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Liar's Poker: Michael Lewis's Guide for Young Professionals

Updated on March 28, 2017
Career coach Michael Lewis
Career coach Michael Lewis | Source

Is Michael Lewis a career coach?

Before The Blind Side, Moneyball, or The Big Short, there was Liar's Poker. Michael Lewis's first book (#1 Bestseller) came out in 1989, a year after he left his position as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers. Remarkably, all of the storytelling gifts evident in his later works are present in Liar's Poker. In short, Liar's Poker is a wildly entertaining behind the scenes look at life on Wall Street. If that was all it was, it would still be one of the best books ever written on Wall Street. However, Liar's Poker is more than a memoir.

On my second reading, I discovered that Liar's Poker is actually a career guide for young professionals disguised as a memoir. Below, I outline the three main lessons for building a successful career in any field that Lewis teaches in Liar's Poker. Throughout the book, Lewis marvels at how someone like him, lacking any identifiable skills, found himself at the center of the financial universe making obscene (not according to Felix Dennis) amounts of money. However, the truth is Lewis is a master at navigating the highly competitive environment. Key lessons on how to succeed in your career are buried in Liar's Poker.

St. James Palace


Go to where power resides

How does an Art History major graduating from the London School of Economics with no job prospects end up in the vaunted Salomon Brothers training program? He showed up. Lewis sat next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers managing director during a dinner with the Queen Mother at St. James Palace. Granted, Lewis received the invitation to the dinner through a family connection, his cousin married into German royalty, but he took advantage of the opportunity and it served as a de facto job interview.

At some point, most of us have the opportunity to interact with people who are in positions to accelerate our progress. Often, we miss the opportunity. It sometimes is as simple as showing up to an event and being open to the possibilities.

Ask for what you want

Lewis is very clear that he wants to work on Wall Street. He flat-out asks the wife of the managing director whether she can get him a job at Salomon. Think about that for a second? Here is a twenty-four year-old asking for a life-changing favor from a women he just met an hour earlier. How many of us would have done that? Most people would have let the opportunity pass and missed the chance to get a foot in the door of a lucrative career.

Many of us do not ask for what we want because we are afraid of rejection. Rejection does not feel good, but it is the key to success. Without the risk of rejection or failure, it is impossible to advance in either the personal or professional aspects of our lives. We often fail to recognize that when someone says "no" to us, generally, we are no worse off than before the request and we are almost always better off after the "yes." Asking is always worth the momentary pain.

What if the person you ask becomes annoyed or mad at you? Honestly, this is rarely the case. How do I know? Do this thought exercise: When someone asks you for something, what is your typical response? I will bet anger or annoyance is rarely your reaction. On the rare occasions where an ask bothers you, the negative feelings are short-lived. I will bet that most of the time you meet the request with indifference. You may even be happy to say "yes" because you see an opportunity to help the requester or even help yourself.

Back to Lewis and the managing director's wife. She almost guaranteed him a job offer after he asked for one. Why would she do this? Lewis would almost certainly never interact with her again. However, there are a few reasons she might have helped Lewis get a job:

1) Her ego-How much power does she have in her relationship that she can persuade her husband to vouch for a candidate he does not know based on her word? This was not a job in the mail room, but a front-office position at the most profitable investment bank in the world. Definitely reaffirming. After all, this was a woman who felt comfortable shouting at the Queen Mother, so it is safe to assume she has a healthy ego.

2) Charitable instinct-She may have had a sincere interest in helping a young man advance his career. However, this instinct would have remained dormant if Lewis had not come out and asked for a job.

If there is nothing tangible to gain, most people will help others for the two above reasons. The world is not conspiring against your success.

Asking for what you want is a critical part of any sale. In case you were wondering all of life, including job interviews is sales.

Jack Canfield explains how to ask for what you want

You need a mentor...preferably more than one

Lewis is very frank about the fact that he has no idea how to sell bonds. As a "geek," Salomon-speak for someone fresh out of the training program, Lewis stumbles by "blowing up" multiple customers as he steers them into money-losing investments. He also allows himself to be taken advantage of by traders at the firm who encourage him to push these money-losing investments. While Lewis struggles to find his footing on the trading floor, he wisely cultivates two mentors, Dash Riprock and Alexander. Riprock and Alexander are very different, but both are very successful. Lewis survives the early part of his career by simply copying his two mentors and it works. Riprock and Alexander go on to provide Lewis with valuable advice and help him advance to the top of his training class.

Everyone needs a mentor and multiple mentors can help accelerate the journey to success. Having multiple mentors is advantageous because individuals are not good at all things. Lewis wanted to be a great salesman. Being a great salesman requires confident communication and superior analytical skills. Lewis needed to persuade customers to invest large sums of money based on logic and emotion. What did he do? He absorbed Riprock's natural sales technique and phone demeanor and combined it with Alexander's framework for identifying profitable opportunities before other salesmen. In many ways, Lewis ended up surpassing his mentors because he was able to take their best qualities and combine them in his sales pitches.

Identifying mentors can be difficult. Not everyone with more experience than you is willing to help you, but many are. You would be surprised at the number of successful people who enjoy helping those starting out in their careers. The key to cultivating mentors is to listen and take action on their advice. If a mentor is willing to invest in you, show them you are worth their investment.

A key lesson about mentors from Liar's Poker is that they do not have to be grizzled graybeards. Alexander was a couple of years older than Lewis and Dash Riprock was actually younger than Lewis. The key to finding valuable mentors is to identify people with skills you would like to learn or positions you would like to occupy. From there, you learn what you can to help you advance. At some point, you may be able to add value for your mentor, as Lewis does with the creation of a new type of investment alongside Alexander. More likely, you will end up paying it forward as Lewis does to the new trainees.

Ramit Sethi and Ben Casnocha explain how to get a mentor

Evaluate exit options before you need them

At the end of 1987, Lewis was the highest paid member of his training class and the highest paid second-year employee in the history of Salomon Brothers. He left the firm early in 1988. He left while he was on top. This is always the best time to leave. Why? Because you have options. He decided that selling bonds, despite the large amount of money to be made, was not how he wanted to spend his time. Lewis left thinking he would probably never be rich. He was wrong. His writing career, although maybe not as lucrative as 25 years on Wall Street, has produced a substantial net worth.

Lewis realized the most valuable asset in the world is time and you must invest it wisely. Career-wise,Tte best time to evaluate options is when you are on top. You must constantly evaluate if your current activities are the best use of your time. If they are not, begin to transition to something else as soon as possible. Lewis was moonlighting as journalist while working for Salomon Brothers. If you evaluate your options from a position of strength, you will ensure you always land on your feet.

Yes, Michael Lewis is a career coach

There it is. If Lewis ever hits a rough patch in his writing career, he has a future as a career consultant. However, if you are just getting started on your career, you don't need to pay for a seminar. You can buy Liar's Poker.


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