Wall Street

The benefits of a Wall Street beatdown


The terror would begin each morning in the shower. My brain was like a six-lane expressway — a never-ending high-speed stream of anxiety: Did I book every trade last night? Did I make any trading errors? Is today the day I'm going to be let go?

"Each day expect to be fired. If you're not, then you've had a good day" — that's one of the most important things I learned as a trader on Wall Street.

Each and every morning, I'd go to work with a knot in my stomach. It was the same every day. The 15-minute cab ride was my safe place, but opening emails on my BlackBerry felt like playing Russian Roulette. A single email notifying me of a mistake I'd made had the power to obliterate my entire career.

Michaela Begsteiger | Getty Images

Getting from the reception area to the trading desk was like crossing a minefield. I had to be careful not to detonate angry bosses or pesky compliance officers. So I developed a self-defense strategy: Be the first one in.

'You're an oxygen thief'

An initial job in finance shouldn't even be called a job. You're a temp until proven otherwise. On about day three they take the training wheels off, but you're still considered worthless.

"You're an oxygen thief," a former boss once said when I told him I accidentally bought instead of sold. Sadly, it took me a few seconds to even understand his insult.

Read MoreThe truth about insider trading: former Galleon trader

In other industries they clock in at 9, out at 5. People get comfortable, maybe even lazy. If you arrive at 8 a.m. on Wall Street, they say "Good afternoon." You work 100 hour weeks, ruin relationships with family and friends and there's no such thing as comfort. You're constantly reminded that you're insignificant and the chair you're sitting in? It's a privilege.

I actually lost my chair privileges when I didn't answer the phones fast enough.

I once had to stand in the corner for five minutes as punishment for booking a trade wrong.

When I erroneously placed a breakfast or lunch order, it resulted in the silent treatment for the entire day from the recipient whose bagel wasn't toasted properly.

Even when we were making triple-digit returns at the Galleon Group, people were let go for one costly mistake. It was pounded into my head that I should be grateful just for having a seat. And that argument held up when I realized there were 99 people standing in line to take my job at half the salary.

Strangely — I'm grateful for all these experiences.

Read MoreThe best fights on Wall Street—and this trader had a ringside seat

Survival skills

For those who manage to survive the initiation period, it forever changes your work ethic, assertiveness and resilience. You acquire a list of talents not typically found on the resume under the "Other Skills" section like: Being able to efficiently navigate a crowded Toys 'R Us during the holidays or pay attention to your spouse while simultaneously checking the scrolling scores at the bottom of ESPN channel.

Here are some of the skills I gained during my Wall Street initiations that have translated to life after the trading desk:

Be teachable. A lot of kids coming out of college think being smart is the fast track. But they'll be right-sized in a minute. And until they realize how little they know, they'll be crushed. Being beaten down day after day on Wall Street was painful at first, but it taught me to know what I don't know. So, everything I've embarked on since I left Wall Street, from writing my book to shooting a TV pilot, I've approached from an I-know-nothing place – you'd be amazed how refreshing that is to people.

Get the answer. In one interview, I was asked a question about the Japanese yen. I had no idea what the answer was. The worst thing you can do in this situation is try and fake it, so this is what I said: "I don't know, but I if you give me five minutes I can find it for you." I got up and left the conference room and started parading around their foreign trading desk. The first three people I asked didn't even understand the question. Then I finally found someone who knew the answer. Within five minutes, I was back in the interview with the correct answer. I was offered the job.

Pull the trigger. The timid get trampled on Wall Street. You have to make judgment calls all day, every day — and have reasoning behind it. As a trader, I would immediately tell my portfolio manager when I made a big decision on one of his positions and why. Too many people hem and haw — what do you think? Are you sure? I have a question: Would you hire that guy? Would you give him a promotion? No. You want results, you've got to make a decision and do it with conviction.

Time it right. On Wall Street, you need to know when to buy, when to sell, and when to cut your losses. But timing applies to everything. Don't ask for a raise or a day off when the market is down 5 percent and your firm is getting killed. It seems like basic knowledge, but I've seen too many people make this mistake. There's a right and a wrong time to ask.

Nobody cares your cat died. The sympathetic people in your life are not in the workplace. And they most definitely don't reside in the corner office. People want to see you can handle your business — no matter what.

Read MoreMy biggest mistake on Wall Street: Turney Duff

Back in July of 2000, I learned that children of hedge-fund managers can be very demanding. And I was the lucky one who was assigned the task of getting a copy of the new "Harry Potter" book. It was coming out on a Saturday and there were rumors it was already sold out. So Friday after work, I went to try to get a copy. I envisioned myself throwing elbows and pushing 12-year-old boys and girls in the middle of a Barnes & Noble mosh pit. Sorry, kids. No way was little Johnny or Suzie going to get that book instead of me.

I had a nice conversation with the manager, but no deal — she said she couldn't sell me the book a day early. But after a 15-minute conversation, I was able to obtain some valuable information: Her favorite restaurant was Canyon Road.

In the trading world, we called this edge. Little Johnny and Suzie didn't stand a chance.

I jumped in a cab, purchased a $100 gift certificate — and a nice Hallmark card. I returned to Barnes & Noble, but this time didn't ask for the manager. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I left it for her.

The next day when I entered the store, a copy of the book was specially set aside for me to purchase. No line, no wait. I did it!

Johnny and Suzie might have a room full of trophies — you get one just for showing up these days. But when they get out into the real world, they're going to have to figure out how to get their own edge.

Commentary by Turney Duff, a former trader at the hedge fund Galleon Group. Duff chronicled the spectacular rise and fall of his career on Wall Street in the book, "The Buy Side." Follow him on Twitter @turneyduff.