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Michael Lewis On Wall Street

Michael Lewis wrote possibly the funniest semi-biographical book on Wall Street entitled Liar's Poker. Below was his most recent article:

Dropping out on Wall Street

Michael Lewis
December 19, 2008

Recently I received a letter from a young employee of a well-known financial firm, who asked that I not mention his name, his employer or anything else that might give him away. Though a bit short on self-pity, this letter was otherwise a fine example of a sort I've received often these past few months.

"I am writing you for advice," Anthony (let us call him) began. "I graduated in May of 2008 and since July have spent my time entangled in the culture of (his well-known New York bank). I'm thinking about leaving. My dad laboured his whole life so I could have the opportunity to do something like this, so leaving isn't exactly what I want to do. I know if I stay here I could work unbelievably hard and move through the ranks, or maybe move firms [but] I guess I'm starting to question the whole securities industry."

The young man went on to concede that what attracted him to Wall Street was the chance to get rich quickly, and the excitement - but that both of these things now seem gone forever.

"So I have this plan to go to Hollywood," he wrote, but then instantly undermined himself. "I feel confused, a little stupid, but yet somewhat confident. I mean, I read your book, I figured out how to get to Wall Street from a non-Ivy League school, and I got here. The only question now is, if I leave, where do I go?"

Let me try to help sort it out:

Dear Anthony,

On several occasions I have taken my own advice and it has almost killed me, and so I'm a tad uneasy about offering it up to you. But if you promise not to take it any more seriously than I do, I'll answer you as best I can.

Let's start by putting your problem into perspective: you still have a job. You work at one of the world's biggest banks. It's true, the thrill and money is rapidly being drained from such places. Your big bank, like all the other big banks, seems to be in the process of being nationalised - thus the longer you stay the more you may find yourself in something resembling a government job.

But that's not all bad: government jobs are secure. You are also young, in your early 20s, and without a family to support. That is, unlike the vast majority of the people on and off Wall Street, you have the luxury to wallow in your misfortune.

Now let's wallow. We're at the beginning of a recalibration of the role of finance in global economic life. The excitement and the money that attracted you to Wall Street will probably not return for a long time. If these really are the only reasons you became a financier you probably should find something else to do with your life.

But before you go lurching into Hollywood, let us make sure you aren't simply repeating the mistake you made by lurching onto Wall Street. That is, let us focus less on your immediate condition - safely employed but disillusioned - to the habits and beliefs that led you into it.

You were never exactly wrong. If you'd been born 10 years earlier and behaved exactly as you have done, your career might well have made you as rich and seemingly successful as you imagined your father wanted you to be. You simply came to Wall Street too late, and are in the strange position of a man who won the lottery on the first day there was nothing in the pot. The mistake you made, in your view, is to have played the lottery on the wrong day. The mistake you made, in mine, was to have played the lottery at all.

There's a question you might ask yourself: Am I looking for a job, or a calling? On the one hand, the importance you attach to your career suggests a desire for a calling; on the other, your instinct to abandon your chosen career the moment it ceases to offer an easy path to fame and fortune suggests that what you're really in the market for is a job.

The distinction is artificial but worth drawing. A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organising your entire self around it, often to the detriment of your life outside of it.

There's no shame in either. Each has costs and benefits. There is no reason to make a fetish of your career. There are activities other than work in which to find meaning and pleasure and even a sense of self-importance - you just need to learn how to look.

Reading between the lines, I sense that some of your anxiety is caused by your desire for the benefits of each - job and calling - without the costs. Perhaps that is what led you to Wall Street, and why your mind now turns to Hollywood.

What Wall Street did so well, for so long, was to give people jobs that they could pass off to themselves and others as callings. Such was their exalted social and financial status: Wall Street jobs made people feel special without actually having to be special. You never really had to explain why you were doing it - even if you should have.

But really, the same rule that applies to properly functioning financial markets applies to other markets: There's a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks. To get your seat at the table on Wall Street you may have passed through a fine filter, but you took no real risk. You were just being paid, briefly, as if you had.

So which is it: job or calling? You can answer the question directly, or allow time to answer it for you. Either way, I think you'd be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world. Real excitement isn't just in whatever you happen to be doing, but in what you bring to it. In the end, you have to look for it not on the outside, but on the inside.


Michael Lewis is the author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball and The Blind Side.

p/s photos: Son Dam Bi


Siti said…
Thank you for posting this rather thoughtful piece. These two days' postings have been a nice, delightful change of pace from the usual market discussions.

The picture of the exasperated cat too is an amusing diversion from the usual girlie pics.

Concerning the advice-seeking young man's despondent view that Wall Street's capability to provide fast money and excitement being gone forever, it's probably he's just too young and callow to realize that these things move in cycles, a peak is followed by a trough and then it will peak again and so on.

Given man's capacity for greed and his enthusiasm for making quick money, as sure as the night will follow the day, Wall Street's current supine position will be over faster than most people would expect.
easystar said…
This reminds me of young bright Malaysian school leavers who were encouraged (and sometimes pushed) by parents to enter Electronic /Electrical engineering for the sake of a good career and good money.
(This is at least until a few years ago.. I have been away for a while)/
sinkeh said…
I am inclined to agree with Siti. If the young man's desire is to get rich quick, he shoud put things into persective given the current situation at Wall Street and take the opportunity to "hone" his job into a calling. By the time this is done, Wall Street would have recovered and the path to riches would be open again.
Yiaw said…
The problem is that he'll be working his delicate heinie off for the next 3-4 years (if we are lucky) for crappy pay and bonuses (relatively). Not to mention that calling yourself an investment banker in either US or UK at social functions is a good way to alienate yourself nowadays... (Not that it wasn't a year ago, but its worse now)

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