9 ways ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ prepares you for an internship in finance

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This past winter, Martin Scorcese shocked, disturbed and intrigued the American public with his three-hour-long biographical dramedy “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The movie follows the true story of Jordan Belford, who becomes a wealthy stockbroker living the high life of crime and corruption. Much of the movie’s appeal comes from its irreverent and intense depiction of Wall Street in the 1980s — the film is brimming with strippers, drugs and ridiculously extravagant spending binges. While much of these scenes are absurdly exaggerated and terrifically entertaining depictions of what goes on in brokerage firms, there are smidgens of truth in Scorcese’s portrayal. If you’ve ever interned at an investment office, you’ll probably notice some overlap between the movie and real life — so much so, in fact, that we’d venture to say this movie can, in its own ludicrous and unethical way, provide a few worthwhile lessons about working in the financial industry.

1. Bulls and bears are not animals.

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The opening lines of the film are: “The world of investing can be a jungle: bulls, bears, danger at every turn.” Sounds like something out of the Wizard of Oz, right? Not quite. Don’t be the dumb intern who asks your boss why there is such large market for undomesticated animals. “Bulls” and “bears” refer to people who are optimistic or pessimistic, respectively, about where the market is heading. The use of “bull” and “bear” comes from the way the animals attack their opponents: a bull thrusts its horns up into the air, while a bear swipes its paws downward. 

2. Curse words are used more frequently than last names.

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The list above was compiled by Vulture.com, which reported that a staggering 569 variations of the word “fuck” are uttered throughout the film. We didn’t even know that was possible. While the language of the “Wolf of Wall Street” is crude enough to make even the most depraved sailor bite his tongue, we did notice that cursing in the investment office this summer occurred much more frequently than, well, anywhere else we had ever been. Maybe spewing swear words helps to keep everyone motivated. Maybe it eases tension. Maybe it’s a nice break from number talk. Whatever the reason, cursing seems to play a role in Wall Street culture.

3. Knowing how to charm over the phone is crucial.

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Phone etiquette is vital at a financial firm. When you’re trying to convince someone to fork over cash for a stock that may go up or down — regardless of what the smartest and most meticulous team of analysts predicts — your best asset is good, old-fashioned charisma. Your stock-picking strategy will only get you as far as your ability to sell.

4. Lunch dates are a rite of passage.

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Any good investor knows the real business doesn’t happen at the office — it happens over drinks and food at high-end restaurants. Whether the dealings be client to financier, interviewer to interviewee or manager to rookie, lunch dates are a rite of passage. Packed brown-bag meals are a no-no in the investment world, because that one-hour, mid-day break is your ticket to success. How do you do it? Purposeful shmoozing — otherwise known as networking.

5. What you’re selling “isn’t real.”

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There’s an elephant in the room at every brokerage firm: the earnings generated in the stock market aren’t actually real until liquidated. As Matthew McConaughey’s character, Mark Hanna, explains to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, “We don’t create shit. We don’t build anything.” While the client thinks he’s getting “shit rich on paper,” the brokers are taking home “cold hard cash via commission.” It’s the finance world’s dirty little secret. Just don’t ever tell the client that.

6. The stock market is confusing, so use metaphors to explain it.

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At one point in the film, Belfort — in an effort to prove a point about the power of persuasion — asks a friend to sell the pen he is holding. The friend takes the pen away and tells Belfort to try writing his name on a napkin. Of course, without a writing utensil, Belfort can’t. Belfort applauds his salesman friend and goes on to talk about supply and demand — why urgency should be conveyed in the selling of penny stocks. “Convince them that it’s something they need,” he says. Regardless of whether this strategy actually works, the metaphor is apt. Examples such as this — ones that use everyday objects as symbols to convey a greater meaning — abound in the financial office. The stock market doesn’t always make sense — in fact, it rarely ever makes sense — and, furthermore, money talk can get dull. “This sector had high yields.” “That rate went down.” Bonds, securities, trusts, dividends it’s all one big web of expectations and prices and how they influence one another. The best way to make it interesting and understandable is to take an object off the desk and use it to represent an aspect of the financial system.

7. Never stop working.

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Enough is never enough, especially on Wall Street. After losing his job on Wall Street when his firm crashes, Belfort takes a job selling meaningless penny stocks. He uses his competitive nature and knack for selling to pick up the phone and build his career. He is determined to be successful, and he has a vision. In the real world, brokers work ’round-the-clock to make sales and bring in new clients. After all, money never sleeps. 

8. Inspiring speeches will be made to the trainees frequently.

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The atmosphere and culture portrayed at Stratton Oakmont is beyond ridiculous. Outside the spending habits and lucrative parties, however, Belfort creates a competitive and energized atmosphere by motivating the employees through speeches, sharing inspirational messages and encouraging salesmanship.

9. The team is more valuable than its assets.

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Stratton Oakmont grew very quickly. Although this may have been due to the dubious and highly profitable business methods imbedded in its operations from the get go, there is still a valuable lesson to be learned from the model: a good team is key. Belfort first establishes a close network of partners to help him build his company — then, he motivates the employees to work hard. Admittedly, hiring escorts, providing illicit pharmaceuticals and throwing parties that trash entire floors of hotels are not appropriate incentives for staff, even though these were integral approaches presented in the movie. Nevertheless, Belfort aimed to build camaraderie and reward success, in turn fostering loyalty in his team — a common theme in many financial workplaces. Lesson learned: love thy neighbor, and pay him well. 

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Daniela Grinblatt is an assistant blog editor. Contact her at [email protected]