Warning: this is a long one, 5300 words
Executive summary: The article deals with blows dealt, burdens carried, triumphs achieved and some of the most important lessons my unlikely educational and career path taught me.
- Save your alcohol for when you want to drink
- You decide where you fit in, but there is a time for charades and another for being yourself
- Turn on your metacognition as soon as possible (I almost missed the chance)
- Make sure you have a Plan B, then you can be spontaneous
- Don’t let prejudice come in your way (like I almost did with economics)
- Sleep and take care of your body
- Deep Work – maintain and enhance your ability to focus and learn deeply and rapidly
- Close calls are just that, “close”. Don’t let them shape you
If you aren’t really interested in the personal details behind the lessons, you can stop reading now. Unlike most of my articles, there aren’t any profound insights hidden deep in this article, just more or less inspiring anecdotes about my shortcomings and naivete. Mistakes you can and should avoid.
Not interested? Try this article on how you can prosper from the coming era of robotics instead. Or, alternatively, this really cool article with 16 useful quotes. Guaranteed.
A few facts that make the picture more nuanced. I actually don’t want to come across as fully retarded or one-dimensional.
I’m complex. We all are, but it’s easy to forget.
I didn’t drink any alcohol or try tobacco until I turned 18, i.e. in 1990. A wager with my father. I definitely don’t have a drinking problem.
I thought exercise was for pre-computer era cavemen only, until I turned 13 and saw Rocky IV…
Now, at 44, I benchpress 140kg (309 lbs) and aim to increase that PB this year. And I run 2 miles (3.2 km) in 12 minutes as a warm-up before lifting weights.
I was bullied as a child, but actually didn’t really understand it until my 20s. I somehow thought the fighting and name-calling was normal. Mean, but normal.
I’m certain I have a (high functional) autism spectrum disorder, “Aspberger’s”. I only realized this a few years ago, first as a joke, but gradually more and more as fact.
I’m naturally contrarian… independent to a fault, but also inherently gullible (well, I was the latter. Not anymore)
I can be unbelievably oblivious to obvious phenomena, and stubbornly certain of “facts” most people miss. In that respect, I do bear a certain resemblance with Michael Burry in The Big Short.
I’m extremely risk avert, and extremely risk-tolerant at the same time. This one is just weird, as I take immense financial and physical risks at times, while acting as chicken little incarnate at others.
Patient – you have no idea how patient, and I’m only getting worse/better. Already as a teenager I was known to just wait idly for hours at whatever meeting point was decided or bus was supposed to come.
A shy exhibitionist…
Alright, enough, let’s get this story started. There are valuable lessons in here.
No (business) sense at all
I had no business going into business (finance) to begin with – and yet, it was the perfect match; obvious for everyone to see from middle school and onward.
Since I was 10, I made money programming, later lending money to class mates (hungry for sweets) at a steep interest rate. I was always good at math, and I loved counting money, loved stories about money… So, born to be an investment banker it seems.
And, yet, in middle school, I praised Sweden for making sure I could live off of welfare once school was out. That was my plan.
Who would have thought that weird kid with a northern accent, failing in school, wearing but a t-shirt in winter, always hurting himself (8 concussions) and a communist agenda would become a full blown libertarian and managing the European hedge fund of the decade? Still enjoying the occasional barefoot walk though.
Actually, I really had no business going into anything but natural sciences. I loved physics and chemistry, I was proficient at math, philosophy and logic, and held nothing but contempt for economics and similar social “sciencies”. I hadn’t even heard about the Stockholm School Of Economics until a few days before the application deadline.
Despite no business doing business, a few years later I graduated with flying colors, with a Masters in Business Administration and Financial Economics.
Actually not only should I never have applied (contempt, ignorance and lack of ambition, just ‘happened’ to get the perfect grades required for getting in), I should have been expelled…several times over.
All this ‘no business doing business’ business is of course meant ironically; apparently it was exactly what I was meant for
I was 18 when I commenced my first semester at SSE. I was 18 when I had my first taste of alcohol. It was a beautiful disaster, a train wreck in slow motion. Luckily I was both poor and cheap and thus only drank at home before going out, and had no habit of partying every weekend, just a few times per semester. Luckily, since…
At the prize ceremony after the hazings during the first week, I had to be restrained and carried out by six older students.
Another time I apparently decided to lock myself in one of the toilets overnight after a party to save time. I was quite unruly during class that day.
After a school pub, I woke up in a small outside air and water cabinet at a gas station some 20 miles from home, wearing a t-shirt in early winter and with surprisingly bloody jeans.
But the partying was only half the story, or a third. E.g., during the first year, I usually brought a sharp knife to school every day… for my loaf of bread and jar of honey, that I kept in my big jacket, for lunch and snacking during the day.
In Harry Potter, the spell “expelliarmus” disarms the opponent.
There is a new HP book coming out this spring. HP was close to not getting in, as well as expelled, himself.
The final third was when I and my closest friends at SSE turned in an assignment to our female and feminist teacher in Management, with a seminude picture of Madonna, marked below, in a ‘romantic’ font in italics, with the word for “female teacher”.
Today, we would have been expelled no questions asked. And that would have been the end of it.
In 1990, however, questions were asked, all the way up to the head of the faculty of Management, as well as the dean of SSE. We got away with just a warning though, after I made the case that a male teacher would just have laughed at a Schwarzenegger picture from “Conan the barbarian” on his assignment.
So, what should have happened is this:
I should have been expelled from Sweden’s most prestigious school and had to start over somewhere else, probably studying to become a chemistry teacher in the small city of Uppsala (which I had given serious thought before going for SSE).
Given I had tried making cocaine from coca leaves when I was 17 (I liked chemistry and I had a stock of the right chemicals at home, as well as a bag of leaves), it’s not unreasonable to assume I could have become a real life Walter White (“Breaking Bad”) and probably done hard time sooner or later.
Instead, I soon realized I actually had decent grades already, despite doing my best to ruin my studies of the lowly subjects of economics and accounting. I’ve had to re-take one test… accounting 101. I just couldn’t get those debits and credits right in the t-accounts… They kept switching sides all the time.
Whatever wasn’t top notch would later disappear in the aggregation process to the final grades. And with a conscious effort in the key subject during the last semester, I aced it so hard I could hardly believe it myself, and thus got perfect grades from the school I had dissed so uncompromisingly during the first year.
Did I mention I used to sit at the very back of the auditorium, one level up where there were a few seats typically reserved for latecomers? Up there, I made childish signs that I showed to the lecturer… and threw airplanes at my fellow students from 15 feet up.
Talk about being “retarded” and wanting to ruin any prospects of “making it”.
I think I subconsciously protested against my decision to go to SSE, when the “right” choice obviously was physics at the Royal Institute Of Technology (which I actually also had applied to and been accepted to).
A thousand flaws, and only one right
One thing only saved me from day one:
I learned to read and write, to count and do math by myself, watching TV (clip below from the 1973 pedagogical children’s show) when I was 4 years old.
Math always came easy and I always “over studied”, thus making the next step almost too easy and so on and on. That meant that no matter how disinterested and slow to learn I was in “text subjects”, I had all the time in the world to master those too.
I did it mostly because I thought it looked more symmetrical with equal numbers on all subjects on my grades in secondary school (not to mention the few bucks my father gave me for every perfect score on a test [1 USD] or grade [5 USD each per year for subjects 1-10, and 50 USD each for subjects 11-17).
So, I was admitted to SSE. And once in, I wasn’t expelled, even if it was a close call. Consequently I never turned to meth cooking or did any hard time.
But I fought.
I fought in the streets, I fought at school. I fought in my neighborhood. I fought abroad. I tried not to, but there were always people attacking or challenging me.
I tried to back down, handing the victory to them verbally, but they almost always pursued.
Once, I got accused of wanting to be the “king of Vallby (my neighborhood). I said I was happy letting him keep his crown. He, however, was very eager to fight me over it, and started with a right kick to my left shoulder. That ended very badly. For him. My immediate response was a long, straight punch to (through) his larynx.
Fortunately, I almost always ended on top (except in middle school where there were always too many fighting me at the same time), sometimes plucking their teeth from my elbow afterward, or finishing them off with a series of knees to the, face peeling the flesh off their cheekbone, or with a straight punch to the back, or front (that does it quite nicely!), of the neck.
Blood, teeth, hair, flesh, naked bone, but never gouged eyes, broken bones or death. I had a code.
I don’t regret a single punch, kick, knee or elbow. They started it. One of my most hard-core principles is ahimsa=non violence. However, if you have other principles you’d like to use… Sure, we can do it your way.
Yup, no business doing business.
So, you see, I should have become a hacker (programming and selling games at the age of 10-12, remember? I also loved the movie “War Games” when it came out in 1983) or a drug cook, being my own crazy ass bodyguard.
And I graduated. Kind of.
I actually started working in spring 1994 as a broker’s assistant, before finishing my thesis. I finally got around to it two years later when an inner voice said “you may have your career cut out for you, but you don’t want to be a quitter“.
Mainly, I wanted that diploma, in order to go back to Argentina and marry the young girl I met after my stint as a mountain climber there (“andinista”; reaching the summit of Aconcagua, mountain of death, 6961m/22838ft), and still have a way back (Plan B) in case it didn’t work out.
Always have a plan B
She was the daughter of a shoe mogul, one of Argentina’s richest men, at least one of the top legitimate tax paying men, so as a bonus I could look forward to a life of relative leisure – which was tempting in my state of constant sleep deprivation.
Now on to the real struggles
I studied at SSE 1990-1994, during which time Sweden experienced a deep financial crisis, with among other things all major banks at the verge of defaulting, and the national debt inflating out of control. Not unlike Greece these days.
In 1993 and 1994 I applied for jobs at the largest management consulting firms and investment banks, as well as a few other top notch jobs. Eventually, due to wanting to secure just about anything in the crisis, I went for a broker’s assistant employment at a third tier broker. After several interviews there I (barely) got it.
Six months later, my test employment was up for review and possibly made into a real hire. The following words sealed my fate: “The others think you are a little weird and don’t really want you, but I think you could grow into this”.
And there it was, toward the end of 1994 I had secured a real full time employment with a salary of 14 000 SEK per month (20k USD per year), before Swedish taxes, no paid overtime or bonuses…
In parallel, I worked extra at my father’s business, making and translating technical manuals for pulp manufacturers and programming real time databases for the same.
Since the head broker stayed late, I did too, usually until 10-11 pm, and then I stayed some more – not seldom until midnight or later. Sometimes, after that, I had to head over to my father’s office to do some programming before going home to catch 3-4 hours of sleep.
I was in charge of the morning report and had to get in by 6-6:30 am to write it (based on Financial Times, the Lex column and some other sources nobody in Sweden seemed to read) and put it in the fax (1994-1995, remember? Very few had e-mail back then). Once I got the comment my report was the best in the market, it became sacred to me, which basically ensured I never got to sleep in.
Doing 110 on the financial freeway
A few weeks I hit 110 hours of logged work. My average was over 80. And we still squeezed in quite a few nights out on top of that. Many times I felt weak, shaky, right on the brink, but was more or less ordered out and about on weekdays – and still had to take care of my sacred morning report. A few times I slept just one hour or so in the staircase outside the office and went in together with security at 6 am. Later I got my own key and could sleep in the reception couch instead.
For a while I seriously considered moving to the office, and save my rent (approximately 10% of my wages before tax)
I didn’t know any better; I thought I would risk my job if I didn’t drink.
Don’t do what I did. Put quality before quantity.
Think about what’s actually reasonable, and ask outright what your priorities should be if you aren’t sure. Typically, drinking on weekdays is not requested or desired. I would have gained more respect and authority sooner, if I had been sober, slept more, performed better. So, decide explicitly who you are and what you prioritize to make it easier to stick to.
Among other stupid things…:
I didn’t take a single day of vacation during my first 18-20 months and I typically worked weekends.
I gave up martial arts and working out. Between 1990-1994 I used to work out 10-15 times a week.
I even broke up with my girlfriend the day before my first day at the job “I won’t have time for you anyway”.
I ate at McDonald’s three times a day (lunch was paid with food coupons that were included in my wages, after office hours dinner and late dinner were paid by the company). Soon I was pale and fat enough that my ten year older colleagues noted “You have given up, no question about it”.
During my first vacation, the Aconcagua expedition of Christmas 1995 I got even fatter. So, by the start of 1996, I was fat, pale, sleep deprived and bottom feeding in Swedish finance and with no graduation diploma. You could say I had exactly lived up to expectations set in middle school a dozen years earlier.
The turning point
Then, in early springtime 1996, I made a decision: I was going back to Vicky in Argentina.
Not what you expected, was it?
I got out of my chair several times, heading for the Managing Director to resign. In the end, however, I realized I had to have a plan B, before burning any bridges, and decided to finish my thesis and get that Masters diploma before buying a no-return ticket to Mendoza. In the meantime I got asked to consider a job as head of IT research at Sweden’s largest bank. Around the same time I got in shape for a TV show, learning a lot about dieting in the process.
The summer of 1996, much like that of 1994, was one of the best in several decades, with warm, dry weather – the perfect Swedish summer -both of them. But I never saw them apart from through the office (1994) and school (1996) windows, as I worked long hours or wrote my thesis.
I love summer. I love the sun. I love being outside. And the two best summers of my lifetime were completely wasted, spending myself futilely at a line of work I still didn’t understand and a worthless thesis.
Anyway, by the end of 1996 I had my diploma, I was back to lifting weights (albeit at half my previous weights), and I was the head of IT research at a big bank right at the start of the internet era.
A little less work, much less partying, and no 100+ hour work weeks
At Swedbank I reduced my workload to some 70-75 hours a week on average. Sure, during earnings season, I often worked past midnight, but I partied less and probably averaged 6 hours of sleep a night. Still too little of course, and I often longed for a normal job, normal hours, a full night’s sleep. Sometimes not even my evil and very loud alarm clock could wake me…
In addition to sleep deprivation I didn’t eat any fish whatsoever. Hardly any greens either. I lived off of cheap minced beef and pork chops. I had colds at least twice a year, often 4-5 times. My guess is my average daily intake of Omega-3 was less than one gram.
At least I started lifting weights again, first alone in the bank’s employee gym in the cellar. Later with a colleague and friend at a gym club. After 3-4 years at Swedbank I was pretty fit again and had a 110kg bench PB (243 lbs).
“Pretty good” compared to my broken down, sleep deprived drunken self a few years earlier that is. Pretty weak compared to now, 16 years later, when sleep and Omega-3 rich fish oil have helped me manage a 140kg bench press.
Anyway, by the year 2000 I had become a top ranked analyst, increased my income more than 10-fold, almost slept enough and “only” had 1-2 serious colds a year.
My tip to you is to make up your mind and prioritize. Decide what’s important to you and go after it. I just did a lot of things I were told or thought I was expected to do, without ever asking them, or me, what the end game was.
More tangibly I would advice you to practice deep work, to shut out the rest of the world, turn off all notifications for an hour or two once a day, and produce high quality intellectual work at the top of your ability. It will make you relaxed, fulfilled and amazingly productive at the same time. Everybody will respect you for it, and never think twice about why your e-mail turnaround time sometimes extends to several hours or days.
There are bad days, an there are bad days
Oh, before I forget, there was still room for the occasional crazy bender. Like that time by the end of 1999, when I woke up on a workday morning, in a small room with nothing but a thin plastic mattress.
Yes, the police station. With no keys and no watch it turned out when they released me. Eventually I found my way back to the crime scene of the night before, where both items were retrieved from a glass full of water. Thank you Omega for making the James Bond Seamaster so sturdy and waterproof.
Once I got to my apartment, I learned that one of my friendly neighbors had filed charges against me, and in addition would do his utmost to get me evicted. And, then, I dragged myself to the office, hoping I wouldn’t get fired. One thing kept me up that day, I knew that most of my anxiety was purely chemical with no real bearing on reality.
Not like other children
Well that thought was just about as f*** up as when I less than a year later crashed on a motor bike alone in the woods, bending my right knee sideways, thinking, while screaming my lungs out, that in due time nanotechnology would fix that knee perfectly. I actually had torn my right knee ACL 8 years earlier without knowing or checking. My days as a ninja had raised my pain threshold a bit… I didn’t check my knee this time either, despite limping severely for months.
Still not right in the head
I still suffered from chronic sleep deficit though. During my summer holidays I partied a lot and often slept far into the afternoon. I often took a break from working out as well and typically returned 20-25% weaker just a few weeks later.
Early in the year 2000, I was 27 years old, a top ranked analyst, and attended Swedbank’s key employee management program “Top 25”, or something like that. The final week was held at Wharton, Philadelphia. Despite all the hype, I just wanted to sleep, to stop burning my candle from both ends with 70-80 hour work weeks and client liquid dinners. I was thinking about downsizing, going back to my home town, perhaps get a 9-5 job as a bank teller. And sleep.
Then it happened. Something weird and unlikely. This burned out wreck of a 27-year old, who just wanted out, was suddenly hired by a hedge fund startup.
I decided to keep office hours in check, to sleep well, drink less and be fully focused on work while working. I thus finally planned to really work at the top of my ability.
Just one thing… I was interviewed twice that spring and made quite big headlines, making the bosses of my bosses to be consider not letting me start at all. Yup, that close of no retarded HF manager, just a retard. Again.
The first few months, I was like a machine. I worked exactly 12 hours a day on weekdays, from 7 am to 7 pm, completely focused on building the perfect excel models and learning as much as I could about the companies I covered. Every little detail I might have overlooked at the sell-side, I was now hell-bent on finding, understanding and putting into context.
After a while, I finally realized there are no perfect Excel models. And finding everything out isn’t optimal either (due to time constraints). I also gradually reduced my typical workweek toward 55 hours rather than 60. On the other hand more and more work sneaked home with me through cell phones and faster and faster internet connections. Almost every day I was on the phone, or reading earnings reports or monitoring the US stock market for several hours after leaving the office.
By and large, when I was made partner and portfolio manager in 2004, I was back to 70 hours a week on average. At least I managed to squeeze in 3-4 workout sessions a week but I hardly had time for anything else.
During the most intense years, let’s say 2004-2006, due to increased responsibilities as analyst, managing director and client responsible in addition to my main gig as portfolio manager my aging body took issue with the stress, long hours and amount of alcohol that went through the system. I decreased the number of weight lifting sessions from 4 a week to 3 a week, and started planning for backing down to 2/week. I thought I had peaked at 32 and the game was basically over.
And right there and then, my golden era started. I established a pattern of working 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, i.e. 50 hours a week at the office, and limited amounts of time from home (mainly during earnings seasons). Thanks to eating better (more fish and fish oil), I stopped getting several colds a year after 2006 (I haven’t had one since). I also increased the number of weight lifting sessions to 4/week and added a couple of hours of cardio each week.
The period 2006-2012 was truly amazing. We grew, I worked less but better, we hired several really good analysts, we won awards, I made a lot of money, and not least, remarkably my yearly colds just vanished. In addition I became a lot stronger, increasing my benchpress 1RM by 30%.
We were walking on water, but gradually I was losing my Deep Work routines. First I noticed I didn’t really learn as much as I used to. I also had trouble focusing in the hectic environment at the trading desk. I tried hiding behind my headphones, blasting very familiar gothic power ballads to drown out all else. It worked, but I still thought I had to respond quickly to e-mails, DMs and other calls. That made me distracted, as if all the meetings with clients, brokers, analysts, CEOs, presentations, board meetings, IT and admin meetings, accountant meetings didn’t already crave too much of my time.
I gradually lost my ability to focus, which morphed into an unwillingness to focus. I found it harder and harder to remember names, even inside my Dunbar number. Often the days just passed in a blur of non-productive reactive behavior. Only when I really had to get things done n time and with a certain quality, I made sure nothing could disturb me and I went deep for a few hours, increasing my productivity 10-fold. If I had only known about the framework of Deep Work back then. Now, I had an intuitive feeling for the concept, but not enough confidence to consistently benefit from it.
As an added burden the summer of 2012 was when Futuris lucky streak ended with the head of ECB, Draghi’s retarded “Whatever it takes” speech. Just about a year later we were back on track, but for various reasons were wrong-footed again.
Lacking the ability to focus, feeling I didn’t learn as much anymore, having central bankers and others push the fund around out of my control, I eventually lost my last appetite for the business toward the end of 2013.
What really did it in the end was the realization that there was almost no correlation whatsoever between my efforts and the outcome for the fund. Thus I longed for a situation where a certain input would more or less reliably render a desired output – at least on average and over time.
It’s almost ironic; I finally slept well, almost enough, even if I still had psychological scars from my earlier severe sleep deprivation and was looking forward to retirement with plenty of sleep and some calm and quiet. I made a lot of money (OK, not in 2013, but there was no reason not to expect more going forward). I had found a nice rhythm for my workout routine. And yet, I had all but decided to quit.
At our first Portfolio Managers’ strategy meeting for 2014, I said I’d better go first: “I quit”
When I said the words in January 2014, I felt a wave of relief. No regrets, no negative feelings at all, only relief and happiness. Maybe, just maybe the thought “I should have done this sooner” surfaced momentarily, but was quickly replaced by “No, this was just perfect”.
That’s when Alexander and Mike (Cernovich) inspired me to start blogging for real in June/July 2014 at my previous site AlwaysBeBruceWayne.blogspot
And outside the office I built up a list of science podcasts that I listened to during my long walks in nature – sometimes barefoot, even below freezing. As of today I listen to over 20 podcasts regularly, every single show.
The articles are still there; and I often draw from them when writing new posts. Slowly I found my own center again and gradually realized all the profound insights I had accumulated during my 20 years in high finance. I’m still often surprised by the underlying quality there and the important thoughts I put down in writing in 2014.
All my struggles, all the hard work, all my mistakes, gullibility, all the flaws I exhibited between 1994 and 2014 now power me instead. During, it felt like my entire life, but after, it’s actually just 20 years, which really is nothing.
That was a long way to say: “think through who you are, what you want to accomplish and the most effective path there”.
In short: don’t be me. But do keep reading me, in order to avoid my mistakes. Sign up for my free newsletter by providing your e-mail and you won’t miss a thing. You’ll get my most important investor lessons for free as well in my eBook “The Retarded Hedge Fund Manager”
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