Life is a Roller Coaster
He wanted to meet me at the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia. He was a young headhunter from NYC. He worked for an international executive recruiting firm and had a client who was looking for an English/Japanese bilingual finance professional who was willing to relocate to Tokyo. He knew my cousin who worked for Chase Manhattan Bank. He asked me where we could go to talk. I did not know any restaurants around the train station, so we went into SUBWAY inside the station to grab a grinder.
I was 36 years old and my career with a large multi-line insurance company already took me to Bloomfield, CT, Tokyo and Philadelphia in 10 years. I was happy with a nice suburban life outside of Philadelphia. We had a beautiful house with a 35 minute commute to work, great neighborhood with several kids around on a cul-de-sac street. We joined a pool club behind our house and kids spent all day at the pool during summer months. I started coaching an 8 year old children’s soccer team and had progressed to be the head coach of a 10-year old traveling team. Diane was deeply involved with the school system as she became the president of the PTO. I was traveling to Asia Pacific on business every six weeks and my office was on the 53rd floor of Liberty II building, right below the executive offices at the top of the tower. Life was good. But I was getting anxious to do something different and I did not know why. Then I got a call from this headhunter out of nowhere.
I flew into Tokyo for an interview with the head of a British broker-dealer operation. I arrived at the hotel and my recruiter’s Tokyo counterpart was there to prepare me for the interview the next day. He explained whom I would probably be meeting and who they were, i.e. the Country Manager, Chief of Operation and maybe one more person. I actually had interviews with 8 people and the last one, Head of Trading, took me to the club upstairs for a drink with a bunch of his staff. It was a nice ending to a long day of interviews. The next day, I flew to London to meet with a few more people at their head office. And the next day I flew back to Philadelphia and went to work pretending nothing had happened.
I got the job and I went into the Tokyo office in the fall of 1992. I had exactly one staff at first and we were doing some special project. Two months later, I had two departments and about 20 people working for me. After six months, I took over a few more departments and one year later they promoted me to the Deputy Branch Manager in charge of all back office operations with more than 100 people. That year, I made my first six figure bonus.
That made me nervous. I thought that, just as easily as things came to me, they could be taken away from me just as quickly. Money was so good and power came with it, but I wasn’t so sure about what I was doing deserved the recognition of success. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. After a few months, the excitement of the new job faded away and I could no longer deny that money was the reason I was there. Then I realized that the modus operandi of this operation was totally based on greed. Everyone’s greed fed the company’s profitability and greed was rewarded by more money. This cycle kept feeding itself and that made me even more nervous. I felt that I was being consumed and in a few years I would have nothing left to give. That’s when I decided to quit just to prove to myself that I was not working for money and there was something else I wanted to do out there. I decided to return to the U.S.
At some point in my early adolescence, I lost confidence and I’ve been looking for it ever since. Success makes me nervous. I felt that too much of a good thing inevitably brings disappointment in the future and I did not want to disappoint people around me. Don’t misunderstand. I wanted to succeed just like everyone else, but I did not believe it was sustainable. I used to think that life is a roller coaster. The most scary part of the ride is when you are almost at the peak and your fear culminates in the first descent. Then, it turns into a pleasure when you hit the bottom and start to rebound. The deeper you go down, the greater the velocity that helps you to rebound. A dangerous philosophy, I know.
When we got back to the states, I got a job in NYC and my office was on 61st Street between Madison and Park, overlooking Barneys New York. We bought the only house we could afford in Larchmont, New York, and promptly proceeded to do a family room addition in anticipation of the bonus next year. Then we heard on CNN that the company that I worked for went bankrupt and was being bought out by a Dutch company. Just because you avoided disappointment does not mean you are going to catch a big rebound. When a roller coaster loses momentum, it is much more difficult to get going again.
So we went through a few more ups and downs. We caught some rebounds that went much higher than we imagined but we never found a level ground where we could coast. Pretty soon you are on this latest roller coaster, ascending with the seat facing backward, falling down head first, twisting and turning every which way while falling. It reminds me of being swallowed by a big wave when you are body-surfing in Hawaii and you are being tossed around like you are in a washing machine. You don’t even know which way is up and, for a moment, you are not scared. As in skydiving, if you learn how to land on two feet, you are not scared to jump out of the plane and a 30-second free fall kind of feels good. Just make sure you have a risk-defined fall before you jump off, my friend.
Come to Ormsby Hill and prepare to rebound higher than you ever imagined…
In pursuit of the best risk defined fall…