of thousands of people spend 80 hours a week trying and come up with ways of making money would have dollar bills just lying on the ground or some cushy position waiting because "you're a smart kid"? Did you think you could slap together some sweet design with no customer feedback and be Steve Jobs? Did you think people would just see your natural brilliance and line up to follow your lead like thralls? Oh how the movies have wronged you!

Reality is a fist fight, a battle in the trenches. Nothing that looks easy is actually easy. Only when you've accepted the difficulty and complexity of the path ahead can you actually walk it. Sometimes it just takes a slap in the face to figure that out.