March 6, 2012

FINISHED: My Occupation on Wall Street

This should have happened a year ago. Probably even sooner. How many other screenwriting grads work on Wall Street? Maybe more than I think. I mean, when student loan debt meets weak job prospects, something’s gotta give. At least that’s what I told myself when I took the job. But even after paying off my loans, I stayed on. “To survive a weak economy”; “to build up capital”; “to fund a move to Las Angeles”... It was a tired script.

The truth is, I worked on Wall Street for the same reason anyone works on Wall Street: it’s safe.

The life of an average financier is not difficult to plot. It usually starts at a decent state school and a summer internship in Manhattan. They move to the city after graduation, Upper East Side or Murray Hill. They rake in 60-90K (before bonus) through their mid-twenties, extending the party-school lifestyle to midtown. That is, until meeting someone “cool”... not someone they love, just someone moderately attractive and ready to settle down. They marry and relocate to the suburbs, commuting daily for a low/mid-six paycheck. Portfolio managers make headlines, but this is Wall Street.

Michael Lewis observed in Liar’s Poker, "Never before have so many unskilled 24-year-olds made so much money in so little time." That was 1989, before the MIT geeks at Long-Term Capital Management gave skilled mathematicians a permanent seat at the table (never mind that the firm failed in 1998). In 1960, a top MIT grad would have worked for NASA. Today, it’s Goldman Sachs. If back-office minions start at high five-figure salaries, a top mind from MIT will pull in anywhere from a quarter- to half-a-mil. NASA can’t compete with that. That cash isn’t in cancer research. Being an entrepreneur? You only live once. Where’s the sure income? The incentive?

An industry designed to profit on the ingenuity and creativity of others can rarely foster its own. And it steers the best and brightest away from industries with greater societal benefits.

I discussed this with a former coworker. I try to simplify it: the guy who runs and operates the best pizza joint in New York (DiFara’s) makes 300K tops; my boss, a very average MD, makes close to a mil. How is that fair? My former coworker argues you can’t just look at dollars and cents. The owner of DiFara’s could expand his store and/or franchise. Income clearly isn’t his biggest priority.

And then there’s bossman. Let me start by saying that he’s one of the more intelligent people I know. He sees through the bullshit and has a good worldview. But the guy drinks. He works four-day weeks, Fridays spent in bars. Even though he admits he’s overpaid, his sole day-to-day motivation is maintaining his lifestyle. He claims he lost his passion.

I wonder if the owner of DiFara’s would still lead a richer life if he quantified it like a financier. I wonder if I resent my boss for wasting his talents with booze. Or is that what I’ve been doing the past four years.

That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate what the job offered. Aside from clearing student loan debt, it enabled me to produce a film. Not just in contributing and raising equity, but in creating and managing an LLC. I learned some invaluable tax skills, which sound boring but are insanely practical. I mastered Excel – which is boring and impractical, but, y’know, it gave me a sense of satisfaction. I ran the NYC Marathon for a partner’s charity, and it helped fulfill my 2012 New Year's resolution.

I understand the role of finance in society. More than hedge funders benefit from it: small businesses, bars, entrepreneurs... I couldn’t have gone to NYU without loans from a bank. Finance can cultivate good ideas, support talent, and stimulate growth. But it’s failing at that task right now, and sucking up resources.
Everyone’s pissed about it... but no one knows what to do. Not my former coworker, my boss, or the Occupy movement.

I wonder if financiers need to be braver on a personal level. In addition to my prior Wall Street stereotypes, almost all financiers at one point had non-finance aspirations. Doctors, vets, journalists. I trained for the marathon with a portfolio manager who lived in Jersey with his wife and kid; he also rented an apartment in midtown where he’d play squash. A pretty envious lifestyle. But he wished he’d done something that was meaningful. He said after saving a few paychecks, he wouldn’t mind teaching high school and coaching cross country.

But after getting accustomed to a high finance lifestyle, having such a realization at 37 is less realistic than a pipe dream at 20. Luckily, I learned finance wasn’t for me relatively early.

In September 2008, coworkers and I huddled around the Bloomberg watching the market collapse in real time. About a month earlier, I was approached by an exec about the firm possibly paying for me to get my MBA. It was an interesting proposition. But as we stood there watching the world collapse, my mind wasn’t on business school.

I got a text from my father. My brother scored a touchdown in freshman football, his first ever. I decided to fly back to Ohio for a rare Saturday game. He only had a carry for ten yards, but he played a great game. 500 miles east, a bunch of things you can’t eat, chew, or even hold in your hands were losing value. But that sunny afternoon, the world wasn’t collapsing. I knew finance wasn’t for me.

Nothing is guaranteed. Not an MBA salary, or the idea that such a salary would make me happy. A pretty wife and a Manhattan townhouse sound nice, but not rationalizing my life on a daily basis. I’ve had to do that for four years. The time wasn’t all bad. I made good friends, we had some good times. It was my first post-collegiate job.

But it’s time to do what I love. For the first time in my life, I have money. I’m grateful for the current flexibility. But I know that my journey - and those who dream to open a restaurant or to be the next Steve Jobs - would be less difficult if the wealth of a nation were funneled to more than one street.

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