Just before my freshman year in college I panicked. I had an engineering scholarship to Gonzaga, and started to freak out about the possibility of doing math for the rest of my life. I went back and forth with my adviser and parents on the topic, and eventually called up the financial aid office and turned down the scholarship. Rather than hinge my college financing on a career designing bridges or circuit boards, I'd take my chances on flexibility.
A couple years later I was once again worried about paying for college, while also being pressed to declare a major. A lot of my friends were pursuing admirable careers in biology, theater, even philosophy, but the FUN people--the ones pumping the kegs in the basement corners, holding plastic cups over their heads while singing the lyrics to "Blister in the Sun"--were all migrating to the business school. In addition to having the computer lab and the hottest chicks, it also had a bevy of scholarship options, and lacking anything resembling a plan it was easy enough to fall in with that crowd. I signed up, picked finance as a major (because it had the fewest requirements), and braced myself for a career in...math.
Even at the time this didn't feel like a great idea. I had about as much interest in the topic as I do in eyeball tattoos, and I didn't get a sense that the giants of finance were much like me. The math was much easier, but used in ways that made little sense. I kept thinking I'd make a ton of money then retire young and start a second career, but I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that it didn't really work that way. But did I mention that the girls were cuter?
Sixteen monotonous years later I found myself in Queens throwing my tchochke's in a box and bidding a fond, long-overdue farewell to the whole experiment. I had toiled in the salt mines of Corporate America, forced myself to master the painfully boring details of retirement planning and options pricing, and still didn't have two dimes to rub together. My investment acumen was abysmal, having made my last investment in the stock market on 9/10/2001. I'd been lucky enough to leverage my mid-90s goatee and
access to porn internet-savvy into a faux career as an interactive marketing specialist, and shoved a digital crowbar into the heavy doors blocking the exit from the tedium of financial services.
Within days the overwhelming minutiae of investments, credit markets, and Excel spreadsheets had flushed from my system like THC after an Evian bender. My mind cleared, I could operate heavy machinery again, and colors were brighter and more vibrant. As time passed, I wouldn't say I looked back fondly on my days in the financial world, but I could at least say I learned a lot. The business section of the paper was still a colossal bore (at least compared to sports or politics) but at least I could track what was going on without feeling like an idiot.
And thank god.
I've spent the last two weeks watching the news like it was football Sunday, refreshing my browser every ten minutes to see who was next to be lost for the season to injury. When was the last time the Wall Street Journal read like the screenplay to Cloverfield? I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for the clowns who invented these bogus financial instruments nor the CEO's who profited from them. But I feel bad for all those average people whose 401(k)s were once fat with company stock now worth less than a Starbucks gift card. Most of my old peeps are weathering the storm, but with every new headline someone else with a family and a mortgage is waiting to hear if he or she will be the newest trainee at the local Burger King.
It makes me grateful that I dodged the bullet, finding something I enjoy while avoiding the long, ugly disentanglement from this pointless, avoidable mess. And it makes me angry as hell that somehow we're still all going to pay for it.
I think back to those early days in finance class, calculating net present values and internal rates or return and wondering, "How can this work? Why is this even important?" (and then wondering who the girl next to me was dating). For a long time I just figured I didn't get it, that I wasn't wired for it, that the system worked via arcane forces beyond my comprehension (also, ironically, like dating). I realize now that maybe I was onto something. I needed something tangible that I could value and understand, something more than a cascade of ratios and data points that formed the idea of something valuable. Otherwise, how do you know what you have?
You might actually not have much at all.
I'm switching to First CityWide...