Notions on the City of Notions

I work for a small company — between 50 and 60 “investment professionals,” as we call ourselves — and because we don’t have the human resources necessary to field a human resources department, every fall we do our own recruiting.  I love recruiting season, of course because it’s a great excuse to not do any work for a couple of weeks, but also because it offers an opportunity to travel to places I’d not normally go to, usually with someone who spent a few years there.

business

“Do you need this by tomorrow?”
“No, I’m out of the office until January, so anytime in the intervening 4 months is fine.”

Last year I went to Pittsburgh to recruit at CMU, and I ended up getting shown around the neighborhood by a bunch of PhD students.  I hate to say it but… Pittsburgh is really cool?  (I also get to show people around Durham and visit friends I don’t get to see very often who are there, which is great.)

This weekend, I went to Boston for the MIT career fair on Friday, after which I elected to stay for the better part of Saturday so I could explore the city.  I really liked Boston proper — I got to walk the Freedom Trail (hooray, history!) and see crazy things like a bike race through the location of the Boston Massacre and Paul Revere’s house (also the bar next to it, with the sign “Paul Revere probably drank here!”).

PaulRevere

Also, Paul Revere’s tomb.

The Freedom Trail goes from the Boston Common (not to be confused with Ballston Commons, AKA “The Worst Mall in America”) all the way to the site of the fortifications on Breed’s Hill, the location of the famous and poorly-named Battle of Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War.  Charlestown, now built up around the hill, is a beautiful town filled with little brick houses — and also the scene of that totally rad mission where you have to run down through Charlestown as the British burn it in Assassin’s Creed 3.

Boston is one of the oldest towns in America, and as you walk the Freedom Trail, you wend your way through 17th and 18th Century landmarks like the Old North Church and Faneuil Hall.  But it’s very different from the other old cities I’ve been to (principally in Europe), where they separate the old city from the new; in Boston, these landmarks from the first European settlements are interposed with massive 20th and 21st Century skyscrapers.  It’s actually kind of cool to think of the city as moving on and evolving in exactly the same place that it’s been for the last four centuries.

The other thing I enjoy about recruiting is that, against all odds, by telling people how much I love my job all day, I actually start to like my job.  Somehow, the combination of cherry-picking the parts of my job that are actually interesting (and then, perhaps, lying through my teeth about the magnitude of that allure) and how incredibly douchey it sounds to tell people about how dynamic the energy markets are and how sending accurate pricing signals to the market is a much-needed service that the market is only happy to reward through windfall ducats makes me come home excited about the prospect of another several years of sending those pricing signals.  Then I come home and am confronted by the sheer, mind-numbing drudgery of what I do — that the problems I solve are both esoteric and incredibly uninteresting, that, while the actual problem at hand is perhaps often different, the tools and methods used to solve these problems are always the same, and that I literally cannot remember a time in the last 2 years when I didn’t feel undervalued — and I fantasize about brushing up my resume and leaving it all behind.

I should be clear, the job is actually great; it pays well, it’s relatively well-run, and it’s fairly successful.  The problems, while esoteric, are real-world problems that do need to be solved, and while this opinion may be atypical of finance / investment  professionals, I actually do believe that financial participants provide a service to the market by providing pricing signals, provided those pricing signals are based on rigorous analytical modeling of market fundamentals.  Moreover, many of the people I’ve worked with in my time there are easily the smartest people that I’ve ever met.

Mr. Peabody

Me and my first boss on my first day of work.

And I think that that’s the problem.  This was underscored to me as I was wandering the streets of Cambridge the night before the career fair.  Everywhere I went, I passed the elite of the elite, the young up-and-comers of Harvard and MIT in their native habitat, and they were having the most boring conversations about just the shallowest inanity.  To their credit, it was markedly different from walking around Duke’s campus, where the conversation skews douchey rather than pretentious, and I now appreciate that these schools actually attract a different — perhaps even better — class of student than my alma mater.  But hearing the under-stimulated intelligentsia walk around talking about how the play they saw last night really explored the depths of neo-post-modern consumerism in an ante-post-racial world, or how being in the production crew for Exploring the Depths of Neo-post-modern Consumerism in an Ante-post-racial World really opened their eyes to other cultures because of the diversity of the cast, served to underline the degree to which our most intelligent people are directing their considerable brain power toward just the most frivolous bunk, and that’s exactly what I feel most of my coworkers are doing.

I can hear you thinking, “but you all just sold out for well-paying jobs.  It’s your fault that you bought into The System, man.”  Yes, I always wanted to be a rocket scientist, and I gave up on that because I could get a (much) larger pay check by going into trading. I have absolutely no problem with people responding to market incentives or doing things for personal gain.  People should be going out there and creating Facebooks and Twitters and starting energy trading companies and generally solving problems — both the global-scale, world-changing problems like curing cancer and putting men on Mars and the small-scale esoteric ones that most people will never knowingly benefit from.  The issue is that the people I work with are capable of so much more than what they’re doing, even if you’re just judging by paychecks.

At this point I’ve outgrown trading; within a year or two of taking the job, I started to feel that a trained monkey could often do what I did.  I was underutilized — I still am — and although my days are busy, I’m not really learning anything.  But worse, I think, is that I’m not creating anything worthwhile, either for myself or anyone else.  Instead, everything that I do goes to make some rich guy at the top of the ladder even richer while I and those around me — many of whom exhibit far greater potential than I ever could — largely stagnate.  And we’re all doing this instead of exploring our universe or curing diabetes or becoming billionaires.

So to those out there who feel uninspired by your current situation, who know you are capable of more than you’re doing, I say take a risk and go do something productive.  Start a business, build something new, change the world.  Don’t get stuck in a neo-post-modern ante-post-racial consumerist America and spend your time to analyzing it on a Thursday night with your under-stimulated friends.

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