When It's Legible, It's Too Late

Calibrating Your Expectations on Scenes and Golden Ages

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Published in 1989, Michael Lewis’s Liar's Poker serves as one of those end-of-the-decade bookends—like the moon landing, or the Manson murders—that anchors retrospectives about what made a specific decade unique.1 Lewis wrote that it was a cautionary tale, about how an art history major was tempted into the bond business, made a lot of money, and lost his soul. But it seems that many readers didn’t interpret it as such; decades later, in the introduction to The Big Short, he complains that many of his readers treated Liar’s Poker as less of a warning and more of an instruction manual.

If those readers were hoping to get a job that would make them a lot of money, they made the right call. The 90s were a better time to be in banking than the 80s, and most of the 2000s were even better than that. But even though the job was all about money, Lewis doesn't emphasize his own compensation at Salomon that much, and when he talks about an expensive lifestyle, it's in the context of things that were a work expense—client dinners, company-paid hotels, fancy offices, etc.2 The book’s real pitch is its intensity. Gnomic phone calls about lightning-fast reactions to market-moving news, ludicrous pranks, gluttonous traders who scream at trainees and throw phones with abandon. It's the same schtick as army recruitment videos: show someone the suffering, and they'll fill in the rationale for why it's worth it.3

But even though the people inspired in this way did make more money than Lewis and his peers, they didn't get the same atmosphere. To the extent that they seemed to, it was actually a cruel joke: if you read Liar's Poker in college right when it came out, switched majors to finance or economics, and hustled to get that job at Lehman or Bear, by the time you got there you'd be reporting to someone just a few years older, i.e. someone who hadn't been in the industry when Liar's Poker took place but who had read about it and learned some behavioral norms from it. When a mortgage-backed securities trader threw a phone in 1984, he was mad; when a twentysomething bond trader smashed a monitor in 1994 (a good year for electronics-destroyed-by-bond-traders, incidentally), he was putting on a performance. Some books try to recapture that feeling, but it doesn't really land.4

This happens in tech, too; the Facebook portrayed in The Social Network was not the company you'd end up working for if that’s what inspired you to get into tech. Instead, you'd end up at a company whose norms were, in part, a reaction against the popular portrayal.

This creates a frustrating optimization problem: by the time you've read the movie or seen the book, the specific thing you aspire to is almost certainly out-of-date. Some institutions are built on this; the World Economic Forum is continuously cycling through the latest set of people who don't realize that Davos isn't cool anymore until they actually get there. So how do you find it? The odds are low; most companies don't deserve a book or a movie, and most of the ones that do won't get one. But the best approach is probably not to think like a Michael Lewis reader, but to think like Michael Lewis: the stories are good because the characters are great, so if you really want to get that Liar's Poker experience, your job is either to spot a good Michael Lewis character or to be one.

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Read More in The Diff

In The Diff, we’ve covered several companies that were unique scenes for a while:

1. Treating decades as unique eras seems to be a mostly postwar phenomenon. People talked about "the gay nineties," in the 1920s, but things really got going after the Second World War, with lots of discourse about the twenties and thirties. That set up a pattern, where decade-defining discussions peak in the early years of the next decade.

2. It's always awkward for finance-people-turned-writers to talk about money, because typically what they made on Wall Street was a lot for a writer but not especially impressive for a finance person. So quantifying your results is an easy shortcut to being despised by both your former and your current peers.

3. One way this trick works really well is that even wanting to be subjected to this lets you feel superior to someone who doesn't. If you're rhapsodizing about how cool Salomon was in the 80s, and someone responds by saying that they'd definitely quit if their boss ever treated them like that, you can react with cool contempt. Even if you know, deep down, that it is quite unpleasant to be berated by your boss, whether or not you deserved it and whether or not there's a chunky phone receiver aimed directly at your head.

4. This also happens outside of the business world. A lot of young conservatives read God and Man at Yale and are thence determined to be the next William F. Buckley by—yes!—writing a book about how their professors and fellow students at their elite school were mean to them for being conservative, and also said a lot of the boneheaded things that only Ivy League undergraduates and professors are capable of saying with a straight face. If you enjoy being contrarian, this is a perfectly valid thing to do, though within that specific cohort it now carries a whiff of conformism. But it's a lot more difficult than just choosing a technical major and treating your one required Ethics in Engineering class as an easy A that doubles as performance art. There's not much honor in putting yourself into a situation where you'll be unpopular and then complaining that nobody likes you.

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