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Inspiration for biz grads

Goldman Sachs exec Gary Cohn shares his formula for career success.

Gary Cohn, president and COO of Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty)

Gary Cohn, the chief operating officer of investment bank Goldman Sachs, recently delivered an inspirational commencement to new grads of the Kogod School of Business at American University.

The world needs more inspiration, so here is a short version.

To start, Cohn noted that things are not so much different today than when he graduated in April, 1982, when unemployment in the United States was on its way to more than 10% and Q1 GDP was negative 6.4%.

Back then, he said, he had no idea how the world would be changed by ideas. “I did not have a personal computer. I did not have a cell phone. I did not have a fax machine. I didn’t even have Federal Express. I don’t even know how we survived. In fact, one of my favorite activities at American University was spending late nights in the Mary Graydon Center on the second floor programming Fortran.”

Upon graduation, Cohn moved back home and started having a great time. That ended early one Monday morning, when his father walked into his room, looked at him in bed, and said, “What are you going to do with the rest of your life.”

Cohn replied, “You’re looking at it,” which did not fly well.

Cohn had no job and no prospects. But he had passion. To appease his father, he landed a job with United States Steel in Cleveland. Unfortunately, steel was not what he was passionate about. He loved markets.

Cohn took a trip to New York and hung out at the commodities exchange, where he eventually heard someone say they had to go to the airport. He asked to share a cab and took his shot. He had 45 minutes, in traffic on a Friday afternoon, to land a job.

After talking money and finance for the whole trip, Cohn was asked what he knew about options. “Everything,” he lied. The other guy said: “Great, I want you to come back Monday, I want you to interview. I’m trading options, it’s a brand new market that’s opening and I don’t know how to trade it and I need someone to stand behind me and tell me exactly what to do.”

On his way home, Cohn stopped at a book store and bought a guide on options. He read it four times over the weekend. That’s how Goldman’s COO started in the financial services industry.

The lesson, of course, is to have a goal and go for it. “Knowing where you want to end up,” Cohn says, “is a lot easier than figuring out how to start and how to get there. You will figure out how to get there. Do not chart your career. Trust me, you do not want to chart your career.”

For the full speech, click here.