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The life lessons of Gary Cohn of Goldman Sachs

Who is Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs president and COO who's been invited to join the Trump administration as director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy?

Thanks to ex-Goldman ED Greg Smith, we know that Cohn likes to hitch up his leg when chatting to people ("He'd hike up one leg, plant his foot on the person’s desk, his thigh close to the employee’s face, and ask how markets were doing”). Most of our knowledge about Cohn, though, comes from a commencement speech he made at the Kogod School of Business in 2011 

This is the wisdom of Gary, from that speech.

Be funny

Cohn is a wit. "I know I succeeded in life. I've never found a meal that I didn't love. If you look at me I haven't missed a lot meals in my life," he told the students at Kogod.

Don't let small things get you down 

Cohn's dyslexic. He still made Goldman Sachs president and COO.

Appreciate your parents when they tell you to get out of bed

Cohn graduated in the recession of the 1980s and moved back home with his parents. "Upon graduation, believe it or not, I had no job. I had no interviews. I had no prospects. I had no worries," he told the students. " What I did have, I had passion. I had enormous passion. I had passion for financial markets. I had fallen in love with financial markets. So, like every one of you, I did the only smart thing to do, I moved back home and started having a great time enjoying my life, until that one, early Monday morning at 6:30 a.m. when my father walked into my room and turned on my lights. I had been in bed for about an hour, I think, and said, 'what are you going to do with the rest of your life.' I ironically told him, 'you're looking at it.' That did not go over very well in my house."

Be pushy and create your own opportunities

When Cohn got out of bed, he wanted to work in financial markets, so he went to the commodities exchange in New York, visited the public gallery and then hung around outside the dealing floor. He told the students: "About four o'clock, I literally gave up. I walked to the elevator bank. I dejectedly hit the down button to go down to get a taxi cab to go to the airport to come back. And, I hear a gentleman say, 'I gotta run, I'm going to the airport.' I jump in the elevator with him and say, 'I overhead that you are going to the airport. He said, 'yes, I am.' I said, 'what airport are you going to to?' LaGuardia. I said, 'Do you mind if I share a taxi with you? He said, 'Sure, by all meaof Gons.' I didn't know him, he didn't know me. I said, here's my shot. I've got 45 minutes, in traffic on a Friday afternoon to convince this guy that I'm hirable and need a job. He literally went through and grilled me on my knowledge of financial markets, grilled me on my knowledge of certain aspects and I think I moderately passed."

By the end of the taxi ride, he says, 'what do you know about options.' I said, 'everything.' He said, 'great, I want you to come back Monday, I want you to interview. I'm trading options, it's a brand new market that's opening and I don't know how to trade it and I need someone to stand behind me and tell me exactly what to do.' I said, 'no problem, I'm your guy.'

Focus on your goal and be hyper-competitive

Cohn's approach to life is the manifest opposite of Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein's. While Blankfein is all about enjoying the journey and not stressing if things go awry, Cohn is all about having a goal and going for it whilst making detours along the way.

He told the students they needed to know where they wanted to end up. "Knowing where you want to end up is a lot easier than figuring out how to start and how to get there. You will figure out how to get there. Do not chart your career. Trust me; you do not want to chart your career."

In an echo of Trump, he also said: "Keep yourself motivated. You've got to be motivated, you've got to wake up every day and understand what that day is about; you've got to have personal goals-short term goals, intermediate goals, and long term goals. Be flexible in getting to those goals, but if you do not have goals, you will not achieve them. You are competing. Every day you are competing and every day you are playing to win. So remember, wake up every morning and figure out how to win."

Don't always listen to your spouse

Cohn's wife said leaving the floor of the commodities exchange and joining Goldman Sachs (which she was pregnant with their first child) would be the, 'craziest decision that you ever made,' He took no notice.

Know why you're special

"Understand what differentiates you from someone else," said Cohn. "Make sure you have a way to distinguish yourself from everyone out there."

Ask questions, take risks

In Cohn's eyes, asking questions and taking risks will differentiate you from the rest.

"You stand out by asking the questions, whether they are smart, whether they are dumb, but you have to have that desire to learn," said Cohn. "Those that have the desire to learn will stand out. Those that work hard will stand out. The old adage that hard work will get you what you want is 100 percent true. Work hard, ask questions, and take risk. If there is one thing out of this on how to stand out, it's taking risks."

Who cares if you didn't go to a target school? 

Cohn says Ivy Leaguers have more confidence and - admits that most of Goldman's summer interns are Ivy League in the U.S. (and - we assume - Oxbridge or Russell Group from the UK). But many of Goldman's senior staff don't have any Ivy League background.

Cohn says he chaired an intern Q&A session where 4 out of 5 senior staff answering questions came from non-top tier universities: "It's about having the desire, having the drive, having the need and having the want to succeed. It is a level playing field out there. It really is.


Photo credit: Ending the Experiment: Gary D. Cohn by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • @G
    2 August 2011

    Sarah, much more of these sorts of articles please! Proper advice from proper people.

  • Ni
    29 July 2011

    @AndrewRyan and Secondtier, keep believing in the dream and work towards it, it will happen. After all, its not quite as enjoyable if it happens overnight. There will be no story behind it!

  • On
    On the way to the top
    28 July 2011

    Its a down to earth article.I enjoyed it.

  • Ra
    28 July 2011

    Good article!!

  • Ba
    28 July 2011

    Great article!

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