The Spell of Wall Street

“Seek first to understand then be understood.” Anonymous.

Understanding Wall Street mentality is a bit like understanding military mentality. There’s something utterly profound when brothers in arms pull together in the heat of battle and persevere. Wall Street fancies itself to be like the military. The place is rich soil for military quotes and references and “war stories”. Making money in adverse conditions is viewed as an act of valor, a display of incredible courage. Many in a decision-making position have “killed” or “been killed” at least once.

Unlike in real battle, however, where you have brothers in arms watch your back, no one watches your back on the trading floor. The goal is not just to receive a bonus, but to receive a bonus bigger than your neighbor’s. This quest demands your complete focus, immersion even, and all matters and people outside this realm do not exist or are not worthy of attention. It’s all irrelevant, it’s all sacrificed for the hunt. Ever met a suit who has the patience to listen to what you have to say for more than a minute, unless you’re in the same industry? Everything and everybody outside is a subject of indifference, of contempt, or of pity because they (outsiders) have no idea or the chops to engage in the daily Wall Street battles and rewards. The pursuits of others seem trivial compared to what you’re up to. “We eat what we kill” – the saying goes. It’s only partially true. You become what you kill: it becomes your entire identity. You are your bonus. You pursue it with Moby Dick-like obsession. That’s the only thing that matters when all is said and done, and is the only source of your self-worth.

To quote one famous David Mamet character:

 “How much you make? You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids.”

That pretty much sums up the thinking. No one cares if you’re a nice guy, a family man. The interminable quest for “the number” consumes you whole. Like a junkie, you’re constantly in search of the next fix.

Hobbies, if they exist, are chosen and structured to promote your next kill. I came to loathe two-week mandatory vacations because they forcefully kept me away from the action, and not being able to check my Bloomberg every minute became torture. To this day I’m ambivalent about beach retreats. You have nightmares of some big news coming out when you’re away, that you’re going to miss some huge trade or worse – your desk nemesis will take advantage of it. Your social skills outside this circle completely atrophy. “How can they live on salary?” – I thought on the occasional subway ride, looking at the oblivious to their misfortune commuters. During random Thursday night bar-hopping downtown you can’t engage in conversation with anybody who occupies other areas of human expertise. You’re just not interested, because it does not bring you closer to your next trade. Why waste time? Why talk to people who have not seen the battles that you’ve seen, who can’t appreciate the maneuvers that you’ve done? They would not understand the beauty! Even those meaningless chats became rarer, because, according to some of my acquaintances, I have developed a “menacing stare,” a “Wall Street smugness”. “Katya, sweetheart, you have to hide the Kalashnikov when talking to other people” – one of my associates wisely counseled me.

But you don’t have to be a sociopath to take advantage of the situation. The possibility of making some spectacular trade corrupts you like a ring of power. It envelops the way you think, the way you talk, your entire perspective. Imagine – the music is right and you got your dancing shoes on and with a few phone calls, with a few good trades, you can set yourself for years or maybe – for life. You can be a nice girl, a hippie, a liberal seeking universal fairness – but picture yourself in those dancing shoes and the chance of a close retirement!  Wouldn’t you pull the trigger? And who cares what happens later, who cares if later the world falls apart? Later you’ll go to Bangladesh, feed the hungry, save the world! Later you’ll become a good person.

If the crisis of 2008 had not come to pass, I doubt I would have ever gotten out of this vicious circle. It’s as if I lifted my head out of the water in which I’d been immersed for the past 10 years and took a breath, catching a glimpse of the outside world. Like the character Brooks from the Shawshank Redemption, you come out of jail where you spent your entire life and you have no identity in the new realm. There used to be things I liked to do before Wall Street, but I forgot what they are. The need for the hunt, for competition, has displaced all other interests. I indulge my competitive side in Atlantic City these days – amazingly the excitement does not correspond to the size of the reward: I celebrate wins or grieve and kick myself over losses with the same intensity as I would over the win or loss with many more zeroes. And, as a bonus, I don’t get up at 6 am anymore.


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