“33, 34, 35, 36…!” I lifted myself off the trading floor, smiling, adrenaline still coursing through my body. I had bet the guys that I could do 35 consecutive, perfect-form push ups, and not only had I won the bet but I’d given them an extra push up for good measure. I was gleaming, but even in this triumphant moment I couldn’t push away the nagging doubt: Is this where I’m supposed to be? Am I happy here?
At 5’4 and blond, I definitely stuck out. This wasn’t a new feeling—as an engineering major I’d regularly found myself surrounded by men in the classroom and professional settings. I felt magnetized to the hype of Wall Street circa 2004, with its promise of wealth, power, and a good time, and the fact that it was a boy’s club wasn’t going to stop me.
Still, it wasn’t exactly an enlightened environment. In sales & trading culture, guys literally referred to themselves as Big Swinging Dicks (BSDs). Yes, you heard that right. Wolf of Wall Street-esque stories were shared on the trading floor freely and everyone laughed, myself included.
After all, the masculine energy was powerful. It was fun. We ate at the nicest restaurants in New York, but our wallets didn’t get a workout because our expense accounts did all the heavy lifting. Well, we paid for the Pepto Bismol to handle the nightly heartburn after a shellfish platter, a buttery ribeye, and an overflowing dessert tray. I prefered the Nobu meal to be followed by spa treatments. I felt like a kobe beef version of myself.
I felt proud to have a relatively high salary right out of college. The HR team at my firm reinforced this, telling our analyst class we were lucky to be in the seats we were in and that, if we stayed, we would be worth $10 million in the future. And I was proud to have landed a derivatives trading role when HR had tried to push me into a sales gig, ignoring the fact that I had excelled in advanced math. Of course, I looked like a salesperson—that’s where they directed the vast majority of young women recruits.
I exclusively wore pants to work for my first two years on Wall Street. I thought the guys would treat me like one of them, mentor me, and include me in the comradery, if I just didn’t show too much of myself. If I didn’t show too much skin. Sure, we laughed hard at jokes and had a good time, but I was hiding myself. I wasn’t happy, but I only occasionally understood that.
A few years in, I started to question things. I didn’t feel fulfilled and when I looked around I didn’t see happiness, I saw money. I saw success defined in terms of having multiple homes, and a job that rewarded a Pavlovian response to the news but did not foster a creative mindset. I was often sick from stress. I looked around for women that inspired me, not just in terms of their careers, but in terms of their lives. But I couldn’t find one.
More than once, I found myself crying in a bathroom stall. I could play it cool on the floor, but the real me was starting to spill over. The casual sexism started to build. “Why are you always in flats? Why don’t you wear sexier shoes?“
Once it was watching someone else cry in the bathroom that got to me. The guys on the trading floor would sometimes order singing telegrams for each other’s birthdays. This particular telegram was dressed as a chicken, and she wept as she pulled off her bird suit. For all I know, she was crying over a breakup, but the scene depressed me. This was a place that paid classically trained opera singers to mortify themselves for rich men’s pleasure.
It wasn’t until I got away for a transformative trip that I realized I needed to get away for good. I embarked on a solo adventure out west: I tried skydiving for the first time, got into some beautiful outdoor rock climbing in Eldorado (outside Denver), and relaxed into that spa life in Santa Barbara. As I took the time to enjoy the world, and myself, I gained a deep clarity. I knew I had to leave my job.
It took me half a year to reset my internal clock after leaving Wall Street. I no longer had to wake up at 5 a.m., stressed about squeezing in a workout to mentally prepare myself for the jungle of the trading floor. I no longer had to hold in my creative side. I no longer had to brute-force my way through another work day that started before dawn and ended after dark, with me melting into the couch for an hour because I lacked the mental energy to do anything else.
The intensity of Wall Street was part of its attraction, and I’m still an intense person. That’s in my DNA. But I’ve realized that I can apply my intensity to something that I’m actually passionate about.
So from one professional woman to another: please take the time to ask yourself what you want. What you really want. And continue to ask yourself this throughout your career and life. Do you want to give up your time to a stressful job that detracts from your happiness? Would making time for a passion project or volunteer work materially improve your mental state while you grind at the 9-5?
If you find yourself questioning your current environment, whether it be the workplace, a relationship, or lifestyle choice, please do yourself a favor and dig deep. It isn’t easy to make a big change but if you’re questioning it, you probably already have your answer.
I woke up this morning without an alarm clock to a huge smile. My pup rolled over for that belly rub and ecstatically pounced off the bed when she realized I was ready to get up. In my own time.
Natalie holds a BSE of Industrial Engineering from the University of Michigan. She is passionate about health and female empowerment in addition to rescue pups and enjoying life.