A Goldman Sachs intern recently asked Lloyd Blankfein how he became the CEO.
“Can you explain when early on you had to decide ‘I want to be CEO’ or people noticed it in you? And what kind of things they noticed so you didn’t become complacent and OK with just [vice president] or [managing director] or whatever—I know that’s great success—but CEO…” the intern asked during a Q&A in July.
The simple answer from Blankfein: You have to do a great job in your current role and not worry excessively about the future.
Here is Blankfein’s response in full:
No, I think there’s a lot of luck. If you’re an Olympic athlete…you also have to peak at the time it’s an Olympic year. You can be the fastest runner in the world, and it’s an off year. And so, you know, by the time you get to the Olympics three years later, you aren’t [the fastest] anymore. There’s a lot of luck involved in things in the world.
I never lived my life thinking about my next job because I was always in the last job I could have as far as I could tell. And I think it’s a huge advantage for you to live in the moment and not to be seething too much. I mean, obviously you plan even though your plans never work out. But…the secret is to do a great job with what you’re doing. What you should do is you should perform as if you are in your next job, but not seethe with the ambition to get there and project that—You’ll make people nervous as hell and you’ll kill yourself.
I’ll give you an example….When I went to [Harvard] from the high school I came from, it never dawned on me that I’d get into that kind of an Ivy League school. It just didn’t happen. But I applied. I never thought about it really after I applied because it just wasn’t on my scope. And so when I got a letter, I didn’t have any anxiety to it. And when I got that letter, I was just like ecstatic…It was just a great experience. Even the process of that was great.
When I was in college and I applied to law school, I went down to the mailbox every day. I knew the consequences of it. I was with a bunch of people who also wanted it and were vying for it. I was like torturing myself over. I was imaging ‘What if I do get it? What if I don’t get it? What are the consequences of getting it or not?’ And I tell you—It affected my life and it affected my functionality.
I tell you if you could approach every opportunity like I did the college one, you’ll be better and you’ll be happier. And if you live the life tormented about ‘What are my prospects for the next job?’ when life is random and there is some chance involved in things, you’re going to be tortured.
Blankfein has an interesting backstory. He grew up poor in the housing projects of Brooklyn. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School, which no longer exists. He graduated as his class valedictorian and earned a scholarship to Harvard.
After graduation, Blankfein attended Harvard Law. He practiced for a while, but he wanted to get into finance.
He applied to a number of firms, including Goldman Sachs, but was turned away by all of them. He took a job at J. Aron & Company, a commodity trading firm that was later acquired by Goldman.
During his time at Goldman, he has led the fixed income, currency and commodities division. He also served as president and COO. He became the CEO of Goldman in 2006.
Blankfein is one of two CEOs that led their firms through the 2008 financial crisis and continue in their jobs. The other is JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon.