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Changing Course: From Wall Street to Pulitzer Hall

Editor’s Note: This blog post kicks off a new Tow Center series of student and faculty stories on the intersection between journalism and technology. If you are interested in contributing, please contact n.fernando@columbia.edu

By Jose Manuel Villa

manuel

I have had two major existential crises in my life:

I was born in a small town about 80 miles east of Mexico City, where nothing from my upbringing could foretell that I would ever live anywhere else. And that idea terrified me.

Growing up there was a happy experience, but the fact is through the years I felt trapped and out of place. During all that time I longed to do something unthinkable for someone in my circumstances. That fire inside me didn’t extinguish with age, and it eventually guided me to Japan, where I was a foreign student for two-and-a-half years. Why that particular island nation? In addition to the impetuosity that dominated my youth, there was an eagerness to live in an environment that would contrast most sharply with the place of my childhood. The land of the rising sun certainly met that profile.

It was a wonderful period, marked by personal growth and overpowering experiences. I couldn’t get enough of the knowledge my new life had to offer, including the learning of a new language. I tried everything in the textbook: Zen meditation, tea ceremony, jujitsu, calligraphy. I volunteered to give talks about Mexico in elementary schools, traveled through the country and made many close friends who invited me into their lives and mindsets. Life was full and worth living.

And then my first crisis knocked on the door.

As the program neared its completion I began thinking that I was already in my mid-20s and had not built a career. I was a major in economics with no previous solid working experience and felt helplessly lagging behind all those who had followed the “normal” path after college. I panicked. I thought I had been living in a dream for too long and had to do something soon.

So, I applied for and was admitted to the master’s program in financial engineering at Columbia University. I accepted, convinced this would be my best bet at entering the only industry for which I thought I was qualified to work. The bet indeed paid off, or so I thought in those days: I was chosen for a job at JP Morgan in Tokyo. I worked on the trading floor and then in the risk management area back in the country I held dear to my heart; I traveled to London for work and eventually moved to New York; the job was fulfilling enough, not to mention well paid. Everything seemed in place.

And then my second crisis rapped on the door.

After a few years, I began feeling anxious. I was living an enviable life, but could not help feeling that something was lacking. I was not sure what to do, so I tried many things: reading countless books; consulting with an indefinite number of people; even enrolling in a 10-day full-time silent meditation course. Slowly but increasingly clearly, I came to realize that it was not about lacking anything, but about once again feeling trapped in life.

I became aware that, from the very beginning, I had started a financial profession not really by choice, but from what I wrongly perceived then as being a lack of choices. I had convinced myself that the fulfilling life I had followed had left me handicapped and had narrowed my choices. I had gone to Japan with the intention of freeing myself from the entrapment that oppressed me while growing up, but, ironically, somewhere along the way I forgot that and traded in my freedom of choice for what looked like stability.

So now I knew. Rreaching the conclusion that you no longer wish to continue your present course can be a monumental task. But finding out what it is you wish to do going forward is no less of a challenge.

I tried some of the methods I used during my first crisis, but this time I also started interviewing family, relatives, friends and anyone close willing to sit down and bear with me, thinking that would somehow give me some insight about myself and what I was looking for. This turned out to be quite an endeavor.

With my family in Mexico, I had to coordinate long distance interviews, think about the questions, chase people. Before I had even sat down with anybody, I had spent hours in unexpected preparation work. Then the subjects take unpredicted turns, new questions emerge, forcing you to stay alert. And little was I aware of the workload which would follow: labeling recordings, transcribing, editing… Ironically, the interviews themselves were the smallest part of the whole activity.

Such experiences prompted me to take courses on video at the International Center of Photography, in New York. We learned the different aspects of shooting and digital editing. We had passionate discussions about our work and created a final project. I was in heaven.
After a few months, I became aware of the impact of this newfound hobby on my life: I was happier. Hours spent shooting, processing and editing felt like minutes. A familiar passion was resurfacing. At one point the irony hit me: I had started all this simply as a way to gain insight for me to come up with a new path; as it turned out, the method itself was starting to look like the solution. This is how I started to think about journalism.

But I had to think objectively about the feasibility of such a career change. Regarding skills, if there is anything I did during my financial days was data analysis, a key skill in investigative journalism. Using databases and spreadsheets has become a second nature to me during the years. Experience? Dealing with explosive, impatient traders, who need to make snap decisions regarding the use of millions of dollars, had definitely taught me some lessons about how to interact with somebody who may not be too willing to cooperate, among other things.

This is how after 11 years, 5 months and 3 days in the financial world, I finally started taking the first steps toward what I hope will be a second chance. I do not dwell on regrets; instead, I wish to be fueled by hope. The rocky road behind me led me to where I am now, and I may never have even considered journalism, had I not been through Wall Street.

My hope is that a decade from today, if someone once again asks me to write a piece about my path, I will be doing so from the journalism page.

Manuel Villa is a Stabile Investigative Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He can be contacted at jmv2104@columbia.edu