Despite the pandemic making things difficult for so many, there is still so much to be thankful for. We need to all be thankful for the luck we’ve had so far. Personally, I’m thankful for luck. The more we can recognize luck in our lives, the happier we will be.
I’ve been a super-optimist all my life and I plan to continue being one until the day I die, a 100 years from now.
During this Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to re-share one extremely lucky event that occurred in my life. Without this lucky event, my life today would be totally different.
Thankful For Luck
The year is 2001 and the Nasdaq, down 50%, just celebrated its one year anniversary of hitting its peak. I’m finishing up the second year of my analyst program at GS, paranoid that I won’t be getting a offer back for my third year.
I always knew my chances for getting a third-year analyst role were slim-to-none since only strong performers get to continue. Unfortunately, I was an odd duck who didn’t belong at one of the best investment banks in the world at the time.
I dressed poorly because I didn’t know better as a public school kid who never had to dress up. Once, my VP barked at me, “Get that dog collar off your neck!” referencing a Hawaiian puka shell necklace my girlfriend had given me. I guess there is a benefit of going to an expensive prep school after all.
I annoyed people. One time, I was humming something indistinguishable while reading some research material. An MD on the Latin America desk named Michelle (who is still there) told me to keep quiet. She was the same MD I had had to get permission from to buy an MCI Worldcom call option. The option quickly went to zero after my purchase. I’m sure she thought I was an idiot.
There was a reason why I had to go through 7 rounds and 55 interviews to get my job. No desk wanted me. I was an outsider who was forced into their vaunted club by a recruiter named black Kim. She plucked me out of a career fair and I owe her so much.
The Secret Phone Call
As an analyst on the sales trading floor, one of my jobs was to pick up and screen phone calls for all our senior colleagues. Our desks were arranged in I-formation, with my boss sitting at one base of the I and me sitting on the side. His face was always obscured by a couple Bloomberg trading monitors. We communicated by shouting.
At 9 am, my boss’s phone rang and I hit his button on my large 20-line turret as quick as lightning. The trading floor was buzzing with activity in anticipation of the market open at 9:30 am.
“Hello, can I speak to Tom, please? It’s Jim,” said the man on the other end. Jim was calling from Hong Kong, where it was 10 pm. Jim was the Head of the Asian Equities business at the time. He was the big, big boss.
“Hi Jim! It’s Sam. Nice to hear from you. It’s late there. Hope all is well. Let me see if Tom is available. One sec.” I blurted out, nervous like a middle school boy trying to talk to a girl.
I zoomed in between Tom’s monitors and saw he was staring at his screen while pounding away at his keyboard.
“Tom! Jim is on line one!” I yelled as the buzz on the 49th floor of 1 New York Plaza started to crescendo.
Overheard The Danger
Tom didn’t acknowledge my call, but he picked up the line by saying “hello.” Not wanting to hang up on big bossman Jim in the middle of the night in Hong Kong, I stayed on to ensure they connected.
In the past, I had sometimes accidentally hung up on the caller before a teammate hopped on. Our phone turrets were confusing as hell.
Jim immediately blurted out after Tom said hello, “I need to talk to you about new third-year analyst opportunities, including Sam’s. We need to make a decision on whether to keep him or not.“
My ears perked up! Ethically, I should have hung up. But out of sheer curiosity and survival, I pressed mute instead. My future depended on it.
“Jim, it sounds like we have a position open in Taiwan? But I don’t think Sam would be a good fit, despite his Mandarin skills. He’s unfocused because he’s always trading stocks while at work.“
Oh crap! I knew all my trading would come back to haunt me. I was already given a talk a couple times before about how I was spending too much time trading stocks, and not enough time focusing on my job. It would have been a dream come true to move to Taiwan to work.
“OK Tom, we’ll look elsewhere to fill these open positions. Guess that’s it for Sam. Goodnight.“
My heart sank. My boss didn’t like me and I knew my days were numbered. It was mid-April, 2001.
The Second Phone Call
Knowing my last day for employment would be sometime in June was depressing. It felt like I was waiting for the electric chair, especially since we were in a bear market.
Some people I knew were starting to get laid off and I was starting to panic mentally. Tom, my boss, hadn’t explicitly told me I wouldn’t be asked back. But I wasn’t going to wait to see if he did.
That evening I went home and brushed up my resume and looked for new job opportunities in New York City. One opportunity did come up, another analyst role on Bear Stearn’s Asian Equities desk.
I visited Bear Stearns the next week to meet with Toby and the rest of his team. The space was even more cramped than the cramped offices we had at GS. Bears Stearns felt like a let down, but I had no choice but to play along if I wanted to remain employed.
There didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency for Bear Stearns to hire me in the current environment. As I was waiting on a next round of interviews in early May, another phone call came in. This time, there was no need for me to pick it up because Elaine, the VP sitting next to me did.
During my job interview process, Elaine had been my harshest interviewer. A graduate of Barnard College and The Wharton School of Business for an MBA, she was a strong woman you did not want to cross. Just when I thought I had gotten the job, she requested to interview me again over coffee and asked more grilling questions.
My lack of pedigree didn’t seem to sit right with her. But she eventually gave me the green light.
Passed Over The Phone
After about a minute of conversation, Elaine said while on the phone, “I think you might want to speak to my colleague here.” She turned to me, told me to pick up the phone and have a chat.
I was confused, but I did as I was told. On the line was a guy named Michael. He had a nervous stutter.
“Hi there. Your colleague Elaine said you might be interested in working for a competitor covering west coast clients in San Francisco. Are you interested?” Michael said.
Are you kidding me? Hell yeah, I’m interested! I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I responded calmly, “I’m not sure Michael. I’m in a really good spot here. The offer would have to be extremely compelling for me to leave.“
“Sure, I understand. Let’s talk more in private when you’re off the desk about what it would take to make you move.” Michael responded.
I was thrilled! I turned to Elaine after I had hung up and thanked her. She was looking out for me because she also knew my days were numbered.
The Job Offer Package
A couple of weeks later, I took a day off in order to fly out to San Francisco and meet the team on a Friday. This was at the end of May 2001.
They were a great group of fellas and I especially liked the guy I was going to work directly under. Bart was intelligent, hardworking, and loved to enjoy life. At Berkeley, where he went to undergrad, he was the Bud Light rep on campus. Everybody loved hanging out with him.
One thing led to another and the new firm offered me everything I had asked for:
- An Associate title, reserved for those who had gone to business school or those who continued to be strong employees after finishing their third or fourth year as an analyst.
- A 64% base salary raise to $85,000 from $55,000.
- A guaranteed bonus of $50,000 for the year, even though there would be only six months left if I joined.
- Subsidized housing for two months and $6,000 for relocation expenses
- More responsibility and career upside
I went from being out on the streets in a month to getting a raise and a promotion in a new city with a new firm! This series of events was absolutely one of the luckiest turnarounds of my life.
When it’s all said and done, that one phone call may have been worth tens of millions of dollars.
Didn’t Waste The Opportunity
Getting a better job right before I was about to get laid off felt like I was playing with the house’s money. Therefore, I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity.
For the next seven years, my boss and I competed against my old firm and we often won. When my boss decided to leave to a large client, I ended up running the business and hiring a couple of people to work for me for the next four years. Of course, since my boss and I had such a good relationship, we ended up doing a lot of business together.
I ended up working at my second employer for 11 years. It was a fantastic ride that culminated with me engineering my layoff in 2012. I was so thankful they allowed me to keep 100% of my deferred compensation.
In retrospect, I may have had the opportunity to join Bear Stearns if I stayed more patient. However, if I did, my career would have been cut short given Bear Stearns went under on March 16, 2008.
Be Thankful For Luck
It’s easy to get down on ourselves, especially during a freaking pandemic. I’m my worst critic by far. But sometimes, we’ve got to look back and appreciate all the good that has happened to us. Let’s not take our good fortune for granted.
If you want to be more thankful, try give writing a go. Being able to write about my time earning only $40,000 a year in Manhattan reminded me of this lucky memory that had so long been shelved away. Writing will extend your life because you will remember more of it.
Finally, I strongly believe the more thankful we are the happier we will be. When we have unreasonable expectations, don’t appreciate what we have, and constantly compare ourselves to others, we lose our happiness.
Stop focusing on the negatives. Think about all the lucky breaks you’ve had in your life. If you do, I’m sure you’ll become more thankful and happier as a result.
Manage Your Luck Better
One of the best things about investing is that the longer you invest, the luckier you will feel. At some point, the money you make will feel like free money since you didn’t do anything to earn it.
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Readers, what are you thankful for this holiday season? Please share a lucky break that you may have forgotten or taken for granted until now. If you’re interesting in reading more finance-related stories, you can sign up for my free newsletter here.