Got Crystal Meth? The Breaking Bad Guide to Success in the World of Finance
If you want to break in and move up the ladder in finance, two of the most important skills will be killing people and selling crystal meth.
Dissolving your enemies’ corpses with hydrofluoric acid might be a close #3.
And the best place to learn all these skills is not from interview guides or training programs, but from watching Breaking Bad – the best-written (and most entertaining) TV drama currently on TV.
Here’s why you need to pay attention, and what you can learn by watching:
What’s It About?
If you’re not familiar with it (what is wrong with you, exactly?), Breaking Bad is about a high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine dealer after he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and needs to provide for his family.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, only with a lot more death, destruction, and estrangement involved.
Oh yeah, and Walter White, the protagonist of the series, could easily kick the crap out of Patrick Bateman.
Bateman was dumb enough to chop up bodies and leave them there, while Walter White at least hides the evidence by melting his enemies’ corpses.
And In All Seriousness…
I’m only half-serious above, but what’s not a joke is how critics universally agree that Breaking Bad is one of the best TV series ever created, if not the best.
While I love Game of Thrones and Mad Men (and about 30+ others – yes, I am a crack addict and TV is my drug), I must give credit where credit is due: Breaking Bad is better-written, more intriguing, and more consistently high-quality from episode to episode than either of those.
And you can learn a whole lot about success in the world of finance by watching.
Here are the top 10 lessons you can learn:
(SPOILER ALERT: Yes, I’m going to mention things that happen in the series. So if you want to watch at some point, stop reading right here. This is your first and last warning.)
1. Find a Complementary Business Partner and Mentor
So you’re a high school chemistry teacher who knows how to make the best crystal meth around, but you have no idea how to sell it.
What do you do?
You find Jesse Pinkman, a former student of yours who failed the class, but who also happens to be a rising star in the drug dealing world.
You (Walter White) make the best, highest-priced meth around and he uses his connections to get it sold and make you both a lot of money.
It’s the same when you break into finance: finding a mentor is one of the best things you can do for your career – whether it’s someone older with more experience, or someone who has a complementary skill set.
Maybe you’re great at analytical work and investing, but aren’t so great at the “selling” part of the business and relationship management… but that’s a perfect opportunity to partner up with someone who is.
Or maybe you’re still in school but you have friends who have already been through the entire recruiting process and can tell you what to expect at every turn.
They may not be quite as lucrative as partnering to sell drugs, but complementary skill sets always produce “synergies.”
2. Don’t Overestimate the Competition
So you want to become the biggest meth dealer in town, but your main opponent is a criminal mastermind who owns a chain of fast food restaurants that’s cover for the biggest meth distribution operation in the Southwestern US… and he’s supported by the Mexican drug cartels.
That might seem intimidating, but as Walter White discovered, the “competition” may actually hate each other more than they hate you – and the fact that they underestimate you could work to your advantage as you push them out of town.
The same applies in finance: if there’s one lesson I want you to take from this site, it’s to never overestimate the competition.
We’ve had dozens of stories from readers who broke in against all odds – non-target schools, low GPAs, completely random backgrounds, and even making every possible mistake in the recruiting process.
None of them ever overestimated the competition.
And you never should, either.
3. Always Have an Air-Tight Story
So your relatives suddenly find out that you’ve amassed millions of dollars… even though you’ve only earned $40K per year as a high school chemistry teacher for decades.
How do you explain it?
You plan it out in advance and spin a story where you explain that you’ve actually discovered an amazing card counting system that let you make a fortune with gambling.
But you don’t plan out every little detail in advance – you leave some of it up to imagination and spontaneity so that it sounds more natural.
And just like Walter White’s wife when she did the exact same thing to cover up his actions, you get them all to believe you and buy into your story.
You already know that your “story” is the most important part, by far, in any type of interview – plus, the key points that you need to structure it properly.
But sometimes you’ll go too far in the “scripted” direction or too far in the “spontaneous” direction, both of which are doomed to failure.
Outline it, sketch it, do whatever you need, but don’t memorize it word for word.
Soliloquies only work in Shakespeare, not when you’re trying to genuinely convince people – or win job offers.
So be like Skyler White and use spontaneity in your performance for top results.
4. Don’t Let Your Skeptical Family Get You Down
When Walter’s wife first finds out about his meth dealing activities, she’s just a wee bit… skeptical?
Actually, the better description would be, “Hates him and instantly wants to get a divorce and never talk to him again.”
But Walter didn’t let that stop him – eventually he got his wife to come around and understand that leaving him would be the worst option in this scenario.
And he even got her involved with his illegal activities by leveraging her accounting background to help launder money (Big 4 Accounting –> Money Laundering – not as prestigious as investment banking, but more profitable?).
It’s the same when you first announce that you want to break into finance: everyone will be skeptical at first, especially if you lack credentials and qualifications.
Your family and friends, especially, may not take you seriously – so you have to convince them anyway.
Get them on board, show them how serious you are, involve them with your process, and show them results – even if you’re not all the way there yet.
Maybe you haven’t won job offers, but you’re making progress with informational interviews or weekend trips – or with networking in general.
And never let them get you down – or you’ll never succeed in drug dealing, or in finance.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate
So the drug dealing head honcho has just offered Walter White $3 million for 3 months of his time… does he accept right away?
Nope. Because Walter is the best damn meth cook in town, and he knows he could get even more – so he turns down the initial offer…
Only to use later events to get an even better deal: $15 million for 12 months of meth cooking.
(Wow, don’t you wish you could become a drug dealer now? That trounces investment banking pay.)
While you may not be able to negotiate much as an entry-level analyst in investment banking, that changes once you move to another firm, and especially at smaller places where pay is less standardized.
Here’s the deal: if the firm is not willing to negotiate at least a little, they don’t really want you.
No, you probably can’t negotiate for double the pay – but you can easily ask for more time off before starting work, funds to cover moving expenses, and maybe slightly different work assignments (friends have done all of those and more).
So never be afraid to negotiate – once you have the job offer, you are in the position of power and the firm will do anything to get you to accept.
6. Don’t Take the Easy Way Out
Early on, Walter discovers that one of his former co-workers has amassed a small fortune and could easily cover his medical expenses.
He would still die, of course, but his life could be extended and he’d have more time with his family.
So what does he do?
He turns down the offer, because he doesn’t want to take other peoples’ money. He wants to save his family himself and earn his way out of the predicament he’s in.
When you’re breaking into the industry, you’ll be tempted many times by “the easy path” or the easy way out… who cares about getting a front office role, just go to the back office! Or go to an accounting firm!
There’s nothing “wrong” with these options, but if you’re 100% set on a front office role in finance, you should only use them as backup plans.
So if you ever find yourself saying, “I don’t really have much of a shot anyway, I should just aim lower…” – well, you should just give up right now because you’ll never make it anywhere by thinking lower.
And neither did our cuddly, lovable drug dealer friend.
7. Always Value Money and Work Over Friends and Family
Walter White gets offered $1.2 million for the 38 pounds (17.2 kg) of crystal meth he’s cooked at one point…
Just one small problem: he needs to make the drop-off at a precise time in an exact location, and there’s no room for error.
At the same time, his wife is also giving birth to their first daughter.
So what does he do?
He misses the birth of his daughter and takes the money – the only logical choice.
And you know it’s exactly the same in finance: you should always value work more highly than friends, family, and outside interests and activities.
After all, all of those will disappear one day – but the money will always be there as long as you don’t spend it stupidly.
And seriously, if you think you can make it through years in investment banking without having your weekends ruined occasionally, keep dreaming.
There is no such thing as “work / life balance” – pick one or the other.
And make sure you make the right choice, just like Walter White did.
8. Change Up Your Tactics and Try New Approaches
At one point, Walter and Jesse’s plans to start their own meth distribution network fail when a few of their dealers get murdered.
They find out that while making drugs is one thing, selling them is another one entirely.
They could have given up and gotten out of the business entirely… but that wouldn’t exactly provide for Walter’s family or pay for his medical bills, now would it?
So they do the only thing they can, and find a new distributor: Gustavo Fring, whose Los Pollos Hermanos (The Chicken Brothers) restaurant chain serves as the front for a massive meth distribution network.
And it works out quite well… for a while, anyway.
Similarly, persistence alone is not enough when breaking into finance.
You have to change up your tactics, see what works, see what fails, and figure out what you should really be spending your time on.
So if you have no luck with cold calling, try meeting people at real events instead – even if you have to fly in to get to those events (complaining that it costs too much = you are not resourceful / ambitious enough to figure out a way to do it).
If one person you’ve contacted has been helpful but suddenly goes MIA, don’t keep pushing it when you haven’t heard back after 5 emails… move onto your other leads.
Just because a tactic works well for others doesn’t necessarily mean it will work well for you – so don’t be afraid to experiment, whether you’re networking or selling drugs.
9. Always Keep an Ace Up Your Sleeve
When Walter goes to meet with a sociopath drug dealer about distributing his product, he’s naturally cautious…
Partially because this dealer has just beaten his partner Jesse to within an inch of his life, and partly because well, meeting with drug dealers is never really “safe” to begin with.
Rather than raising suspicion with a gun, knife, or other weapon, he walks in with seemingly nothing on him.
Only to reveal that he’s prepared and brought fulminated mercury, after which he nearly blows up the dealer’s building when he doesn’t get a positive response.
Maybe a little extreme, but you can’t argue with the results: the dealer caved in shortly thereafter.
If you’re going to defy the odds and get into the industry with nothing in your favor, you also need an ace up your sleeve.
Maybe it’s operational experience that the firm happens to value for some reason; or a connection to an emerging market that’s interesting; or something else that sets you apart.
Most interviewers are extremely bored and sometimes stop paying attention after 1-2 minutes just because you’re like everyone else they met with already.
So do something interesting and mention at least 1 memorable point that not everyone else will talk about when you’re pitching yourself and telling your story.
10. Clean Up Your Dirty Laundry in Private
At one point early on, Walter and Jesse end up with a drug dealer’s corpse in their RV – and dumping it is not an option since the police tend to notice things like that.
So they decide to do the next best thing: rather than disposing of it publicly and letting everyone know of their deed, they get several liters of hydrofluoric acid and use it to dissolve the body.
The only problem is that Jesse ignores the instructions to get a plastic container and instead uses his bathtub, which causes… some issues (seriously, search for the clip on YouTube or just start watching the show – I can’t make this stuff up).
In the same way, when you work in finance you never want to make your disputes with co-workers and superiors public knowledge.
If you have a problem, figure it out behind closed doors without letting the whole world know about it.
Sure, analysts and associates may want to kill each other, but that doesn’t mean that you should actually act on the temptation.
And if you ever find yourself standing in front of a bathtub with your boss’s dissolved corpse in the tub, you know you’ve gone too far.
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I really like your article, crossing Breaking Bad with finance and adding humour to it made it a pleasant read. I bookmarked this post. :)
Thanks for visiting our site! I’m glad you find it useful!
Hey Brian, I’m just like you, addicted to good TV. You should definitely watch Suits. Even though it’s a show about lawyers and far from being as good as Breaking Bad, Mike’s life very closely resembles life of a first year analyst. They work crazy hours and have to take incredible amount of sh*t from their superiors. Very good at portraying corporate culture :)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading that and had a good laugh too. I appreciate the links in the text as well.
Love virtually everything you put out but #7 is just… WOW. Valuing money over family is ridiculous to begin with… to justify it by claiming that family will one day disappear and money won’t was honestly extremely shocking/depressing to read.
That was meant to be sarcastic (as were other comments above).
But there is truth to it in that yes, you have to value work / money / business over having a social life in finance. Maybe not as extreme as described here.
Hey guys, I really need your help with an exceptionally bad work situation. I work for a MM investment bank in NY in an industry coverage group. I have been here for two years and am about to enter my third year. However, although I worked hard, and produced good work, my end of year review ended up being poor. I was told for example, that I did not have the skills to become an associate, which I really don’t understand given that I have worked hard and have not messed up significantly once in my work, and am solid at the modelling. Added to this the MD who is head of my group, has never really liked me at all (so maybe I was doomed from day one…) Now I have been told by the MD that I have been put on a ‘performance review’ and if I don’t improve my performance by September they will terminate my employment. They have also suggested for me to look for other jobs, and to tell them if I want to work elsewhere(!). They said that they also feel I don’t have the right skill set for investment banking and am too ‘shy’ (I am always quiet in team meetings, and probably do come across as quite ‘shy’, but I always thought an analyst was supposed to quietly churn away decent quality work, and not be loud and aggressive in meetings). They are also going to keep me on second year pay until September.
I did admittedly make a few stupid moves in my second year, such as coming into work late (9.30am nearly every day in my second year – most people in my bank come in much earlier – I did get frowned at for this) and I think they sussed out I was talking to recruiters (seriously frowned upon at my bank even for analysts) which might be some of the reasons for the poor review, but given how hard I have worked I do not deserve this treatment.
I honestly think that this is all just a ruse to get me out. I see no reason to stay and am tempted to quit after I get my second year bonus (due in the next few weeks). What is the point of working hard for this place if they are going to treat me like this? I stand next to zero chance of getting promoted here and may not even make it past September (I am sure they will use the smallest mistakes I make in the intervening period as ammunition against me). I have a few juniors here ( a few associates, VPs and Directors in my team and some in others) who like me and treat me well, and who are still giving me decent work. But it is not enough and some of them may have even contributed to the negative review. What do you guys suggest I do? Resign as soon as I get my bonus and look for work I genuinely want to do? Or stick it out and see what happens? If I resign I am worried I will burn bridges with people who like me and have an awkward gap in my resume.
Finally, as part of this ‘performance review’ process (I think this is honestly just a HR formality – doubt I will make it past September regardless of what I do) I will have a weekly meeting with one of the MDs (a female MD who is actually quite nice). What should I say to her during this? What is the best move for me? Tell her the truth? Honestly I feel this whole situation is ridiculous. For people reading this, please use my experience as a primer on how NOT to play the office politics game. Also bear in mind that the environment at an MM bank can be extremely different to a BB and is extremely fit driven. Thanks very much in advance for the help.
Obviously wait until your bonus, but don’t quit unless you get something else lined up first. So just shift to looking for other jobs full-time and do the bare minimum to squeak by at work.
It sounds like your job is beyond repair and ordinarily I would recommend quitting, but that can cause problems when you go to recruit if you quit early.
For meeting with the female MD, don’t tell her the truth or she will tell the others. Just act like you’re trying to improve, and only indicate otherwise when you are about to leave.
If this were a normal company or a start-up I would have totally different advice, but in finance people are crazy so you have to roll with the punches and play the game.
Many thanks for the advice. Is quitting (after I get my bonus) a bad idea because it will be difficult explaining why I left to recruiters? Will they care though? If it is a non investment banking / private equity role I am interviewing for (am not genuinely interested in these fields anymore) I can always say I left because the hours were too intense and the work was not for me. Plus I would have all my time to look for a new job that i genuinely want to do (maybe start up or corporate development). Or is it still a bad idea? If they are going to fire me in September I would rather go on my own terms…Would be interesting to hear your viewpoint.
Yes, I’ve seen other people who left early have a difficult time explaining it. If it’s a non-IB/PE role then it will be easier and it may be a better idea to quit right away.
In short: if you want to continue in IB / PE, stay and minimize your workload, otherwise wait for your bonus and then quit.
Thanks for your advice. Have a follow up question to this. Just quit the job. Want to go into corporate development / strategy at a big company. A more operational role. In terms of looking for a job should I try getting something straight away, or would it look OK to go travelling for several months and then start looking? I figure that after I come back from travels, I can always say I quit my job because I wanted to travel, and figure out what I really wanted to do etc.
If you want to travel and have saved up, I’d suggest doing it sooner rather than later. Not sure if job market is robust now for you to hang around. If your heart tells you to pack your bag, I’d listen to it. Your perspectives will probably change after your travels
You have created another masterpiece! Keep them coming!
Thanks for reading!
It’s a random question here. I’m rising senior and I’m still going to apply for summer internship for next summer (because I will join a 1-year master’s program upon graduation). I’m aware that the online application systems of most major banks have the options for applicants like me. The question is, do I need to list something like PLAN TO JOIN A 1-YEAR MASTER’S PROGRAM on my resume in the education part? Thank you.
Yes I think that this will be a good idea
I like the life-style you’re leading us to…
Drug dealing is fun and profitable :)
Please excuse typing mistakes and grammar errors.
This the only thing in my way.
Even cold calling is forbidden in South Africa. SMH
I don’t think it’s “forbidden” because several interviewees have reported cold calling there to some success. It may be less accepted than in other countries, but at least 2-3 interviewees here have used it to break in and win internships and/or full-time offers in South Africa.
I am looking for South Africans who can tell me how strict IB’s are about finance degree’s and quant- majors?
The blog says math isn’t complex and a non-quant major can be worked around but in South Africa it seems that its not the case.
Great value is placed on math intensive degrees and it seems commerce doesn’t take you seriously no matter WHAT YOU DID to work around it.
They basically do not want anything to do with anyone who doesn’t have a bcom or bbusci or CA
Is it possible to work around this like you CAN in other financial larger capitals or am I doomed.
God why wasn’t I born in America! Land. Of opportunity, where anything is possible.
We have an article on South Africa if you want to take a look at that (https://mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-south-africa/). The standards may be different there, but you can still talk your way around it and into the industry, but you need to focus on very small firms and be extremely aggressive. If cold calling doesn’t work, try meeting people in-person at events or even contacting people in other locations like London (if they’re originally from SA) and see if they can refer you to others in the country.
This is one of the most awesome articles not just that you have read, but on achieving a goal period.
It really has me thinking in different ways. Thanks.
Thanks! Glad to hear it. This one was fun to write. :)
How about the TV Show Suits , does it have any value for finance?
Hah not sure of that one. Heard it was good but have not seen it myself yet.
The Wire is the best. Hands down. It’s like Shakespeare wrote it. Plus there are a lot of drugs so I guess the analogy holds.
Yeah I agree with you there – The Wire is probably the best if you consider all dramas, present and past. But I think Breaking Bad is the best of all dramas currently on TV.
That bath tub scene was awesomely gross! :D
here’s the link to save my fellow readers some time.. enjoy!
Haha yes it was. Here’s the clip (link did not show up for some reason): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM7Vsg_7WkU
I am a recent grad from a non-target hounding for an entry level position, and I have to say, these TV-based articles of advice are spot on. Your TV obsession really comes through; nobody else could spin shows focusing on a drug dealer or medieval fantasy into a sound IB advice column.
Haha yeah originally I thought this one would be impossible, but then I thought about the series in more detail and realized that drug dealing and finance have a lot in common…