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Billionaire burnout – Carrie Sun thought working for a hedge-fund boss meant living the dream. But despite the designer handbags and luxury spa breaks, his demands drove her to the brink, until finally her therapist told her: ‘Your job is killing you’

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Author Carrie Sun, who exhausted herself striving to meet her employer¿s demands

Private Equity

Carrie Sun

Bloomsbury £20 

On the surface, 29-year-old Carrie Sun’s highly paid new job as the sole assistant to billionaire New York hedge-fund manager Boone Prescott seemed like a dream. It was the culmination of years of perfectionism through her pressurised childhood as the only child of pushy Chinese immigrants, whose ambition was that their daughter must have ‘a shot at the American Dream’.

Carrie had desperately wanted this job, breaking off her engagement to her wealthy fiance Josh, who’d asked her to give up her career in finance to make way for his. Landing the job was a feat, involving 14 interviews, one by an ‘executive coach’ who assessed her mental fitness: would she be ‘all in, putting work above everything else’?

Now, here she was, the lucky Chosen One, slim and perfect in suit and high heels, on the 46th floor with views over Central Park, working for a softly spoken financial genius who was clearly raking in billions.

Author Carrie Sun, who exhausted herself striving to meet her employer¿s demands

Author Carrie Sun, who exhausted herself striving to meet her employer’s demands

‘I was sure I was going to be with Carbon for the rest of my life,’ she writes in this riveting memoir. (‘Boone Prescott’ and the firm’s name, ‘Carbon’, are pseudonyms.)

Slightly ominously, the five-page guidelines for new employees listed 96 ‘responsibilities’ and 13 ‘general expectations’, including ‘willing to help firm as needed’. That expression ‘as needed’ appeared 11 times.

The lavishness of the office lifestyle was hard to resist. At lunchtime, Carrie could order luxury deliveries to her desk on expenses. The towels in the office gym were ‘like blankets’. Gifts bestowed on her by Boone and his wife Elisabeth included a £5,000 coat and a Balenciaga bag.

The contrast between this and what her parents had gone through during the Cultural Revolution in China was stark. Carrie’s mother’s ankles were still swollen after being made to work in paddy fields for a pittance. She and Carrie’s father had managed to emigrate to the USA in the 1990s, when Carrie was four.

But Carrie soon discovered that ‘as needed’ meant ‘on call 24/7’, and that her high-earning job was almost as soul-sapping as what her mother had been put through. It gradually became clear that Boone expected her to be a flawless machine of efficiency.

‘Can you respond to all my emails when you see them?’ he asked her one morning, with the softly spoken, iron-willed firmness that was his trademark, after she hadn’t replied when he’d sent her a photo of his children at the firm’s Family Day out of hours.

Landing the job in New York was a feat, involving 14 interviews, one by an ¿executive coach¿ who assessed her mental fitness: would she be ¿all in, putting work above everything else¿?

Landing the job in New York was a feat, involving 14 interviews, one by an ‘executive coach’ who assessed her mental fitness: would she be ‘all in, putting work above everything else’?

She found that the only way to do the job to his required standard was to work at weekends and to give up all socialising.

Boone was unremittingly demanding, and nothing was ever good enough. His demands were ‘continuous, non-repeating and increasing in intensity’, so Carrie couldn’t pre-empt his requests. For example, he would suddenly give her 30 minutes to read dozens of research reports, and pull and synthesise all the data that might affect a billion-dollar decision.

And then he would say: ‘Carrie. So. Your energy. I need you to walk with more confidence and just come in, and then get out, but also be more easy-going, relaxed and chill.’

One day, he asked her to ‘log what you are doing by the minute and then add up all the minutes you might save from when you were being inefficient or sub-optimal’.

In his appraisal, he said he wanted her ‘to become more of a leader through hard work,’ to ‘increase proactiveness’ and to ‘take feedback well: it’s intended to make us better’.

But then he gave her a bonus and a raise, the perk of being ‘invested in the fund’, plus a voucher for a massage and body scrub at the Mandarin Oriental, so she felt she had to be grateful. ‘He was nice – so nice – as he worked me to the bone,’ she writes.

She was working on the 46th floor with views over Central Park, pictured, working for a softly spoken financial genius who was clearly raking in billions

She was working on the 46th floor with views over Central Park, pictured, working for a softly spoken financial genius who was clearly raking in billions

When she dared to mention that she was being overworked, Boone just gave her a few days off at a lavish spa or yoga retreat.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the world of hedge-fund billionaires. ‘The banality of genius’ is what Carrie notices: Boone’s success came not from some mystical gift, but simply from his total, obsessive efficiency.

One of Carrie’s tasks was to organise Boone’s family holiday: not just the £35,000-per-night accommodation in a billionaires’ beach resort near Malibu, but every aspect, including chartering the plane to fly ‘different breakfast catering’ to the house each day.

‘Carrie, remember,’ Boone reminded her, when she was floundering, ‘money can solve nearly everything.’

‘Ah, but can it?’ you wonder, on reading this book. When the main fund was ‘down’ 20 per cent during a tricky financial patch, Boone seemed not to be too worried, but Carrie noticed the whole atmosphere of the office shift towards misery.

Worn out, she started making small mistakes, such as forgetting to book in her other boss, Gabe, online for his flight, so he had to wait a full hour at an airport. ‘This cannot happen again,’ he said to her.

Sweating on the running machine one day, as part of her drive to be physically and mentally perfect, Carrie was so busy replying to one of Boone’s emails that she tripped, burning and gashing her leg. So she had to give up working out for a while, and put herself on a ‘six-day juice-cleanse’ instead.

Her boss's demands were ¿continuous, non-repeating and increasing in intensity¿. He would suddenly give her 30 minutes to read dozens of research reports, and synthesise all the data that might affect a billion-dollar decision (Stock image)

Her boss’s demands were ‘continuous, non-repeating and increasing in intensity’. He would suddenly give her 30 minutes to read dozens of research reports, and synthesise all the data that might affect a billion-dollar decision (Stock image)

You start to see how crazy and self-punishing the world of moneyed New York can be – and how, if you break the spell of that perfectionism, you can fall apart. Carrie did break the spell, and did fall apart.

In her exhaustion, her blunders at work became more frequent. She would stuff herself with cupcake sundaes, leading to bulimic episodes. She put on 36lb. Boone gave her a pair of £1,500 leggings but they were too small. In her diary she noted that she ‘chews and spits’ dried coconut chips in the afternoons ‘when sh** gets so crazy that all I want to do is die’. Though she was grateful for the high remuneration and perks, they were all hollow if she was not in a fit state to function.

Looking back on it all, Carrie delves in to her impossibly hard childhood. Her account is illuminating on the effects of China’s one-child policy – her mother had forced abortions after she was born. All the pressure was put on Carrie to succeed and be perfect. Her mother pulled her by the ear, forcing her to practise the piano. Her father slapped her across the face for spilling milk – so badly that the police were called.

Carrie did land the perfect job: but the end result was a nervous breakdown. Boone sent her to see a £2,000-an-hour therapist, who told her: ‘Nothing’s wrong with you. Your job is killing you.’

It was time to leave.

‘This is terrible timing for me,’ said Boone, when she handed in her notice.

Eight years later, she is happily married, living in Brooklyn, and turns out to be a superb memoir writer.

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