What Would Papa Say?
"But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated." - Hemingway
The experiences of our generation have left great stories of overcoming incredible odds and great hardship in their wakes. Some of these stories have made their way into books. A few have been immortalized on the screen. Yet most are buried deep in the minds of their witnesses, quietly hibernating until some future catharsis awakes them. And of this last group, some will accompany their witnesses to the grave, where only death can release a soul from the pain and burden of it’s experiences.
Although often wrapped in different experiences, life presents us with similar struggles. This is the universal truth of the Hero’s Journey and by extension, of personal hardship.
What appears below is not a story of severe tragedy, overcoming impossible odds, or the unbreakable human spirit. It is not the story about a man standing up from his wheelchair after everyone told him it would never happen. This is the story about an average man. A man who stumbled into a rut, and happened to find his way out. This is a story of an unremarkable path – much like the one you may be on right now.
The first time I set foot onto the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, I knew that I’d chosen the right line of work. The energy was intoxicating. There was almost a complete lack of political correctness, fancy dress code, and corporate politics. The environment was fast paced and unforgiving. Performance was objectively rated day by day and minute by minute in absolute terms - dollars and cents.
During my first 2 months working as a clerk in the S&P 500 Futures Pit, I witnessed a trader attempt to stab another trader in the eye with a pencil. The victim turned his head at the last minute, but the pencil grazed the side of his head with enough force to slide along his temple under the skin for a few inches. It was a bloody mess, and I can perfectly remember the victim reaching up to pull a pencil out of his face. In the three previous years working as a bouncer in college, I hadn’t seen anyone try to purposefully destroy another person’s eyeball. It was pretty fucking gnarly. Three months after that, a trader had a heart attack in the pit. As the EMT’s pushed their way through the busy crowd with their stretcher, business didn’t slow one bit. It was ruthless and I loved it.
In short time I had moved off the trading floor to work as an in-house trader for a big investment bank. Each year at bonus time, there was an explanation about how some other department had a shitty year, so everyone was taking a haircut on pay. But we were told, “Rest assured, if and when you have a bad run, you will not be forgotten.” When the bad year came, we were all laid off a month before bonuses. I was pretty fucking bitter.
"If you're losing your soul and you know it, then you've still got a soul left to lose." – Bukowski
I spent the next 13 months unemployed. For the first few months it was on purpose. In the 5 years I worked at the bank, I had taken a total of 3 weeks of vacation. I was burned out, it was almost November, and with Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner, I didn't see much happening on the job front. I spent a couple of months grinding through the Hong Kong action movie catalog at the indie video store down the block, getting double meat hoagie cheesesteaks and onion rings delivered with groundhog day-like consistency, and treating Parliament cigarettes and Johnnie Walker Black Label like they were the other 2 food groups.
In January I started looking for a job. It was discouraging. A lot of the interviews I managed to get were simply due to managers wanting to hear what had gone wrong at the bank. Few were legitimately interested in hiring. Eventually I did secure an interview with the Federal Home Loan Bank for a junior trader on their Mortgage Options desk.
I made it to my third round of interviews and was pretty excited. Then JP Morgan bought Bank One and laid off all of the trading staff in Chicago. This included 30 mortgage traders. I showed up to my 3rd interview and the first question was, "I just got 30 resumes from our top competitor in Chicago. Why should I continue to talk to you?" I gave my best answer, explaining that I was the hardest working individual ever to have walked the surface of the planet, that I was an absolute champion at giving blowjobs under the desk, AND that I could keep a secret. Even so, a week later I received the following email. (Yes, I saved this because I knew that one day it would come in handy for something like this blog post)
“Aron- the good news is we haven't hired anyone yet. We have been discussing the position and desire to hire a "true" trading associate who will be happy to do that job for sometime without upward mobility. We want to bring some stability and permanence to this position. Right now, I think the candidates we have, including you, may be too ambitious for the position's needs.”
Yeah, that’s right. I wouldn’t be considered for the job because I was TOO ambitious. It was pretty demotivating. I felt like even when I was doing everything right, I couldn’t win. One of the guys who wrote a letter of recommendation for me sent this email in response:
After having worked with Aron for 2 years, I can certainly vouch for the
fact that he has never been accused of being overly ambitious. In fact,
I have always thought of him as a loafer. It is not above Aron to spend
days at a time content on his couch with nothing more than the
essentials; a bong, a 12 pack of Old Style, and 2 pounds of olive loaf.
I am sure given the chance, Aron would not only survive, but excel in
the world of mediocrity you are so anxious to create. I think you
should offer him the job immediately before he gets the results back
from his civil servants exam. If you have any questions, don't
hesitate to call.
That picked up my spirits but didn't change the fact that I couldn't find a job. Much of my identity had been tied to my career. And now that was missing. In addition, most of my good friends in Chicago, many of whom I had known since grade school, were leaving the city to pursue new career opportunities or to attend grad school. I felt like a failure, and I was literally being left behind and alone.
"Pain arrives, bang, and there it is, it sits on you… There’s no cure for it unless you know somebody who understands how you feel, and hows how to help." – Bukowski
It was clear that I needed something to do. Charity work seemed like an obvious way to get involved with something and feel like a contributor. I devoted most of my time to a dog rescue, which turned out to be a collection of mostly lonely, partially deranged women - people who find more in common with animals than with other humans. It wasn’t long before I was sleeping with one of them. Unsurprisingly, this was the worst relationship I’ve ever had. I was allowing her to treat me like shit because I was lonely and my confidence was shot. Then she dumped me.
Although I couldn’t see it at the time, hindsight shows me that the path was obvious. Misery loves company. Yeah it’s cliché, but it’s the cruel truth. Misery is a siren’s song. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts and be careful of who you let in. Once you’re surrounded by those who have pointed their ships towards the rocks, they won’t want to see you escape.
If you take one piece of wisdom from this whole thing, let it be this: When you’re pushing through a rough patch, remain conscious of being a misery magnet and do anything to avoid it.
After 13 months, I needed to find work. I went hat in hand to the trading group I had first worked for out of college. As luck would have it, they needed an arbitrage clerk - a position that a newbie can't take, but is still pretty low on the totem pole. 6 years after I left the trading floor to go work for a prestigious investment bank, to be "one of the big guys upstairs", I showed up, back on the trading floor, in a lowly clerk’s jacket. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. I was 27 years old, standing next to 21 and 22 year olds fresh out of college, and all of the clerks I used to stand next to had become seasoned traders. Successful, seasoned traders.
"Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who or what we are" - Bukowski
I used to be able to move millions of dollars with my fingertips, and now I needed permission to take a bathroom break. It was embarrassing, I had to swallow my pride big time, and it certainly didn't help to put me in a good frame of mind. I had gone from having a good job that defined who I was, in a city where I was surrounded by lifelong friends, to looking up from the bottom and not seeing a way out. Lying awake at night was tough. You can’t run from yourself, but you can use drugs to help you pass out. It’s not a real solution, but it works.
After some time, I found a new job working with an upstart tech firm that did business mostly with electronic trading firms. I wasn’t excited about it, but it was an opportunity. I took this role on with a fervor, but I was miserable after a few weeks. The culture was so much different from the raw world of the trading floor.
In my second week, we had an hour long, company-wide meeting (20 people) regarding an "incident" where an employee had said something which had hurt another employee’s feelings. I couldn't believe how much time was wasted on such bullshit. I was working 12-16 hour days with people who lived in the suburbs and spent their weekends hanging out at the bars in chain restaurants near a mall. I moved back to my parents house because I couldn't take care of my pit bull, Portia. I felt like my soul was being crushed by the impending future-me. I could see myself in 5 years - saving for that new exhaust system for my late model GTO so that everyone would know how fucking cool I was when I drove out of the parking lot of a PJ McPickleshitter’s on Saturday night.
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” – Bukowski
Out of the blue I was offered a job in Dallas. It came with a high degree of risk and absolutely no job security. I didn’t give a shit what the job was, what it paid, or where it was. When you’re offered an opportunity to escape a prison, you take it. I loaded up some clothes and my dog into my Jeep, asked a friend if he was down for a road trip, put a case of Red Bull on the passenger floorboard, and left Chicago at 10pm that night. We drove straight through to Texas.
4 months later the company folded. I was in Dallas with no friends, and now no job, and almost no money in the bank. But for whatever reason, it was my moment of stoic catharsis. Words can’t explain how much I didn’t care. No more fucks to give. I thought about traveling the country alone on a motorcycle or some other Gonzo-esque romantic idea.
I was close to moving to Japan to teach English, but at the last minute the Japanese housing contact reversed course and told me that no, my dog couldn’t come. She had been the one constant through all the bullshit. I wasn’t about to leave her behind. To this day, I’ve spent more time and gone through more personal change and growth with that dog at my side than any human I have known. Had I ditched my sidekick and gone to Japan, I probably could have fucked a lot of Australian chicks, but I know that not going was the right call.
Truly letting go of my fucks was liberating. I wasn’t angry. I held no grudges. My expectations were 0. Honestly, it was pretty fucking relaxing. I truly didn’t care what happened next. And that was when things finally changed. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe it’s true that only when you stop looking for some things, that you’re able to find them.
A new job offer came along through a series of seemingly perfectly timed and yet totally unrelated coincidences. The job was in a cool town. It reminded me of where I had spent my college years. In my gut I knew it was the right move. There was no stress, no hesitation, no question that I would go.
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places." – Hemingway
Once I got settled, I started traveling to see old friends regularly. I started eating well, and going to the gym every day. Sometimes I traveled alone, and when I did, I was comfortable that way. I was alone but no longer was I lonely. I wasn’t looking for happiness outside of myself or in another person. That’s when I met the woman who is now my wife. We did a lot of cool shit together before we finally had kids.
The job turned out great. Financial success followed. I can say that for the first time in a long time, I was happy. Some people who don’t know me well would say, “Sure you’re happy, but you have a lot of cool stuff.” That’s bullshit. Purchased happiness is a drug, and a never ending chase. You can buy a lot of really fun toys, you can pay for beautiful women to keep their mouths shut and leave in the morning, but what they say is true - you can’t buy happiness.
And if you could buy happiness, would you even want it? When most of us think of happiness, we think of being static and comfortable. But real happiness comes from being comfortable when you’re uncomfortable. Not letting that bother you. Knowing that discomfort is temporary, and that it won’t stop you. Because you’ve beaten it before and you know how good it feels to come out the other side.
I know I don’t have to fight the horrible demons that visit others when they’re alone, and I’m certainly not asking for your pity. I also know that it’s impossible to predict the future. I know that things won’t be good forever. But I’ve learned that if you take smart chances, get just a little bit lucky, stay in touch with your friends, and (most importantly) follow your gut, that eventually you will stop giving a fuck. And when you stop giving a fuck, everything tends to work itself out. Because when things don’t work out, it won't stop you. It will motivate you. And I can promise you that things never stay shitty forever.
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” – Bukowski