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It was my second day of work.
I graduated from UCLA that June and received an offer to be a commodities broker.
My first day at my first real job was Monday September 10th, 2001. I had a few hours of the old ways and then it all turned upside down on my second day.
I didn’t know it as it was all happening — none of us really did; we were all in shock — but that one day would shape the trajectory of the rest of my life. It would steer the actions of my country and it would set the tone for the financial industry I was falling in love with.
It was the dawn of uncertainty.
Like everybody else in the world, 9/11 is permanently seared into the flank of my psyche. I first heard of the attack on the radio on my drive in to work. They weren’t even sure it was an attack at that point. My mom called. We each said we were OK. Ground zero was 3,000 miles away, but still. The news was on at the office and we all stared at the tiny screen, dumb and insignificant bags of flesh in a heartless galaxy of indifference. The markets weren’t open yet and wouldn’t for days. The Boss came out and asked all of the senior brokers into the conference room. The rest of us felt safe. They were putting together a plan. We would all be OK. They were putting together a plan.
When he came out, I can still hear The Boss saying, “…if you need to take a day, go ahead and take a day.”
And I can still see the reaction. Every female broker walked to their car and drove home. Every male broker stayed, huddled around that television set. For ten years I’ve been trying to figure out what that meant. I don’t know. I never will. It probably doesn’t mean anything.
I don’t remember if I slept that night.
The initial shock didn’t last forever and once it wore off we all got back to the one thing we knew how to do: work.
I had a lot of calls to make. Cold calls. That’s what you do when you’re a junior broker. You don’t have clients and you have to get clients from somewhere and back then the most efficient way to do it was pick up the phone.
I could make more calls than anybody in the office. We’d get a call sheet every week that showed how many calls each broker made and his average time on the phone and my name was always at the top. I was in the office before most of the senior brokers and I would practice my pitches on the drive home. I knew every trick in the book to get past a secretary.
None of that mattered because I was learning my first post-9/11 lesson: I was a lousy salesman and couldn’t develop a lead or close a deal for the life of me. For better or worse, a fat commission was not motivation enough. That was another good lesson in self-discovery.
Man, that was a hard life. It was a scary time. Markets were crashing. We were in recession. Airports were scrambling to implement new policies and procedures to keep us all safe in the air (and on the ground). Nobody wanted to invest. Everybody just wanted to lock their doors and watch CNN. I got told “no” five hundred times a day for six months.
I was 21 years old. All I’d known in my life was success. One of the best GPAs at my high school. A letter jacket plastered with geeky stuff like Academic Olympics, chess club, and perfect attendance. Graduation from one of the top universities in the country. Ahead of schedule, no less, with a hyper-competitive major and demanding minor.
Kids like me had been told all of our lives that we would go on and accomplish great things and win all the games and make lots of money and naturally, we all assumed that this would start right away. I don’t think I was really equipped to deal with failure. After an entire youth of success I was failing miserably. Sure, I was failing because of the lousy environment. But I was also failing because of my own shortcomings. I lacked many things, and fortunately one of them was a capacity for self-delusion. I couldn’t lie to myself and the responsibility stung.
So I made peace with it.
…and carried on.
In retrospect, it was probably the best experience I could have had. If you have faith in some sort of Divine it’s the kind of event you would ascribe deep meaning to. It all happened for a reason; I am sure of that. In an incredibly short span of time I learned volumes about myself, the working world, everyday people, life, money, peace, and the financial industry. In retrospect, it was a pretty good trade for all of that failure. I’d make that deal again in a heartbeat. Failure wasn’t so bad after all.
Thank goodness for that lesson too, because all I’ve really done in the last decade is fail. I failed as a commodities broker. I failed as a corporate drone, unable to fit my spiky-shaped peg in their tidy square box. I failed to live up to the potential I promised in my youth. I fail daily as a husband and father. I tried playing online Scrabble once. I’m half decent at Scrabble and know how to work all the obscure 2-letter words. But, wow. Talk about epic fail.
I could probably blame Osama bin Laden for all of this. My life was filled with nothing but success until his stupid minions crashed a plane into New York City and upended the world and re-wrote American psychology in a single stroke. But what good would blame do?
I wouldn’t give up this last decade for anything. As a naive kid with an inflated sense of self worth, the one thing in the world I needed most was a reality check. Back then I was afraid to fail. I thought the world would stop loving me and deny me the approval I so desperately craved. Today I couldn’t possibly care any less about those things.
Today my philosophy on life can be summarized by this tidy list. One of our investors sent me that. I wish I had that list ten years ago and didn’t have to go through the hassle of figuring all that stuff out for myself. That’s what a decade of failure taught me. I learned things the hard way but I learned them well.
Had my life taken a different path between college and here, had I been handed a cushy, high-paying job with a big bank or made sufficient bucks at a tech startup and spent my nights hanging out with well-dressed, attractive people like these, I’d probably take myself a little more seriously. I’m not sure I’d be able to get up here in front of thousands of people and embarrass myself on a weekly basis. Writing a public newsletter is not for the thin of skin nor for those sensitive to failure and judgment.
A lot of my cohorts at UCLA went the cushy route. A lot. Some went to Wall Street and brought that broken psychology of entitlement with them. It took them 8 years but in 2008 they were finally taught their lesson. Given what I’ve seen in this industry since then, I’m not entirely sure the lesson stuck. Oh well.
I’m thankful for my failures. Without them, you and I would never be friends. I might judge my colleagues by the kind of car they drive or the brand of refrigerator in their kitchen instead of the quality of work they produce. I’d probably be too good to eat Tuna Helper. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I like Tuna Helper. Tuna Helper makes me feel good for two reasons: it’s full of butter and it didn’t cost me very much.
What’s wrong with that?
The Dragon & The Garden
As I reflect on my life now and my life back then, that memory of all the senior brokers going into the conference room hangs with me. On that fateful day I was just a kid. I would be protected by the guardians all around me. The guys in the office were going to make everything OK.
Should something like 9/11 happen again — and deep down, who among us isn’t expecting something — then I will be the guardian. My daughter will look to me for safety and reassurance. So will my clients. So will some of you readers.
I can handle that. This is what I have to show for all of my failure. It isn’t tangible but it’s the most valuable thing I own.
My guess is that all of you readers feel this way too. We have this in common, you and I, especially those of you who matured as professionals in the last decade. In fact, maybe this is denominator that our incredibly-diverse readership shares. In one way or another: we are the people that others look to when it gets dark outside.
We are the guardians.
Contrary to popular belief, our origin of “The Draconian” (our original newsletter) is actually mythological. Zeus’s wife Hera had a spectacular orchard full of golden apples and the two set a band of blissful nymphs to watch over it. But the nymphs were weak and sometimes they ate the golden fruit for themselves. So Hera summoned Ladon, a fierce and ugly dragon with a hundred heads. The dragon never slept and kept a constant vigil over the garden. He did the thankless work and kept the garden safe.
Surviving a post 9/11 world
This has been the dawn of uncertainty. The age of the black swan.
This is the era where everything is just fine. Until one day it’s not.
We go to work on Monday. We laugh with our coworkers. We call our clients and adjust our spreadsheets. We eat a sandwich for lunch and talk about fantasy baseball. We go home and kiss our wives and daughters and sleep soundly on soft mattresses. Sometimes we dream.
We come into the office on Tuesday and our country is under attack. A Flash Crash drowns the market in a sea of blood. Gas prices are a dime higher than they were last week. Enron is revealed to have been a fraud. The dot-com stock your 401(k) bought no longer has value. Your home is the worst investment you ever made. Lehman Brothers fails and credit markets around the world collectively seize in an instant, locking businesses who rely on that sort of thing, which is pretty much everybody, out in a cold, deflationary winter.
Suddenly, you’ve been laid off.
Volatility and surprise have always been themes of our country and the markets. But, I would argue, not like this. Not like this last decade.
It is a bipolar, boom-bust world. Forget investing to make money — how does one simply not go insane in a decade like this?
It’s a really difficult psychology to deal with, this latent fear that at any moment the rug will get tugged out from under you. We tell ourselves lies every day to shield ourselves from these stark truths. We pray that the bubble we know is bunk will last just one more day. And then one more.
The guy that started all of this is now dead. Bookended by his ascension and decline is one of the most dramatic decades in American history.
Are we in the clear from here?
God, I hope so.
But I know better. This is the unfortunate lesson of having lived as a man through the last decade. I know that it’s OK to hope and I know that there are times when it’s the only the we can do. But I learned my lesson. I know how the age of uncertainty works and will not be fooled.
Our job is to keep the garden safe. You and me. It is thankless, round-the-clock work. We are wrong every day and every day we are tempted. Then one Tuesday morning we are unfortunately correct and the garden comes under attack and the nymphs look to us for strength, feeling, for a fleeting moment, glad that we are there before forgetting all about us as blissful creatures often do.
There will be volatility and there will be failure. But we don’t take it personally. We learn and grow stronger. We cannot allow the garden to be destroyed and we are the ones who understand the cost of protecting it.
The rest of the world dances. Let them.
This brings us joy.