When Gary Cohn was a kid, his teacher told his parents that if he was really lucky, he might grow up to be a truck driver.
Growing up in Cleveland, Cohn was basically labelled the class idiot. His struggles in school led to him being diagnosed with the reading disorder dyslexia. By the sixth grade, he had attended four different schools.
Now 54, Gary Cohn is the president and COO of Goldman Sachs. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath,” Cohn related his early life struggles and told of how one key moment, a move that took more guts to make than most people have, shaped him into the man he is today.
Despite struggling with dyslexia, Cohn graduated from high school and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business from American University in 1982. Upon graduating, though, he had no jobs or interviews lined up. He did have a passion for financial markets, but they remained only passions then.
His father pushed him to take any job he could get, and by the summer, Cohn was selling window frames and aluminum siding for United States Steel in Cleveland. That Thanksgiving, Cohn was set to go on a work trip to the company’s offices in Long Island.
Cohn persuaded his manager to give him that Friday off so he could visit New York City for the first time. On his visit, Cohn went straight to Wall Street to watch the commodities exchange at Four World Trade Center. There, he watched the action in the trading pits with other Wall Street fanboys from the observation gallery. For Cohn, it must have been love at first sight.
He immediately came up with a plan to meet with one of the brokers. He left the observation gallery and waited by the security entrance to the trading floor — hours passed by and no one came through. He was about to give up, but then, according to Gladwell’s book:
“And then literally right after the market’s (sic) closed, I see this pretty well-dressed guy running off the floor, yelling to his clerk, ‘I’ve got to go, I’m running to LaGuardia, I’m late, I’ll call you when I get to the airport.’ “
“I jump in the elevator, and say, ‘I hear you’re going to LaGuardia.’ He says, ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Can we share a cab?’ He says, ‘Sure.’ I think this is awesome. With Friday afternoon traffic, I can spend the next hour in the taxi getting a job.”
The man that Cohn courageously landed a taxi ride with was running the options business for a big brokerage firm. Cohn, at the time, didn’t even know what an option was. He spent the taxi ride to the airport lying to the man.
“I lied to him all the way to the airport … When he said, ‘Do you know what an option is?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, I know everything, I can do anything for you.’ Basically by the time we got out of the taxi, I had his number. He said, ‘Call me Monday.’ I called him Monday, flew back to New York Tuesday or Wednesday, had an interview, and started working the next Monday. In that period of time, I read McMillan’s “Options as a Strategic Investment” book. It’s like the Bible of options trading.”
A few years later, Cohn, was approached by Goldman Sachs while he was working on the floor of the commodities exchange. In 1990, he accepted a position in Goldman’s commodities trading unit, J. Aron. By 1994, he had been made a partner at the prestigious banking firm.
Now, after 25 years of working at Goldman Sachs, Cohn is now a chief executive — he raked in $22 million in 2014 and owns around $340 million in Goldman stock.
In Gladwell’s book, Cohn also explained how dyslexia helped him land his dream job.
“The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed … And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside. It doesn’t faze us. I’ve thought about it many times, I really have, because it defined who I am. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia. I never would have taken that first chance.”
Lesson: There’s a positive in every ugly situation — you just have to have the courage to reach for it.