Make It New Grads

How the jobs you don't get can change your life and make your career

Turney Duff, author of "The Buy Side."
Photo: Andrew H. Walker
Turney Duff, author of "The Buy Side."

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After graduation, I made millions of dollars climbing to the top of Mount Wall Street. It took years, but I did it. Then I lost it all falling face first off the side of the mountain.

Eventually, I walked away from the business and reinvented myself. But in order to fall from great heights, you first need to know how to get there. At the beginning of my career, it was all the jobs I didn't get that ended up changing my life.

I moved to New York City in a U-Haul with a giant lobster and "America's Moving Adventure – Maine" written on the side of it, wearing L.L. Bean boots and a flannel shirt. Shortly thereafter, I got a job on Wall Street.

As a B student with a journalism degree and a 970 SAT score, I was an unlikely candidate for Wall Street success. Hell, I was an unlikely candidate for Wall Street mediocrity. But I did know how to do one thing: How to plant, water and watch seeds grow.

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With the help of an uncle, I set up meetings all over town. A couple of the interviews were perfunctory — potential hirers didn't even try to hide their disinterest. After asking me what my favorite color was, they took my resume, shook my hand and told me it was nice to meet me.

Others, though, the ones that I guess were my uncle's better friends, were thorough — they wanted to know why silver was my favorite color.

In those interviews, I met with more than one person who seemed genuinely interested. And after each interview, I wrote down the phone number of the people with whom I'd met and a reminder of something that we talked about, like, "He's a huge New York Knicks fan," or "Her son plays high school lacrosse," because I knew I needed to personalize my thank you notes. Otherwise they'd never remember me.

I got a job at Morgan Stanley.

This is where we could talk about that first job, but I'd rather discuss the jobs that I didn't get. A week after I started working, I took the list of numbers and information of all the people who hadn't hired me and brought it to work. The next day, I waited until the market closed and found an empty conference room. I took out the list, grabbed the handset and began dialing the numbers.

The people who answered were quick to say that they didn't have a position open.

"No problem," I said. "That's not why I'm calling. I want to thank you again for taking the time to meet with me, and I appreciate all of the help and insight you've given. Also, I want to let you know I just started working at Morgan Stanley in their Private Client Services department."

That's when the conversation shifted. I wasn't looking for anything. I was calling to say thank you and give them a quick update.

I sat in the empty office until I'd called every single name on the list. And nearly every one of the people I spoke to told me to keep in touch.

Over the years I called the people on my failed interview list from 1994 to check in. Sometimes it was to share the good news, like when I passed my broker's exams, and when I was promoted to assistant to two of the senior brokers on the floor.

Eventually, the conversations became less formal, and relationships developed to the point where I could just pick up the phone to say hi. But despite my efforts, over time, the list shrunk considerably. Some of the people moved to other firms, some stopped returning my calls and a couple of them left Wall Street altogether.

Five years after I started at Morgan Stanley, I got a career changing opportunity. An up-and-coming hedge fund, the Galleon Group, wanted to interview me. I immediately called the few remaining names on my 1994 list to tell them. (Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have taken the time to update the list and type it onto the computer — it was starting to look like an ancient Chinese scroll.) Anyway, one of the guys had a very close business relationship with the hedge fund. And he was able to give me some valuable insight, background and describe the personalities of the people who'd be interviewing me and making the final decision.

By the time the big day came, I was very prepared. And I got the job.

Turney Duff’s master class in Wall Street business dinners
Christina Scolaro | CNBC
Turney Duff’s master class in Wall Street business dinners

So, of course, on my first day of work, I called every one of the five remaining people on my 1994 interview list to share the great news. They were all now working in upper management at top financial institutions on the street — they weren't bad people to know for a junior trader at an up-and-coming hedge fund. So on day one, I was already way ahead of the game, and it catapulted my career.

This, all because of the jobs I didn't get.

The flip side

Once I was well-established, I was often asked to help find jobs for sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, girlfriends, you name it. I always handled the requests the same way. I had them come up to my office and sit with me at the trading desk for a few hours to get a feel for the job, exactly the way it was done for me.

They showed up in their best suits and skirts and asked enthusiastic questions. I took their resumes and told them I'd make some calls, which I did. More than a few got jobs and called afterward to thank me. But, for the most part, I never heard from any of the ones I couldn't help, except for one.

In 2008 a guy named Dave came up to my office. He was very enthusiastic and really wanted a job. I liked him. And after every meeting I set up for him, he called with an update. A month or two went by, and he would call me again, just to check in. He updated me on everything he was doing to try and get a job. I could just tell — he wanted it.

I don't think I ever wanted to get somebody else a job as badly as I wanted to get one for Dave. And eventually, he got hired.

Sometime later, he got his big break, and it came in the most unusual way. His cousin was getting married, and both he and his brother needed dates to the wedding — they'd been ordered by their parents. So they wrote a hilarious ad looking for dates on Craigslist. They received over five hundred responses, went to the wedding with two random girls and turned their real-life experience into a big-budget Hollywood movie, "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates."

Mike Stangle and Dave Stangle arrives for the Premiere Of 20th Century Fox's 'Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates' held at the ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on June 29, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
Mike Stangle and Dave Stangle arrives for the Premiere Of 20th Century Fox's 'Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates' held at the ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on June 29, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

I called to congratulate Dave soon after. On the phone, he told me he was very lucky to have gotten the break he did. Maybe, I thought. But he knew a hell of a lot about planting seeds.

Plant, water and watch grow

In some ways, everything we do is either planting a new seed or choosing to continue to care for one we planted long ago. Some sprout and continue to grow and grow. For good and for ill: I've planted seeds of deceit and sin that seemed harmless at the time but then grew into hundred-foot-tall trees.

The beauty is that each day we get to decide what we're going to plant, water or, perhaps, cut down.

I firmly believe the universe reacts positively to acts of gratitude, and in ways that you might not ever imagine. I don't know whether I would have had the same experience that led to my job at Galleon had I not made those initial calls. Maybe the greatest return for being grateful is that you are free from expectations. And it's in that air and light that the good seeds you plant will grow.

Also check out why Bill Gates and Warren Buffett say your friends are crucial to your career. And look for more exclusive pieces of advice from icons like Melinda Gates, Dave Ramsey and others over the next few weeks. Follow along using the hashtag #MakeItNewGrads.