This woman wrote a book about (and lived) every stressed out Wall Street worker’s career fantasy

Atria Books; Lucy Brown Armstrong

There is a formula many Ivy Leaguers follow. Graduate from your top university and go into finance or consulting whether you really care to pursue the field or not. It is just what is expected. According to The Harvard Crimson, 36% of Harvard graduates in the Class of 2017 who entered the workforce went into the consulting or finance industries and for the Class of 2018 over 50% of surveyed final club members planned to go into finance (compared to 29% of surveyed students who were not members of final clubs.)

Other nubile grads may backpack around Europe trying to find themselves or work a variety of odd jobs while considering grad school but for the elite Ivy Leaguers (if they haven’t invented an app) going into finance and earning an inordinate amount of money is the default plan. Madeleine Henry, Class of 2014 at Yale, was one of those people. She was recruited by Goldman Sachs her senior year of college and soon found herself an exhausted, overworked junior analyst (mind you being paid in the top 0.1% of all graduates) but also somewhat miserable. The work culture of Wall Street is one of the toughest climates out there. Weeks are long, people are borderline nefarious, sleep deprivation and coffee addictions are applauded and a life outside of work is but a memory. In other words, it is great fodder for a novel.


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The pressure to be perfect

Henry realized this quickly into her tenure at Goldman and began working on it eventually landing an agent and finally selling her book, Breathe In, Cash Out, and is available now (Simon & Schuster.) The character of Allegra Cobb sounds quite similar to Henry except exchange Yale for Princeton University (but, hey, Ivy is Ivy) and instead of wanting to become a writer, Cobb dreams of being an Insta-famous yoga guru.

When the overstressed Cobb gets an opportunity to work with her yoga role model (who is also, of course, queen of Instagram and in turn could make her the same) her worlds collide as she tries to earn her bonus while also dealing with the fact that she accidentally slept with her boss and is developing feelings for a coworker. Throw in pressure from a wonderful widowed father who is so proud of his daughter’s achievements and the realization that the grass isn’t always greener even if you are a social media influencer (plus Instagram actually makes the grass look really green and perfect because it is using the Juno filter.) “At Ivy League schools people don’t see all the career options that are out there. Most of my friends were considering jobs in finance or consulting.  But there are so many ways to make a living and many that offer better work-life balance. I always loved to write but it can be hard to turn your passion into a career,” she told Ladders.

What the heck is investment banking anyway

One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is Henry’s (and Cobb’s) honesty when it comes to working in finance. “No one grows up wanting to be an investment banker. Anyone who says they did is lying,” begins Chapter Two. “One of the most common questions to prepare for analyst interviews is: What does an investment banker do? And the truth is, no one f*cking knows.” Henry learned very early on that this wasn’t the career for her, but, again that pressure and arguably that responsibility that because you are smart and have been “blessed” with this extraordinary education you now need to make an extraordinary amount of money, no matter the cost on your mental health as well as physical health.

Though she is not a yoga teacher Henry is actually a hardcore yogi who found release in the wellness practice after she left banking and that very sedentary lifestyle (a typical day kept her in the office from 9 am to 10 pm.) “In my free time I started practicing yoga and following all the yogi influencers. I saw all there poses and just really wanted to be able to do that. They were so graceful and calm while doing these incredible contortions. My relationship with yoga has really been nurtured by Instagram because it gave me access to people I wouldn’t have seen or heard of otherwise. So, I started practicing a lot on my own and then supplementing that with my own research,” she told Ladders.

madeleine henry yoga
Madeleine Henry

That famous toxic work culture

In the book, Henry writes, “I start most mornings with three eight-ounce cups of black coffee in a row, then drink at least three more throughout the day. I dilute each with water until it’s tasteless because coffee gives me a gag reflex. But I need it. Almost everyone on the floor drinks an insane amount of coffee (except for the Mormons.) Puja calls it Prozac. An HG analyst passed out in the shower at home from a caffeine pill overdose a few months ago. She was so also on diet pills, though, so it’s unclear what caused the fall. Point being: caffeine is life.” And that is just what she writes about coffee at a Goldman Sachs-type firm. She also writes about how, at least on the analyst level, “Hating your life is a part of the culture.”

Henry told Ladders, “In Breathe In, Cash Out” Allegra has a lot of problems with banking culture. Worst of all, she struggles with a lack of meaning at her job. She doesn’t feel connected to a purpose behind her work. As she painstakingly changes bar chart colors at midnight or aligns bullet points in an appendix at 3 am, she doesn’t feel like what she’s doing is worthwhile. ” Henry’s experience doesn’t sound quite as bad and she said she really never experienced the famously bad treatment women working in finance have famously received (see Tales from the Boom Boom Room and watch Equity) but she admits it may just have been because she was at a lower level in her career.  “I didn’t feel any unfairness as a woman or targeted as a woman. I felt that women in finance were looking out for each other. But I was a junior banker when I left so I can’t speak to being a vice president or a manager. ”

And she notes that though finance can be a difficult environment to work in, especially in the first decade of one’s career, many people were born to do it. “I think you need quantitative skills and definitely high energy because you do work a lot, and you need to be comfortable in a very social working environment. Confidence too because you’re learning on the fly a lot,” she said. “Some people do love [this type of work] and I meet them and they are happy as clams and they love the perks. It just takes a different personality type to love it.”

The yogi of Wall Street

This book will speak to people who may be succeeding at work but have something gnawing inside them that makes them want to leave and take a risk. Henry felt that so strongly that she says she wasn’t even scared when she eventually quit (though having a locked-in book deal would help alleviate anyone’s panic.) “I really wasn’t scared I just believed in this book.”

Though there is a love interest in Breathe In, Cash Out, the book is really about a Millennial woman choosing the right career for herself. That is the real romantic and ambitious journey. “Now it is on equal footing that you are able to be in love with your work contributions as well,” Henry said.