Were I able to teleport myself back to 1989, and like an Ancient Mariner intercept that fresh-faced, bright-eyed boy, with hope in his heart and tumescence in his trousers, as he marches into the offices of Salomon Brothers for the first day of his career in finance, what advice would I impart?
“Don’t do it!” That’s what I’d say. “Turn around, become a teacher, a milkman, a sex worker, a knitter of scarves for penguins, anything but spend the next three decades as a dungwallah in the City and devote the greater part of your working life to something so fundamentally sterile.
I will tell him that yes, everything he learned about socialism, growing up in that grim, northern metropolis will prove to be false. Unfortunately, everything he was warned about the evils of capitalism will prove to be true.
But would he listen? Does the pope defecate in the woods? For these are his salad days and O’ he has his dreams, and to contain that young buck’s ambition but would be like educating a river to observe its banks. Not possible then.
I doubt he would do anything differently anyway. He will still dismiss t’internet and its progeny Apple, Google, Amazon et al as fads. Bitcoin is a gimmick. (He may have a point there.) He will back Madoff. He will think Enron are the smartest guys in the room. He will be 100% invested in real-estate in the autumn of 2008 and remain committed to extensive, nay, grandiose renovations on his modest suburban house throughout the Global Financial Crisis. He will invest in film schemes to avoid paying tax.
So much for hindsight trading; he would still walk into every cowpat even if you drew them on a map and placed a ‘Hazard’ sign beside each.
What of the temperament? Can this rum cove whose prevailing characteristic is congenital melancholy be convinced that this is precisely the wrong quality in an industry which so slavishly rewards the bullish?
Can he be persuaded not to take everything personally, be it the markets, trading, office politics or even the weather because otherwise life in the City is going to be a very stressful existence and will be lived in a permanent state of crisis? I sincerely doubt it. One may as well forbid the wind to blow wheresoe’er it pleases because he has hot blood not ichor flowing through his veins.
It will also prove almost impossible to dislodge his grandfather’s advice, “Hold your grudges, son. Never let them go” from his approach to conflict management and therefore his career will be streaked with unending vendettas of Sicilian dimensions and Sayre’s Law applies: the lower the stakes, the more vicious the feud, the meatier the beef.
If I remember anything about that person, that stranger to myself, it was that his vocational choice was motivated in part (well, almost completely) by a friend’s assurances that there would be a surfeit of top-notch crumpet in the City and even he, with his personality disorders, polyester suit, viscose tie and plastic shoes, would find himself toasting it regularly.
At times, in fact, during what became known as the wilderness years, he would find regularly find himself engaging in bouts of intense romantic intrigue and frenzied sexual activity, but he will ricochet between them, the lovechild of Forrest Gump and Oliver Reed. It would not all be bad, of course. Just most of it. Some of it will be steamy, most of it seamy and the love he wanted, the high peak in the mountain range of his passions, he would never summit.
“They fuck you up the loves you had
They didn’t mean to, but they did.
They broke your heart and made you sad
And poured your passion down the grid.”
If it were not possible then, to modify his suspect disposition and steer him clear of the more obvious pitfalls which this industry has laid before us, would it be responsible to hold up a crystal ball and reveal the future so that even if the misfortunes cannot be avoided, the brace position can be assumed and the disappointment lessened?
If he’s aware that massive, retirement-catalysing bonus will never materialise, he can lower his expectations accordingly. Would it help to know that sleep deprivation, alcohol abuse, trading tension, overcrowded and unhygienic offices would accelerate the ageing process and bring on prematurely the appearance of Sid James with a hangover? Would foreknowledge bring equanimity? Will he want to face up to the impossibility of ever explaining to his mother who or what is Dow Jones?
That he’ll never fully understand what skew is or how to calculate a theoretical ex-rights price or how options on collateralised bond obligations would work and consequently he would always be a Category C* market participant?
That it will all end one non-commissioned, unremunerated afternoon in an empty boardroom with a bottle of whisky and a service pistol?
No, if I were to waylay this young colt as he was kicking down the stable door, it’s unlikely he would have listened not bolted, weighed things carefully and been deflected from the path he chose. All the drama of one’s career follows on inevitably from the tragic flaw. There’s a tide in the affairs of man which taken on the full, leads on to fortune. Omitted, he ends up stockbroking for a living. In his end was his beginning. Bad luck is a hamartia of sorts.
Regrets? I’ve got a lot but then again too many to mention. He took the blows, he set new lows, he did it his way.
A long career in the City is like being drunk: you’re still essentially the same person you were when you were sober, just more so. The best advice to give someone looking to make their way in this game then, is simply to be oneself. Since we are what we are, what can we be but what we are?
*Footnote for anyone not familiar with my market participant categorisation:
Category A - a market participant who makes things happen
Category B – a market participant who watches things happen
Category C – a market participant who sits round wondering what the feck just happened