Professional Tradesman

1200px-1963_volvo_122s_b18_4-door_sedan_(2016-01-04)_02It is 1968.

I have just turned 16.

It’s a Saturday.

My father says, “Hop in the car.”

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“You’ll find out when we get there.” He drives. I sit in silence and look out the window.

“There” turns out to be Bolek’s Foreign Car Repair where Bolek is the Polish mechanic who services my parent’s blue Volvo 122S.

“This is my son,” my dad says. Bolek looks curious. “He needs to learn how to work and get his hands dirty. I’m going to drop him here every Saturday, and you give him something to do.”

Then my father takes a $100 bill from his wallet and says, “Don’t pay him anything; he isn’t worth anything. This is to cover any damage that he does.”

My dad drives off. Bolek looks at me blankly. Neither of us know what just happened.

Bolek looks around and spies a broom. “Here,” he says, “clean up the shop.”

On the way home my father says that every man needs both a trade and a profession.

He says most people don’t know the difference between the two, especially professionals.

A trade, he says, is where a craftsman sells his skilled labor for money. Tradesmen are limited in how much money they can make by the market value for their skills, the demand for those skills and the number of hours they can work. What a tradesman wants is an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

A professional, on the other hand, is paid for something quite different.

A professional, he says, is paid for putting the interests of others ahead of his own. You should always be honest in all your dealings and in most cases jump at the opportunity to put the interests of others ahead of your own because it usually pays better, but not always.

Sometimes the business you work for might be destroyed by so-called professional managers. At other times they can even destroy the whole economy.

During those times it is important to be a skilled craftsman so you can trade an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

I have no idea what he is talking about.


 

I graduated from Rutgers in 1974 with a degree in Mathematics and I got a job as a computer programmer. Starting in 1982 I went to school in the evenings and graduated with an MBA in Finance from NYU in 1986. Merrill Lynch hired me as a manager. It paid better than programming but was less soul-satisfying because the job mostly involved fighting for resources whereas previously I’d been a “resource” people fought over.

That job took me to Japan in 1990. While I was there the Nikkei dropped from above 38,000 to below 16,400. Then I was let go.

I returned to the States in August 1993 with a wife, two kids and no permanent place of residence. The economy was in recession and I found only one guy who was willing to talk to me. He said he had no jobs but he’d give me the opportunity to practice interviewing.


 

IBM_Model_M_Space_Saving_Keyboard.png“I’m sorry but we have no jobs,” he says. “We need programmers but we have a hiring freeze.”

“Then how does the work get done.”

“We use contractors,” he says.

“I’d work on a contract.”

“Are you incorporated,” he asks.

“No. Do you need me to be incorporated?”

“Yes, we do. I’m sorry to have wasted your time but we can’t hire you. Now I have a meeting to go to.”

“May I use your phone while you are gone.”

“Sure.”

I call the 800 number for The Company Corporation.

I say, “I’d like to incorporate in Delaware.”

She says, “Will that be Visa or MasterCard.”

When the manager returns, I say, “I’m now Bravo Alpha, Incorporated.” I write my new Federal Employee ID number on a scrap of paper and slide it across the desk to him.

“I thought you said you weren’t incorporated.”

I say, “That was then. This is now.”

He says, “OK, how much do you want to make?”

I say, “One hundred dollars an hour.”

He says, “The most we pay is $87.50.”

I say, “I’ll take it.”

He says, “How do I know you are any good?”

I say, “I guarantee my work. If at the end of the month you don’t think I am worth what I billed you then cross off my number and write in any number you want, including zero.”

He says, “When can you start.”

I say, “A week from Monday.”

He says, “Good.”

Two weeks after I was hired he was fired. There wasn’t enough money for both of us so they decided to keep the guy who was doing the work.

Boy, it felt good to be a tradesman again.

edfringeperformers

by Brooke Allen

In February of 2014 I retired after 30 years of navigating the moral minefield that we call Wall Street.

I was looking forward to a stress-free retirement.

Fat chance.

My problems began when I spent the month of August, 2014 in Edinburgh for the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The summer I was there 23,762 performers from 51 countries put on 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.

Continue reading “”

What I want to say to the richest kids in the world

Right now some of the richest kids in the world are meeting at something called the Nexus Youth Summit. Their last powwow was at the White House and now through July 26, they are meeting at the United Nations.

According to its own website: “Nexus is a global movement of 2000+ young people from over 70 countries working to increase and improve philanthropy and impact investing by bridging communities of wealth and social entrepreneurship.” The “community of wealth” contingent includes some of the richest young heirs on the planet; people worth millions and in some cases billions.

Here is what I want to say to them and you might as well listen in.

Your wealth isn’t your fault

As you know, being born rich is like being born beautiful—it is not something you accomplished but more like winning a cosmic lottery. The poor and the plain imagine life would be wonderful if they were but rich and beautiful, and our advertisers seem dedicated to perpetrating this myth. But you know wealth and beauty is no guarantee of happiness or even success. Be secure in the knowledge that you are not responsible for what happened before you were born and do not let the judgments and desires of others get you down.

The world does owe you a living

My dad used to tell me, “The world doesn’t owe you a living.” What he meant was that I’d have to work for what I got.

But what he didn’t talk about was how money works. You see, money is debt, and if you have a ton of money then the world does owe you what it takes to live. The world might even owe you a fancy car or a yacht

You probably know this already, but when I do something or sell something the money I get in return is an I. O. U. drawn on all of us. When I walk into McDonald’s with enough money in my wallet for a Big Mac, then I am owed that hamburger, and when I pay with my money now, McDonald’s is the one owed something; perhaps by employees who provide labor or the factory that grows its food. I’m 61 years old now and I’m living on my retirement savings and that money-in-the-bank simply means the world owes me a living without me having to work any more.

If you are born with enough moola to keep you in hamburgers and houses for the rest of your life then you are born with the world owing you a living. That’s not a crime; that’s just a fact. As I said before, it isn’t your fault.

But you are wealthy only if people poorer than you say so

Reflect on the fact that while you are born being owed a living, nearly everyone else is born owing you one. That was, after all, what my dad was saying; I would have to earn the money others would pay me. But later, even if I accumulate plenty of money, if the people who might do my bidding decide to go on strike then I am not rich no matter how much I have in the bank. Protesters and pundits can rank us by beauty or wealth, but whether we divide ourselves into quintiles, deciles, or the 1 and the 99, the fact is we are all in this together. Whether we admit it or not, the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the rich. We don’t all need to like everyone we meet, but we need to care about each other if this puny thing we call humanity is to survive.

Money should buy freedom, not chains

I am named after my dad’s uncle, Brooke, who dreamt as a child that he would one day dig for gold and become rich. When he grew up he went to the Philippines and did precisely that. But his money did not buy him freedom when the Japanese took his mines and threw him in the Santo Tomas internment camp. They took his wealth but they did not break his spirit; and he did not yearn for renewed wealth but for freedom.

All my dad ever wanted was to be a sculptor. But having children derailed things for a while. From fine art, he moved into commercial art, advertising, marketing, marketing management, and finally management consulting. Then, in my senior year in high school he gave me $500 toward college and then went back to sculpture full time.

As he gave me that money, he said, “Money should buy freedom not chains.” He explained that with money you should be able to do all the things you can do without money plus the things that take money. But for many people money buys chains because they start wanting even more money and they forget about all the things they can do that don’t need any money at all, like watching a sunset or loving a child.

Choose what you want wisely, and denominate your wealth in freedom to yearn, not in dollars you earn.

Money can buy some happiness, but it ain’t much

In that same conversation, my dad said, “It is easier to make money doing what makes you happy than to buy happiness with the money you are paid for doing what makes you miserable.”

Making a boat-load of money isn’t easy whether you like doing what it takes or not. Making lots of money is mostly luck, which is something the lucky mistake for skill and the unlucky imagine must involve cheating. As my career arc took me from mathematics and programming through finance and eventually into hedge-fund management I can report that the key to making money is to do what makes other people happy. If you want to make a pile of dough then do what makes the rich even richer. If what makes you happy is playing video games or watching old movies on basic cable, then all I can say vis. a vis. getting rich is, “Good luck with that.”

The wisdom in my dad’s words comes from the fact that it is very hard to buy happiness when you spend your days making yourself miserable. People who live for the weekend might be two-sevenths happy. You can do better than that.

Besides, happiness is overrated

Ask most people and they will say, “All I want is to be happy.”

On the surface it is hard to argue with happiness, but two things don’t sit right: 1) Happiness is kind of selfish, 2) Happiness is kind of meaningless.

I can hear my dad saying, “Great, so you’re happy. Whoop dee doo. What about everyone else?” Beside’s, happiness is a feeling, not a fact—you can learn to be happy sitting there doing nothing. Indeed, once you learn to master happiness, pretty much everything else is a distraction from being happy. Try it right now; set your worries aside, relax, and be happy. See, you can do it. And if it didn’t happen then practice setting your worries aside and relaxing because that’s the secret to happiness.

But, I prefer satisfaction to happiness. You buy satisfaction with effort, and it is in effort that I find joy—even more than in accomplishment. I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about so you might want to consult an expert. Consider watching this TED video by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania about what positive psychology has to say about the topic.

You need a purpose

Everyone needs a reason to exist, and the ironic thing is that the closer you are to starving, the easier it is to feel a sense of purpose: If you and your family will die next week unless you do something about it today then you’ve got your work cut out for you. But if you and everyone you care about will be just fine no matter what you do then now you have the makings of an existential crisis.

A financial adviser once told me that he doesn’t dispense financial advice so much as give parenting tips to rich people. He says, “Eventually you can become so wealthy that you must work for the benefit of people you will never meet, and then you will have to choose between people you will never meet who are alive today and people who you will never meet who will inherit your wealth.”

I cannot tell you which way to go, but I can recommend a quote from Rabindranath Tagore who said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Feeling useless sucks. The cure is to be of use.

Start with a dream rather than a purpose

If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, the famous “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch who had terminal cancer at the time he recorded it. Randy was the co-founder (along with Jesse Schell) of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ever since 1963, when I had Mr. Reiur in the sixth grade, I knew I was meant to be a teacher. And I still feel that way, even though I have no training in the art. I did not even have an idea of what I was meant to teach until 2004 when my eldest was getting ready to leave home and I began asking everyone what he would need to know that he wouldn’t learn in college. I collected 220 responses but the short answer is, “Everything.”

Now I knew what to teach (everything) but I had no idea how to teach it.

Although I found Randy’s Last Lecture inspirational, I found the key to realizing my purpose in Jesse Schell’s textbook, The Art of Game Design wherein he presents 100 questions to ask yourself about the game you are designing. He begins with questions like: What is the essential experience of my game? Is my game fun? What problems does my game ask the player to solve? and so on.

As I worked my way through the book it slowly dawned on me that if I substitute “game” with “life” nearly all the questions apply to designing a worthwhile life. And his book ends with question #100—which he calls The Lens of Your Secret Purpose—“To make sure you are working towards your one true purpose, ask yourself the only question that matters: Why am I doing this?”

I wrote to Schell and said that I think the secret of his book is that it was really about designing a life, and he responded, “Heh—you figured out the secret of the book, all right!” I drove to Pittsburgh and interviewed him and you can see that here. I tried to convince him to write a book on designing a life and he said, “I’m too young; I’ll write that when I’m 60.”

I was about to turn 60 so I thought I’d give it a shot, and I began by putting together a pretty good set of questions, which you can find at Q54Club.org. As with Schell’s book, I leave the question of purpose for the very end because if you imagine you need to have a purpose to your life before you can do anything significant then you’re likely to never get very far doing anything whatsoever. But if you start by doing things that both interest you and are of value to others then usually your purpose will reveal itself to you. Your purpose can be like a jigsaw puzzle where you don’t know what the finished picture will look like in which case you can only start trying to fit pieces together and see what materializes.

Another reason to leave purpose for later is because if you don’t have integrity, good values, strength of character, skill, and an understanding of how the world works, then a sense of purpose can be dangerous. This is particularly true if you happen to be wealthy; the misguided fantasies of the poor seldom amount to much but if you have enough money and a desire to feed a nation facing drought then if you don’t know what you are doing you might end up bankrupting all the farmers and doing more harm than good. The poor can afford to learn by their mistakes but they cannot afford to learn by yours.

Don’t sweat purpose. Work up a sweat doing hard work for people wiser than you. Your purpose will come once you’re strong enough.

Poor people do not begrudge the wealthy their riches; they begrudge them their cowardice

Another friend of mine became a financial adviser to the wealthy and he told me that the thing he was most surprised to discover is that the rich are afraid of their wealth. People with nothing will take risks and hit it big but once they have money in the bank they will do everything they can to avoid losing it. This well known psychological effect is called loss aversion, and while it might have had survival value back when we were evolving, these days our species gets hurt when the rich get scared.

Since Yesterday, the 1930s in America is a very readable history of the Great Depression. In it, author Fredrick Lewis Allen (not a relative) explains why the rich came to believe the poor wanted to confiscate their wealth and the poor came to despise the rich. He says, “For the rich and powerful could maintain their prestige only by giving the general public what it wanted. It wanted prosperity, economic expansion. It had always been ready to forgive all manner of deficiencies in the Henry Fords who actually produced the goods, whether or not they made millions in the process. But it was not disposed to sympathize unduly with people who failed to produce the goods, no matter how heart-rending their explanations for their failure.”

When times get tough, the rich need to act as shock absorbers because they can bear risk the rest of us cannot. When the poor are out of work, the rich cannot go on strike. Being of use during hard times is the main reason to be rich. When you think of a better reason then tell me, but until then this is the best one I’ve found.

If you are lucky enough to have an existential crisis, then that is the point of your wealth

I was raised to be irreligious and as a younger man I would envy friends who would react to setbacks with confidence that God has plans for them and all they have to do is figure out what they are.

I am still irreligious but I’ve discovered a trick… You don’t have to believe in God to imagine that he exists and that he has a plan for you. Do that, and when you find that plan—as you shall—it does not necessarily mean you have unearthed evidence God exists. It means that we humans are meaning-seeking machines, and we find what we seek, be it a God, a purpose, or a pattern in the plot of a stock price.

A good multipurpose reason to exist is to be of use to people like yourself. Even if you aren’t screwed up, some of your peers sure are. Helping them will help you more than merely helping yourself alone. (See: The Problem with Rich Kids.)

Less wealthy people might imagine that when rich kids get together at places like the United Nations for things like the Nexus Youth Summit it is to plot world domination or at least compare notes on the best places to moor a yacht.

I suspect that is not what you are doing.

My guess is that you’re trying to help each other solve the predicament you are in, and I see that finding a purpose is on the agenda. Bravo!

Tell me what you think

I don’t really know what happens at Nexus because my application to attend was denied; apparently only a very limited number of spots are available to people over 40. That’s OK—I can handle it—after all, yours is a “youth summit.” Besides, my generation didn’t trust anyone over 30, so you’re making progress of sorts.

It doesn’t matter because if you are reading this then I’ve gotten to tell you what I think anyway, and if you write back then you get to tell me what you think. Your response will turn this sermon into a dialogue, and it is more important that we communicate than where we do it or over what drinks.

One last thing

Given how much you are owed by the world, you might ask if you owe the world anything.

You do.

You must strive to be the best possible version of yourself that you can be. We all owe that to each other and to ourselves. All other species follow this mandate and those among us who are born better endowed are not exempted from living up to their potential just because they have more of it. You must do your part because we humans are humanity’s only hope. With the possible exception of our house pets, all other species are too busy being the best they can be and they don’t have time to care if we pull through.

This story first appeared in Quartz on July 24, 2014.

I owe EVERYTHING to some funny symbols.

APLkeyboard

The only thing I’ve ever been expert at is programming in a language called APL that requires a special keyboard just to type the weird symbols that it uses. This is how it  happened…

In the Fall of 1972 I took a class that introduced me to APL two weeks before the semester ended at which time the computing center took the language off the mainframe rather than pay $5,000/month to IBM in licensing fees. But I’d fallen in love with the language and I really wanted to continue learning so I wrote to Ken Iverson who invented APL and who had just published a high school algebra text using the language. I asked if I were to round up 10 students for a free summer course using his book would he give me 10 copies. He sent 11 and a note saying I’d forgotten to ask for one for myself.

It only took a day to find 10 students to give me their summers so next I asked IBM if they would waive the license fee. They did and then I told the computing center they were the only missing piece and so they let me use their computers for free. That is how I began learning APL one chapter ahead of a bunch of high school students.

That landed me a student work-study job at the computing center in the spring and later when my boss left I got her full-time job in the fall of my senior year. I worked for a pittance at the university for nearly four years after graduating and it was by maintaining code and teaching classes that I became good enough to land a job in operations research at American Airlines. When they moved headquarters from New York City to Dallas I took a job with a small systems house where I got to see the inner workings of a few businesses. When I completed an MBA at NYU I was a middling student but an awesome programmer.

When Merrill offered a full-time job at Merrill Lynch in 1986 it was to write programs, not to build a career in trading or management. Everything I’ve done since has involved APL including all the software I wrote to support the trading desk I built and ran for the last 18 years. APL has made me rich.

So, if you want to become expert in the only thing I learned really well then do what I did and – lucky for you – today it will take half the time and cost virtually nothing. Simply download the APL Manual for free and get yourself a cheap copy of the language interpreter. Get to work using it for 7-10 hours a day for the next four or five years and see where that takes you.

Before you whine that you will only do all that work if you know where it is going then you must know that the only way I got to where I am today is because I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t care where I was going. I learned APL because I could not help myself – it was that cool.

Should Caring Be Part of Every Job description?

About a decade ago someone in accounting, or personnel, or wherever, asked me for job titles.

I said, “We don’t have job titles in our group.”

She went away.

Soon she was back saying that a new policy required that we have job titles, and that I had to give them some.

I said, “I can’t think of any.”

She said, “Make something up.”

I said, “OK, we’re all Senior Executive Vice Presidents.”

She went away.

She was back the following day saying, “Those titles won’t do. Nobody in your group is a vice president, senior, executive, or otherwise. Besides, we need functional titles.”

“As opposed to bullshit ones?” I asked.

She didn’t laugh but waited around until I came up with some stuff… Group Head (me), Analyst, Programmer, Trader … make that Senior Trader (never mind that we don’t have any junior ones)… I don’t remember and don’t care, although I can now find out if need be by asking everyone in my group for their new business cards.

Since our first day in the mid-1990′s, we have had a daily checklist, similar to what pilots find in airplane cockpits and janitors find on bathroom walls: do this by 8:15, start that computer before this one, run that program, file this report by 5:00, etc. The checklist gets updated as needed and has gone from perhaps 15 items to over 50 in 16 years.

A while ago our organization was restructured to come under a German parent, which meant that now we became subject to new regulators and rules. Auditors from Frankfurt arrived and were very impressed at the length and detail of our check-list, and apparently it got a glowing stamp of approval.

But they were back, and with a frown, said, “We can’t find your job descriptions.”

I said, “That’s because we don’t have any.”

“That won’t do; how can you run a business like that?”

I pointed out that we’d been doing fine for over a decade, but they would have none of it, and demanded something pronto.

I said, “We all do what needs to be done.”

They were not amused. They gave me a sample of what they wanted that looked like a checklist for somebody else. I complained to someone in compliance, and she explained that we must now comply with new German risk rules that require detailed job descriptions, among other things.

So we complied and divided up the checklist, assigning things by who does what. They were satisfied and went away.

However, the German regulators, (who are “principles based,” rather than “rules based” as are the regulators in the USA), our management, and everyone in our group all know that compliance with rules isn’t enough, and faithfully following a task list alone isn’t really doing your job.

We have a mission statement specific to our group which states, “Our goal as a group is to act such that every person associated with our endeavor will feel that at the end of the day they were better for it.”

We have a detailed document itemizing who exactly those people are, and we update it when stakeholders change. We document our principles and values, and update them too, although infrequently, since they seldom change. We have procedure manuals that remind us of how to do things, policy manuals that tell us what and why, and checklists that help us remember when to do things, and document when we forget.

But a job description is not doing its job if it only lists tasks better itemized in a checklist.

In essence, we all have only one job description, and that is “to care.”

All jobs and their descriptions must begin with an understanding of what it means to care, about what, and for whom.