Oh how the mighty have fallen
Yeah, I was that guy. Black car home every night because I worked Past 10pm every night. Dinners paid for from almost anywhere I wanted; An office that overlooked the Statue of Liberty, long stints in exotic places like Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the UK to fix business units that were determined to need fixing, etc. I was that guy. When I walked into your office, it wasn’t to tell you that you were doing a good job. I was the perpetual hammer in search of a nail. If I found you, it wasn’t pleasant. I fully admit that I wasn’t a nice guy. I made people miserable, but that was my job. There was no margin for error in my old business. One small mistake could literally turn into millions of dollars diverted into incorrect risk pools. A domino effect would ripple through many areas of the firm. Inaccuracies were unacceptable. After years of this, I lost myself and became this character, devoid of any compassion or empathy. I was a one man wrecking machine. That was the way it had to be in investment banking. It was the nature of the beast. I remember getting a blackberry message from my colleague Steve on that fateful September Sunday evening; “Turn on MSNBC”, it read, and I did. Our stock price had plummeted from $92 to $2 a share over the course of a few months. We had been sold to a bank, a real bank that takes depositors money. In that sale, it made my entire line of work and thousands of people’s jobs, in direct violation of the SEC Bank Holding Company act. We would have to go. After about an hour of absorbing this, my wife broke out her emergency pack of stale Parliament cigarettes, and we sat on our stoop at 11:30pm, inflicting torment on our lungs. “What are we going to do?” she asked. “I don’t know” was my reply. And that was the truth. I didn’t.
Dylan had it right “For the times, they are a ‘changin…”
I spent the next eight months trying to reconcile the loss of most of my life savings and career, sleeping until noon, staying up until 2am scouring job boards and applying for positions that I was grossly overqualified for, or just watching YouTube videos on anything from car engine repair to doctors removing infected pus filled boils. The meltdown of 2008, and the related pain, was not just reserved to “Main Street” as the politicians spewed. It hit many ex-Wall Street’ers just as hard. I eventually held several high level positions at smaller firms, and was absolutely miserable. At my lowest point, I lost my desire to eat, lost a ton of weight, and frequently vomited up blood before leaving for work. The negativity of my work environment was literally eating me alive. One day in a brief moment of clarity, I realized that none of this really mattered. I calmly typed an eight paragraph resignation letter to my CEO, left my ID card, Amex card, and office keys on my desk, pushed my chair back, stood up and left. And that was it. I got into my car and hit the NJ Turnpike with the windows open and the radio blasting “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen; “Talk about a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night with a fear so real. You spend your life waiting for a moment that just won’t come. Well don’t waste your life waiting.” Those lyrics hit me hard. I kept repeating that line, “Well don’t waste your life waiting”. That was the answer. You need to make it happen. YOU need to make CHANGE happen. I felt good about myself for the first time in almost three years. I originally thought the smell in the car was the methane belched out of the Linden Co-Generation Plant on the Turnpike, but it became sweeter the longer I drove. It was the smell of freedom. It was the smell of change. It was intoxicating.
From a small seed, a mighty oak grows
While I’m far from comparing myself to a mighty Oak, even the smallest effort to foster a positive change in your life should be lauded as a Herculean effort. Quite honestly, the only difference between leaders of industry, innovators, and economic titans like Jobs, Forbes, Gates, Edison and the rest of the world is that these few had the spine (or the stupidity) to take that first small step. (Most of us never get out of the box due to fear of the unknown) Think about it, we all start at the same place in life; naked, reliant on everyone and vortexes of need. (some people never get past this stage! We all know someone like this unfortunately) At some point, all these leaders threw all semblance of reason aside and decided to actually walk the high wire without a safety net. A lot of these businesses started in garages for God’s sake. How smart did that seem at the time? Gates dropped out of college and built Microsoft in his parent’s garage. Same scenario with HP. It’s that first step that separates US from THEM. We worry about paying our mortgages, keeping up with the Jones, and collecting “stuff”. We as a society have collectively forgotten how to sacrifice in this new, fast paced world of immediate gratification. (I am already worried about the millennial’s who lack the intestinal fortitude to do anything risky, let alone without the help of their cell phones. If the power goes out, we have an entire generation that will wither and die. The seniors actually might be far better pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, while the millennial’s frantically search for the “Bootstrap App” on their dead phone, but I digress.)
For me, my feeble first steps were on the surface, trivial. I decided that I’m not going to cut my hair ever again. Trust me, this simple act would effectively exclude me from ever working in Corporate America again, regardless of my prior experience and laser focused expertise. I now look like a cross between our founding fathers, and the guy on the Quaker Oats carton. No one was ever going to hire me. My second step was to resolve to never work for anyone else again. I wanted to be in total control of everything. My third step was to serve the community in some way, shape, or form. I figured that I had violated first rule of Karma, which is “The Universe gives back what you put in” so many times that I had some catching up to do.
I had no idea how I was going to accomplish any of this, but it didn’t matter. To my family, I had apparently lost my mind. Here was clean cut Corporate Dad one moment, and then there was an incarnation of Ben Franklin turned hippie the next, complete with that silly hair band in the back. I still had no direction, but I had started to instill change, and true change at that. I was living that Springsteen song. “Talk about a dream, try to make it real”. Well I was trying to make it real, but I had no idea what “it” was yet. And somehow that really didn’t matter at the time. It’s like building a foundation of a house when you are trying to make sustainable life healthy choices. You just don’t start building your well-intended McMansion before you’ve laid down a solid foundation of life skills to help you shoulder the load. This is critical to understand, and the steps might seem small and irrelevant, but they are just as important as any other decision you make, regardless of what people tell you. I resolved to change my horrible sleep habits. Even if I had nothing to do, I would get up early and end the late night internet surfing expeditions.
In the beginning, I had trouble with this. I felt like a fool. I used to be a big deal world traveler, and now I can’t seem to be able to get up on time? I’m a failure! You need to toss the negativity aside. Here is the way I solved my problem; I made an appointment with myself. I convinced myself that I needed to be up at 7am or earlier so I had time to read CNN online, every bit of it, then I’d be prepared to look at the tatters of my battered and bruised equity portfolio and perhaps make an adjustment if needed. How can you make trading decisions without knowing what’s going on in the world? You can’t. It made sense to me, so I took it seriously and thus solved the problem of perpetuating bad habits. The foundation of my own mental, emotional, and physical health just got a little bit stronger. It didn’t matter that my wife and family found this to be strange. I’d hear them whisper “Why is he up if he has nothing to do?” It was the beginnings of a collective plan toward a rebirth, a new beginning, a new life. Think of it this way; expectant mothers take prenatal vitamins for a reason. In shoring up your foundation for building a new type of life for yourself, you need these habits to be in place, and they need to be SUSTAINABLE.
The Tupperware Theory (my personal hypothesis on reality and self-awareness)
One of the greatest challenges we face in life is honesty. Truth be told, we can’t seem to be honest even with ourselves, let alone others. We rationalize things away, and these rationalizations usually come back to haunt us. Look at Tupperware, which is probably the most brilliant psychological device ever invented. Oh wait, you actually thought that Tupperware was a food storage and containment tool? Ha ha ha…congratulations, I’ve just potentially identified you as someone who is probably in denial and can’t muster even a shred of honesty within yourself. Let me explain it this way, as we’ve all done this before. The scenario plays out something like this: You eat a meal, be it something you’ve purchased or cooked yourself, and there is a modest amount of food left over. Now, if you were truly honest with yourself, you’d say, “Self, there is not a chance I’m eating this again this week, so this should go right into the garbage.” How many times have you done that? Probably never. GUILT takes over. Instead, you break out the Tupperware, place the items in, put on the cover, and relegate the left overs to the farthest, darkest corner of your refrigerator. After all, there are people starving in Africa and your depression era parents have drilled into your head that it is a sin to waste food.
Three weeks go by. Something starts to smell. You pull out the Tupperware containers only to find that your food has gone bad, so you guiltlessly toss it into the garbage. You rationalize that you can’t eat rotten food, which I’m in total agreement with for health reasons. The bottom line is that the Tupperware and your self-perceived efforts to preserve the food for consumption at a later date was a total fallacy. You never intended to eat it in the first place. The Tupperware is not a food container; it is a conduit that allows you to transfer the guilt of not throwing away the food in the first place. Your mind says, “Hey I tried! I used Tupperware! I had the best intentions!”
The reality is if you were truly in touch with your emotions and were honest with yourself, you would have admitted to yourself that you were never going to eat the leftovers in the first place and you would have tossed them on the spot. Honesty is hard. Honesty could potentially lead to feelings of guilt. But honesty can be a very positive thing, allowing you to free up time and resources (and refrigerator space!) for more productive things. Once I learned this, my personal path to finding what it was I really wanted to do with my life came a little closer to the surface. No longer was I putting things in virtual Tupperware containers, and collecting them until they buried me. It allowed me to do some emotional house cleaning, and let go of lingering things that would prevent me from moving forward. There were decisions to be made, and it was easier making them and committing to them without all the Tupperware baggage that I had been lugging around.
Michael Basile is an ex-Wall Street Executive Director who in 2008 found himself at a crossroads in his life when the economy crashed. When the smoke cleared, he was left with little more than some seed capital, a great deal of despair, and a battered and bruised self-worth. From the ashes of a once prolific career, he built an entirely different life for himself, serving others, being a mentor, and accepting that he was no longer in control. An unexpected medical diagnosis further cemented his decision to accept change and the uncontrollable will of the universe. Being diagnosed in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease changed his view of the world and his place within it. A few years before his diagnosis, a radical change in circumstances required him to make some drastic life changes. Those changes were instrumental in preparing him to face the biggest challenge that will be with him for the rest of his natural life. Instead of fighting the rain, he learned to enjoy splashing in the puddles.