The Money Tree
It's my hope that by sharing my missteps, you'll have the foresight to avoid them altogether.
"Crippled but free. I was blind by the time I was learning to see"
I started this column as I do every day, weaving my prose with rhythmic rhyme through the issues that surround the market. It's become a daily dance, of sorts, as I've settled into a familiar routine that's become second nature. As I punched through today's second paragraph, however, I stopped mid-sentence and stared at my screen. These are difficult times, I thought, and the very best lessons are typically the most painful to discuss. I've come to understand that there's a shared value in communicating what many of us feel but very rarely say. And that is my intent in sharing this tale.
I, like most of you, got into this business because I believed the best way to make money was to stand near the cash register. I didn't know much about Wall Street other than the fact that they wore spiffy suits, drank fat martinis and lived the type of lifestyle we're conditioned to aspire to. While I was in college, I interned at Morgan Stanley in London where I was the venerable piss boy. I was verbally abused, physically drained, emotionally spent and, by the time I was done, completely sold. I wanted to be that guy, the shooter that controlled money, yelled on the phone and didn't have to answer to anyone.
I remember my first day on the derivative desk at Morgan Stanley's New York office. There I was--6'1", 215 lbs of muscle, straight A's in my back pocket and so scared that I couldn't move. You could smell the money in the air, floating overhead like some sort of magical carpet that was always inches away. Yeah, this was where I wanted to be, hobnobbing with the players and holding my own in the big leagues. Armani suits, rolls of dough, wing tips--I remember thinking that one day, that would be me. At whatever the cost and no matter the sacrifice, that was professional nirvana.
There was one small problem in my master plan--I was utterly and absolutely clueless. The harder I tried, the more mistakes I made and self-doubt morphed into a complete lack of confidence. Eventually, after repeatedly escaping termination due to the simple fact that nobody had the time to fire me, a few traders befriended me. David Slaine. Tommy Carden. Jack Skiba. John Succo. To this day, I'm not sure that they knew how much they impacted my life, how close I was to walking away from it all. But there was humanity on the Street. My salad making skills slowly turned into a quote, a quote eventually ushered in a position, the position transitioned to a pad and, after a seemingly endless journey, that pad forged a career.
The next ten years were over before I knew it. I did what I had to do on the sell-side, found my way to the buy-side and became president of a $400 million dollar hedge fund. Life was good, or so I thought, as I had the toys society bestows on those with money. Forget, for a moment, all the time that elapsed while I sat in front of my screens. There would be more dinners with friends, plenty of time to find a bride and countless hours to relax. They say we should be careful for what we wish. I never quite understood how profound that is until I got where I wanted to be.
The autumn of 2001 planted seeds within us all that continue to sow with each passing moment. I don't have the wisdom or clarity to profess how that fateful day changed me but I, like many of you, began to question the journey we all share. As 2002 came to a close, I vividly remember looking in the mirror and not recognizing the drawn, empty face that returned my dazed stare. Soon thereafter, I sat down with my partners and we arrived at a mutual decision. I was going to step down from my presidential perch and forge my own way. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made but I knew it was right. If I continued at that pace, there's a very real chance that you wouldn't be reading this today.
I felt...free. Yet, I knew the work had only just begun. I had simultaneously launched Minyanville and the Ruby Peck Foundation and needed to continually feed them if they were to survive. The natural next step was to launch my own fund--a small venture that would allow me to tap my trading skills and stay in the game. I had made a major lifestyle shift such that I could enjoy life a bit more. Surely it would be better, I thought, as I could operate my three ventures, develop the synergies and raise money in honor of my grandpa. Perfect.
My fund opened for trading March 2003, almost to the day that the perfect storm arrived on Wall Street. I won't bore you with the gory details but suffice it to say that the stress I so badly wanted to avoid intensified exponentially. I was mired with initial losses, consumed with relative performance, overwhelmed with overhead, completely miserable during the day and helplessly sleepless at night. I pressed harder, worked longer, traded faster, wrote more--it was the only solution that made any sense. Surely, if I just went that extra yard and clawed for every inch, I would be rewarded for my efforts.
As the year progressed, I put everything on hold that wasn't directly related to my professional efforts. Eighteen hour days became the norm, my social life was a ghost town and I was the bitterest critter in the bunch. The toys that were once a validation of my happiness now served as sad reminders of a misplaced soul. I always believed I was humble, particularly in a business where humility is viewed as a weakness, but now I was bare. Fourteen years of blood, sweat and tears...and for what? My fire--the energy that ignited all of my hopes and dreams--was damp and dark.
Lou Manheim once said "Man looks into the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss." I've had plenty of swings during my career but it wasn't until 2003, when all was seemingly lost, that I truly "got it." I'm not going to say that success is insignificant--we know that's not true--but I can tell you, from experience, that if you look for happiness in a bank account, you're missing the bigger trade. I didn't find what I was looking for when I seemingly had it all. In fact, it took almost everything I had to understand what true wealth is.
I don't control millions of commission dollars anymore and my cell phone doesn't ring as often as it did when there were free bottles and fancy rides. That's just the way it is, I suppose, but I don't harbor resentment or hold grudges. I empathize with those who are always searching for the bigger better thing and continually seek validation from others. It took a round trip for me to finally see it but I am certain that I am a better man for it.
Things have settled in my world and the tide has turned. Perhaps that's why I'm able to now share this story. I've surely given back some of my material possessions but I'm at peace with where I am, what I'm doing and how I live my life. And when I look in the mirror these days, there are no regrets, only the wisdom to know that I know very little and the humility to understand that there's still a lot to learn. But that's what makes each day unique, I've learned, for by the time we find where we want to be, the journey will already be over.
Minyanville is a unique community, a place to come and digest the world around us each day. Sometimes when we focus so intently on the outside, however, we lose a little piece of who we are. Ironically, it's that loss that typically ushers in growth, self-awareness and the ability to maintain a better perspective. We're all human, we're all trying to forge a path and we'll all make mistakes along the way. It's my hope that by sharing my missteps, you'll have the foresight to avoid them altogether.
Good luck today.
Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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