I’m scared to see the movie Wolf, because I’m worried it might trigger PTSD. I read the recent NYT article for For the Love of Money and I had flashbacks of an earlier life. It would take years to tell the whole story. It’s all a huge circus under a tent called “investment banking.” But I can condense some of it into a quick short story…with a few pages from my journal at the time:
Imagine you are in a conference room with a deal team making a $50 million dollar pitch based off of a spreadsheet that has been together in haste. It’s a small amount compared to other deals you’ve worked on, but you are completely unqualified to be doing this.
Very rarely is an idea pitched to a client over the phone, but this happens to be one of those rare occurrences. You don’t have any real world experience in finance, you don’t even balance your checkbook. Your boss starts going through the numbers for the client. As he speaks to someone thousands of miles away through the speakerphone in the center of the conference table you suddenly realize in horror that the numbers he is going off of are wrong. It’s a stupid mistake but the math is incorrect because a formula didn’t copy correctly into the cell below it as it was put together in Excel. You try to comprehend how this could have happened and how you are going to prevent a decision from being made based on what your analyst and you have put together. Dear God, a fire alarm would be great about now. You write the words MATH WRONG! on your copy and slide it over to your boss. He keeps talking into the speakerphone and you see his face slowly turn bright red in anger as he realizes how far off the numbers are. You are slightly relieved that he knows about the error but then he begins to stutter and stammer and you realize he’s trying to do the math in his head to recover. You’ve forgotten your financial calculator and you try to do the math quickly by hand but your boss beats you to it. You glare across the table at your analyst, a young girl just out of college who doesn’t have any experience either. “I’m going to kill you,” you mouth at her and she quickly avoids the issue by glancing down at her papers.
This is my boss’s fault you tell yourself. He’s put too much faith in me. I am human after all. He should have at least glanced over this before sending it to the client. You hear your boss apologizing for sending over the wrong version of the analysis and then he mutes the phone. “This is a shit show,” he yells at you and his face is beyond the shade of crimson at this point. He un-mutes the line to continue thanking the client for their time. When the client hangs up you dart out of the room and run to the nearest bathroom to throw up. You sit on the toilet seat and put your head against the wall. You drift off to sleep for a few minutes because you’ve slept a total of 4 hours in the last 72. You wake up to the sound of the door opening and, thinking you’ve blacked out, you wonder if there’s a certain point where 4 cups of coffee and a Red Bull backfire.
As you make your way back to your desk you run into one of your other bosses. You have several bosses, managing directors or MDs are what they are called.
“Hey, I need you to catch a plane to Atlanta in a few hours for this Project Pea.” You nod okay because that’s what good associates do.
You finally make it back to your desk and you pick up the phone to call your analyst just to re-enforce how bad she should feel about what happened.
“What the f@%k,” you say into the phone before you realize she’s crying.
“My grandmother just died…” she begins.
“Well she has horrible timing.” You slam the phone back down and think about crying too.
“Does anyone know what Project Pea is?” You yell loudly over the cubicles but no one hears you. The bank uses secret code names for projects that are a merger or acquisition. You are forbidden from using the actual company name.
You pick up the phone and call your administrative assistant across the floor. “Can you book the next flight to Atlanta? Hotel too.”
You scramble to staff an analyst, pull materials together and figure out what the Project Pea meeting entails. You speed to the airport and barely catch the plane. The plane is half empty and you actually lay down on the bench of three seats to nap for an hour.
In Atlanta you catch a taxi to the hotel and ask hotel management if they can dry clean your suit and shirt overnight. The concierge picks up the clothes and you are left wearing nothing but a bathrobe until the morning. You try not to think about the possibility of a fire alarm.
At 8am the next morning you are in a meeting at a company you’ve never heard of before and you pretend to be an expert while asking questions of management. “Is the auto accessory industry seeing stronger consumer support this year?” The more generic the question the less chance of making yourself look like an idiot.
Afterwards you catch a taxi to the airport which is a piece of cake because you have zero luggage. When you get back home you find your car in the overnight lot and you have to pay out of pocket for half the parking but you wouldn’t have caught your plane otherwise. The bank only pays for a certain amount a day. The second you sit down into the driver’s seat you check your Blackberry and you have an email from a third managing director asking what your plans are for the weekend. You already know: You’ll be working.
That’s a true story. Every bit. Just a typical day. A glimpse into my life ten years ago in investment banking. I used to think that being an investment banker was all about the pursuit of money, but I think it’s also about arrogance, and the competitive need to prove you are ruthless and super human. My doctor said she had more young investment bankers come through her office with heart attack symptoms than any other profession. I got my first taste of money when I was an analyst right out of college. I worked in foreign exchange and I kept track of the traders’ profit and loss. I remember the head trader had about $60 million in profit at one point on the books and he would make millions from that in bonus. I knew I wanted to come back and do something like that. Everyone told me that was the right track. I applied to business school and graduated in the top of my class with an MBA. I was offered a full time investment banking position back at the bank in between my first and second year. I worked my ass off. They threw money at me. I say yes. more. yes. more. thank you. but mostly: more.
By my third year as an associate, I was one of the highest paid associates in the bank. I got the “sleeping bag” award for spending the most time at the office. I was in the top 5 of my associate class. My husband, at a competitor down the street, used to say that I was “un-firable” because I was a woman, a rarity in the IB world at the time. Sad but true. It seemed so wrong. And I was miserable:
I had two bosses who ran the investment banking division I was in. One had come from a competitor bank and they threw loads of money at him. He drove Lamborghini or Ferrari….some type of flashy car. (Update: hubby says it was a Ferrari. I can’t even find my Prius in a parking lot, so shows how much I know.) He had a huge house with an impressive poker table and bar. The other boss was more humble. He didn’t drive a flashy car. His house wasn’t what I expected. He cared if I was overworked. He stood for something. I was torn between the two lifestyles.
It would take the equivalent of an entire novel to explain what happened, but basically I slowly lost it. I was raking in the money, but I was miserable. It was a soul-sucking job. It owned me. I slowly began revolting against the bank machine. There is even a day I can point to when I basically cracked:
I was working for several managing directors by this point, this particular one I’ll call MD5. MD5 had a trophy on his desk from one of the airlines for traveling an astronomical level of miles in one year. He asked me to put together an analysis of a telecommunications company, but it wasn’t a simple request. He wanted me to prepare an analysis that would require complex financial risk scenarios run twenty times over. I looked up from my paper where I was taking notes and as if I was bored out of my mind replied, “Um, no.” The room went quiet and I wondered who had the balls to say no to MD5 and then I realized it came from me. The analyst in the room put his head down to avoid any eye contact. MD5 looked at me with a funny little look on his face and said in defeat, “Oh. Um, okay.” The meeting was adjourned. Everyone was silent. It was like there was a glitch in the matrix. I was the glitch.
The interaction with MD5 made me a rock star for a few days. “Hackshaw said no to MD5,” quickly became floor folklore. I remember another MD saying: You are turning into a real bitch. He was joking but I agreed with him. I was.
I started paying attention to the people above me on the investment banking ladder and none of them seemed happy. They made gazillions of dollars and it never seemed like enough. It was an addiction.
I remember running late to the airport in late 2006. The bumper sticker on the car in front of me read: The aliens have just landed and they are eating the skinny blondes first. I passed the car and expected the driver to be brunette and overweight, but she was actually blonde and skinny. I arrived at the entrance to the airport at 7:15 and my flight was supposed to depart at 7:10. I made it through security and two terminals and the plane was somehow still there waiting for me.
“Wow, cutting it close this time,” MD6 said. It was this first time I was working with MD6 and this was not a great first impression to make.
“Well, I guess I’m just really supposed to be on this flight,” I joked, “because I did everything I could to try and miss it.” It was a fairly short flight to Norfolk, VA. We were on our way to meet with the private military company Blackwater located in Moyok, N.C.
A wood sign posted in front of a chain link fence marked the entrance to Blackwater. As we entered the 6,000 acre property the chain link fence ran to the right all the way to the horizon and the gravel road in front of us did the same. A small red sign read 3.8 miles and had an arrow pointing to the left showing which way we are supposed to go. It felt a little like we were entering Area 51.
In my company research I had scoured article after article about the four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah, their bodies burned and dragged through the streets but I also learned a more personal side of CEO Erik Prince. Erik Prince was an ex-Navy SEAL, and the heir to an auto parts fortune. His wife had died in 2003 from cancer and he was left with seven children to raise. When Erik joined us in a conference room and he was humble and gracious, nothing at all what I expected. I was not sure why I was so surprised that he was human. I learned that Erik Prince started Blackwater after the Rwandan genocide. I had just watched Hotel Rwanda.
When our meeting concluded, Erik asked one of his employees to take us to firing range to test out a few weapons. A weapons specialists showed me how to shoot an M-4 and with the first pull of the trigger I was almost thrown backwards. I replanted my feet and I killed my target 10 times over.
“You’ve shot a weapon before,” the Blackwater guy whispered and I winked at him. I heard MD6 make a long whistle sound from behind me.
“Beginner’s luck,” I said but I didn’t let on that I just happened to frequent the shooting range. The M-4 was so heavy that with each shot the bullet holes hit lower and lower towards the abdomen of the target sheet. “Why are you aiming for the groin area?” MD6 asked, “should I be worried?”
All of the sudden I felt ashamed of where I was. I was sure that every investment banking group that had paraded through here was taken to the firing range because that’s what we expected, entertainment. We were important. We had the money. They needed us. And my life consisted of flying first class, staying in nice hotels, working late hours, drinking in excess and boasting about how little sleep I could go on. It was a guy’s world, and I had been overly proud that I could hang with them.
Shortly after the trip to Blackwater, I was flipping through a National Geographic magazine and I came across a photo of a dead bird:
Victim: Albatross Chick, Age: 6 Months, Cause of death: Starvation due to full stomach. Contents of stomach: cigarette lighters, pump-top sprayer, nutshells, shotgun shells, broken clothespins, hundreds of plastic bits.
The photographer had taken the time to dissect the bird and lay out every single content that was in the baby bird’s stomach. I was overwhelmed at the mass collection of items the bird had eaten and was not able to digest. I felt kind of like that bird. I was trying to amass money, things, anything I could….and I couldn’t even digest it. Worse, I helped recruit new analysts and associates with the promise of a never-ending feast of money and glutton. I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.
Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
When I read The Love of Money the other day and it put all of this into words for me:
The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.
I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made in her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had remarkable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted. -Sam Polk
The only difference between me and the author is that it wasn’t as hard for me to leave. You see, I quickly saw myself as just a miserable person to be around. My life was empty. I neglected everything that mattered. My husband and I never saw each other. He worked at the competition across the way. I wasn’t doing anything except for creating money from money. I just woke up one morning and I knew it was the right day to quit. I left all my deal “trophies” and belongings behind at the bank. I left my desk and didn’t even clean it out. I walked away. I was, in a way, a starving baby albatross. My husband walked away soon after.
Now we struggle to pay the bills sometimes, especially those large medical ones. Both self employed we have to worry about things I never thought I’d have to worry about. But we are doing things that are fulfilling and that matter. And we keep making changes. We keep simplifying day after day. We want less and less. And we always have enough.
P.S. I started writing this yesterday as Day 22 of 31 for The Year of Joy series….but it just kept growing. So let’s make this Day 22 & 23. Thanks for the slack.