Monthly Archives: February 2012

Good at Finance vs Good at Life

There are few constituencies more in need of a sustained market rally than recently-married females in the 28-32 age group in search of positions in finance. Managers faced with continued budget cuts and looming layoffs, including their own, will implement any necessary degree of rhetorical backflips and rationalizations to avoid selecting a candidate that, after enduring the assimilation process, could be lost to maternity leave.  This same manager, who may very well be female, will admit after a couple of drinks that this process is brutally unfair and illegal in most states. Unless they’re really stupid, no inkling of this decision making will ever be committed to physical or virtual paper.

There is no way I’m going to defend this – I only point it out as an example of sacrifices that are being made to uphold the primacy of bottom line thinking. When profits represent the only “good”, in periods where they are threatened the achievement of every other type of benefit must be tossed until the pressure declines.

Every ambitious employee in any industry is frequently forced to choose between career goals and adhering to societal frameworks of “winning at life”. The dilemma is best identified with discussions of “work/life balance”, a concept in finance which, like “sustainable alpha” is best grouped with unicorns and bipartisan legislation. In my experience, without exception the individuals emphasizing their skills at work/life balance A) had large underpaid staffs who did all the grunt work and B) were eventually fired. The same bottom line orientation that makes life difficult for 28 year old females is in effect applied by each individual to themselves, requiring the de-prioritization of most, if not all, other factors.

I can hear the “Oh, poor baby” comments from ex-financial readers already. You can save them – no one on the trading floor or in banking feels sorry for themselves. These sacrifices are made by and large willingly in return for the outsized pay checks available in few other industries. Many, and this is an underrated factor, love the adrenaline rush of moving big sums of money around enough that the pay package is an ancillary factor, at least until the pants come down and the rulers come out at bonus time.

The outgrowth of all of this is that the financial services industry is dominated by a specific, narrow personality type that either never considers social benefits at all or considers them a bizarre, misplaced affectation. Yes, the hitters do give a lot of money to charity but anyone who’s attended related functions or been “strongly encouraged” to give to the boss’ pet cause knows that it is just another form of competition, one that is really, really annoying and fraught with potential political disaster for mid-level employees forced to buy a Tom Ford tuxedo they can’t afford.

What we’ve learned from the GFC and its aftermath, I think, is that these people shouldn’t be in charge. There are obvious exceptions, but the most successful participants in finance have been forced to jettison the thought processes the majority of the populace believes make up “being good at life”. It is also entirely likely that the current captains of industry are largely unaware of their dearth of humanity in the same way an obese person is stunned to look in the mirror and discover that they are 100 pounds overweight – like many terrible things it happens by slowly by degrees, thousands of small, seemingly innocuous cheeseburger versus salad decisions. I doubt, for example, Governor Romney thought twice about strapping that poor dog to the car roof (until now, when popularity, not profit, becomes the bottom line) as it was clearly the most practical solution.

There are, it must be said, thousands of incredibly giving, ethical people working in finance. In my experience, however, they are swamped by the cynically profit-seeking and are, while listened to, carefully kept away from the meetings where policy is determined. This “keep the bleeding hearts out” trend is most notable during periods, like now, where revenues are more scarce.

I have no idea how to move the goal posts to allow more of “the better angels of our nature” to rise to prominent positions in finance, or even if it’s possible. I do believe, strongly, that the personality type that typically rises to the top of a global investment bank provides further evidence that the current control over legislation enjoyed by the financial lobby should be brutally curbed.

Impostor Syndrome

It seems you’ve been living…. two lives” – a Smith (The Matrix)

I want  to thank Steve Waldman (for pointing out THIS) and Barry Ritholz for “nudging” me into finally writing this post, one that I have considered and put off numerous times as basically “none of your fucking business” on one hand, and a series of personal and professional risks on the other. Its a personal story, although one I will try to tie in to general reader utility. If I do this right, my sincere hope is that it helps those with similar struggles in the same way other personal stories have helped me. If it turns out personally cathartic, so much the better.

There are a number of ways in which my life peaked at 17. To that point, the details were familiar to any serious Ivy League candidate – second smartest kid in the class (there’s was always, maddeningly, a freak), captain and starting quarterback for the JV football team, scouted to play professional baseball. Psychotically competitive from an early age, extracurriculars three times per week, completely addicted to drama and attention. And, importantly, a complete and utter pain-inflicting asshole.

I won’t bore you with the details of The Decline and Fall. It is sufficient to describe it as equal parts Holden Caulfield (at its best) and Sylvia Plath at its most sordid. Two specific events are relevant to this post. One, dropping out of a good school in third year with really good grades because I could physically not continue – it was taking three milligrams of Ativan to get me on the bus to class. Two, sitting in a clinic at 21 and finding out that the level of cortisol in my head (a marker for stress, depression-related in my case) was six times what it should have been.

Now, this is not a sob story – the vast majority of these wounds were self inflicted. I am, of course, sensitive to those afflicted by clinical depression who note genetic biochemical predispositions. It is also the case, however, that psych-related hormones are highly sensitive to external stimuli. Watching comedy, for instance, creates positive hormonal changes while an obsession with death metal has the reverse effect. Personal responsibility, in other words, is not cut and dried. To the extent that my issues were the result of refusing to accept the validity of anyone or anything that conflicted with an adolescent conviction of my own “specialness” and destiny to rule the world, the fault is mine.

To continue our story, at 22 I reenter society in a kind of debutante ball where no one else shows up. As a dropout the apparent prospects did not include corner offices and the resumption of discussions regarding my “limitless potential”. It appeared, however, that my luck had turned as a series of breaks, combined with market conditions, allowed me to drag my ass from a telemarketing boiler room, to Operations at a major firm, to the trading floor of a global investment bank offering advice to people that should already know better, but didn’t. In fits and starts, career progress continued for a decade after that, culminating in a prominent strategist role. But, the whole time….:

Impostor Syndrome: sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. (Wikipedia)

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, (who if you are not reading you really should – if only to lament that some are blessed with writing talent far beyond our own) , probably doesn’t remember this, but we had an email exchange regarding the “two-headed coin” nature of Imposter Syndrome after he wrote about the phenomenon as a fellow dropout. Our suspicion (then, that is -TNC is big enough now he might be cured) was that it is impossible for the non-afflicted to understand how powerful it is as a motivating force. The anxiety that has you living in fear that some intern in HR will arbitrarily decide to audit CVs to fill downtime peaks every once in a while, but the same tendency to look over your shoulder has you also living in fear of “average”. For Imposters, average isn’t good enough – everything you do, every report, seminar, meeting, has to exceed the acceptable, exemplifying some skill or talent that not only proves you belong, but that no contrary evidence will be sufficient to justify your departure. I summarize this process as reaching for the “objectively good”, implying that even if Warren Buffet read your report, he would be forced to acknowledge its well-argued validity.

It is not difficult to see then that Imposters and biz school grads are inherently at odds. At their worst, biz grads interpret graduation as a kind of club membership or voucher ensuring that they will never have to work hard again. The easiest way to tweak the bizknobs is to ask them whether “Sense of Entitlement”  was a first or second year course in their program. Those that laugh tend to be the ones you want to work with and the ones that get pissed off are the people to avoid like the plague. This tweaking, however, is grounded in the most base kind of jealousy – the Wharton grad has the affirmation the Imposter craves most.

There we have it. I’m not sure what I’ve done here but at the very least those who’ve read this far will realize that the Interloper pseudonym was not lightly chosen. Certainly I’m concerned at this point that some readers, confronting my anonymity, have projected a back history that varies dramatically from what I’ve written here and are somehow disappointed. I can live with that if even one person is heartened by evidence that lives do have “second acts” on occasion.

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