Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mirror, Mirror Redux

Pseudonyms have so many interesting uses
Subsequent to inflicting some self-indulgent ruminations about online identity on you yesterday, my Long-Suffering and Unreasonably Patient Readers, I noticed that Freddie deBoer wrote another long post on the topic which inspired some additional reflections this morning. In it, he argues that the mediation and compression of all online social interaction via language does the opposite of what one might expect: it focuses interaction and mutual evaluation not on the content of a person’s output but rather on the interpreted personality or character of the author. The constant tension between a person’s own attempts to define their online persona and others’ attempts to redefine, pigeonhole, and undermine that persona in accord with their perceptions, biases, and agendas makes, in Freddie’s telling, for an emotionally fraught and exhausting experience. It certainly sounds exhausting to me.

I am not sure I agree with his emphasis. I know that I personally pay very little attention to the so-called personalities of writers I read online (and offline, for that matter). I am one of those appalling characters who doesn’t get around to reading the byline on most articles until after I’ve finished them. I’m not very interested in assigning or deconstructing online personae either. I don’t have strong fixed impressions of the character of, for example, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, Freddie deBoer, or C.J.F. Dillow. I just don’t care. (For what it’s worth, I guess I would characterize Freddie as passionate, progressive, prolix, and combative. Beyond that vague impression formed from the content of his writing he is a cipher to me.) I may be unusual in this, for all I know. I certainly get the impression that many people online seem committed to passionate love or hate “relationships” with people they read, and this frankly mystifies me. Apparently I am a pretty indiscriminate, uninformed, and incurious “consumer” of online social personae.1 Mea culpa, I suppose.

But as Your Reliably Unterse Interlocutor at this location I also produce an online persona. And here’s what occurred to me as I read Freddie’s screed: operating under a pseudonym obviates a lot of this kind of nonsense. As I have written before, using a pseudonym (as opposed to writing anonymously) allows one’s audience to ascribe all sorts of stable, persisting traits and beliefs to you, including personality, beliefs, character, and the like. It creates an online “self” of sorts, so in that sense it operates just like posting under one’s own name and identity would. But unlike posting as oneself, a pseudonym opens a space for expressing opinions and beliefs which one would not want to be associated with in real life. As you might expect, there are good reasons and bad reasons for that. I claim very good, honest reasons for myself, but at some point my readers have to decide whether to trust me or not. There is no intellectually honest shortcut to that other than reading what I write here. That is all you have to go on to decide whether I abuse the privacy I preserve with my mask or not.

Pseudonymity opens up another degree of freedom more directly pertinent to Freddie’s argument. This is the fact that, notwithstanding all my careful toil over the years to build and maintain the online persona known as The Epicurean Dealmaker, at the end of the day it just isn’t me. Therefore, in a very important sense, I (the man behind the curtain) am not that emotionally invested in the identity and perception of my creation in the wider world. If people don’t like (hate, despise, scorn, belittle) TED, I can shrug and tell myself, “So what? That isn’t me they’re attacking anyway. Let ‘em pound sand; I don’t care.” This is very liberating, let me assure you. On the other hand, if it is indeed you—or the better you that you have labored so diligently to create over the years—personal attacks will seem that much more threatening, stressful, and, yes, personal. No wonder blogging or facebooking or twittering or what have you under your real name can be exhausting. No wonder, faced with direct ad hominem attacks on their character and motives, so many online participants keep getting twisted into emotional knots and tangled up in hysterical cyberfights. No wonder the internet has turned into a rage machine.

In this respect, pseudonymity is tailor made to open up space for the sardonic attitude which Frank Herbert claimed was critical to preserve a person’s equanimity as he moves within the public gaze. It sets up a figurative straw man which your enemies and friends can attack to their hearts’ content while diverting the slings and arrows of unwanted attention away from your own tender ego and sense of self worth. It frankly frees you to focus more on the content of your arguments than the personalities involved. And that, in my humble opinion, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

* * *

I hope, Dear Readers, that the conclusion to this overlong peroration is obvious: everyone should henceforth and immediately adopt an online pseudonym. In addition to solving the problems outlined above and thereby lowering the stress level and blood pressure of internet participants everywhere, it would also drive the cybersurveillance technocrats at Google, Facebook, and the NSA mad with frustration, which would be its own very fulsome addition to the global weal. I’d allow you to mail me a small honorarium in appreciation, but sadly the U.S. Post Office will not deliver checks to an imaginary address. Bloody name-ist bigots.

1 Whereas I would insist on—and take pride in—being understood as a very informed and curious consumer of information and opinion. It is the content I am interested in, not the author. For this reason, I could well be considered a very indiscriminate consumer of content: I will read almost anyone on anything, and I will acknowledge and appreciate solid, provocative thinking wherever I encounter it, even in the fetid swamps of writers widely considered to be bumbling or disingenuous nincompoops. Even David Brooks has the occasionally interesting thing to say, believe it or not.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...

Not just an empty suit
Will Wilkinson writes:
A personal blog, a blog that is really your own, and not a channel of the The Daily Beast or Forbes or The Washington Post or what have you, is an iterated game with the purity of non-commercial social intercourse. The difference between hanging out and getting paid to hang out. Anyway, in old-school blogging, you put things out there, broadcast bits of your mind. You just give it away and in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer. The real return, though, is in the conclusions people draw about you based on what you have said, about what what you have said says about you, about what it means relative to what you used to say. People form expectations about you. They start to imagine a character of you, start to write a little story about you. Some of this is validating, some is irritating, and some is downright hateful. In any case it all contributes to self-definition, helps the blogger locate and comprehend himself as a node in the social world.

I am not The Epicurean Dealmaker.

It is worth reminding you periodically of this, O Dearly Beloved, because as Mr. Wilkinson notes the persona to which you ascribe the words you so faithfully read on this site does not exist. For that matter, the persona you ascribe to Will Wilkinson—“Will Wilkinson”—does not exist, either. It is a construct, formed partially out of the meaning, motivation, and character you impute to the words he writes and the actions and interactions he pursues on the internet among an audience of people who are personal strangers to him. He sketches the outline of his character with words, and he and his readers fill the picture in. Whether the creation of an online persona is a primary motivation for personal blogging, as Mr. Wilkinson maintains, or simply a (hopefully) beneficial side product thereof is not really my concern. But everybody does it.

Some of the motivations behind this character creation are the same or similar for everyone who blogs: we want our online persona to appear smarter, funnier, wiser, better-read, and more articulate than we are in real life. Some of them are more unique to my own situation and adopted persona: I want to appear richer, more powerful, better connected, more successful, more handsome, and more wicked here than I am in actuality. In any event, these exaggerations or deceptions add up—we hope—to create an online “self” that is more compelling and admirable than our own and in whose reflected glory we can bask our gratified egos. We tell ourselves that yes, my online self is the real me, me as I want others to see me, minus all those embarrassing, incidental flaws and imperfections which do not define me as I would be seen. As I want to be. As I really am.

Of course this is nothing new. People have been trying to manage their social identity ever since we crawled out of the muck to the first backyard Mastodon barbecue. The distinction between private and public personae has existed as long as there has been a public sphere to create the latter; as long as we have interacted repeatedly with a relatively stable group of other human beings. Masks and pseudonyms have existed as long as we have had society, too, even if it is just Grog posing as “Grog” or Joe Smith posing as “Joe Smith.” For most people, their masks fit their faces pretty well and look pretty much like their true selves. But masks they still are. Our interior selves are too mutable, ephemeral, and contingent to make even the most transparent person match his or her public persona consistently and coherently. Our public selves are costumes we don to interact with friends, family, and strangers so they know whom they’re dealing with. Perhaps we don these costumes to remind ourselves who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act, too.

Fredrik deBoer is correct to note that blogging has not democratized expertise or authority. But blogging—and, frankly, all the different flavors of social media—has democratized our ability to create, control, and broadcast our online social personae to a much greater extent than ever before. In the past, the non-famous among us moved in relatively small private and public communities, defined and limited by extended families, current and past friends, and work and social acquaintances. Our masks fit tightly to ourselves, because they had to: everybody who knew us knew us too well, for too long, for us to fool them into thinking we were someone we were not. The exceptions were limited to those who literally cut themselves off or hid their true natures from society: the criminal, the loner, the “deviant,” the mentally ill. Creating public personae out of whole cloth was limited to those public figures who had access to a platform to broadcast their creations to the wider society of strangers: books, newspapers, podiums, movie cameras, and the like.

Now, any old obscure investment banker with a case of scotch and a laptop can create, cultivate, and grow an online character which, thanks to forces completely outside his control, becomes widely known among thousands of strangers and takes on the force of reality for private and public persons alike. In less egregiously fictional and more subtle fashion, so can a real person like Will Wilkinson or Freddie deBoer manufacture, through the simple act of publishing their words and participating in online discussions, a more perfect, coherent, and clear simulacrum of himself. These simulacra become known as “Will Wilkinson” and “Freddie deBoer” to tens of thousands of strangers who have not and likely never will meet the authors and therefore will never learn how they differ from the originals.

* * *

What I find interesting in all this is the irrefutable fact that my pseudonymous online persona, which matches but does not match my true personality and situation, has become far more widely known than I am in real life. This creates some odd juxtapositions for me, and the occasional disorienting feeling that my Frankenstein monster has taken on a life and a will of its own. The reasons I created TED in the first place still obtain, and I do not anticipate revealing my true identity anytime soon. But it is occasionally disconcerting and humbling to realize that were I to do so, the overwhelming reaction among You Dear Readers would likely be disappointment and regret.

I suppose that is reason enough to continue this charade. It is always wise to remember you are less interesting, intelligent, and entertaining than you would like to be. The funhouse mirror which is this website reminds me of that every day.
The person who experiences greatness1 must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Related reading:
Skin in Which Game? (February 10, 2013)
Fragments (February 26, 2010)

1 Or, shall we say, episodically impressive pageviews.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Fine Disregard for the Rules

Can I call you back? I've just been joined by a law-enforcement official.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to share with you, O Dearly Beloved, just why it is that the current snowballing trend of reducing working hours for junior bankers in my industry1 is so wrongheaded. Clearly, I am swimming against the tide here, as now Credit Suisse and Bank of America have joined the political correctness police at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan to dissuade our nubile young apprentices from their traditional practice of working hours that would make a Southern slave overseer of the 1860s blush.

The unwashed commentariat continues to flog the canard that investment banks are doing this so they can compete against the innopreneurial juggernauts of Silicon Valley for all the special young snowflakes of Dartmouth, Yale, and Oxbridge. Perhaps there is a contingent among the benighted paper pushers of investment bank human resources departments who believe this too, but I have attacked this superficial notion thoroughly and, in my opinion, effectively in the past. Suffice it to say here that 1) since Wall Street is shrinking we don’t need as many junior resources as before, 2) the number of college graduates who simultaneously aspire to be J. Pierpont Morgan and Steve Jobs (or even Bernie Madoff and Mark Zuckerberg) is now and always has been nil, and 3) if having an in-house masseuse, pool table, and artisanal toast barista is important to your career satisfaction, you were never going to last longer than 15 minutes on Wall Street anyway.

Good riddance to all such rubbish, say I. And I am not alone. Like many industries in secular eclipse, we will fall back on our traditional recruiting pool of hardcore finance junkies who find an elegant DCF model and a sharp suit far more exciting and satisfying than virtual farm animals and flip flops. À chacun son goût, dontcha know.

* * *

There is another angle which a few more perceptive observers have been pursuing on this topic, however, that deserves to be addressed. This is the contention that the fabled 80, 90, and even 100+ hour workweeks and almost constant weekend work which junior bankers have been known to suffer (and competitively crow about to all who would listen) do not mean said tyros are working hard that entire time. Rather, they are the result of massively inefficient work processes. This observation is absolutely correct.

Rare is the Analyst or Associate in Corporate Finance or M&A who rolls into the office before 9:30 or 10:00 am on a workday,2 and rarer indeed is the one who actually starts to do anything really productive prior to the time senior bankers begin streaming out of the office at 7:00 pm. So well known is this phenomenon that even ex-lawyer-cum-derivatives-structurers from the capital markets side of obscure banks can write authoritatively about it. This is not, pace certain sociologically-oriented observers,3 due solely to the fact that senior bankers want to haze juniors like they were hazed in their youth, or that it is a conscious program of brainwashing designed to leach out whatever shreds of self-preservation and flimsy moral scruples said youngsters might have left after four years of elite higher education so they can promote our deviously immoral plots against all that is holy and good in society for senior bankers’ personal gain. Not solely, anyway.

No, this massively inefficient workflow arises organically out of the nature of the work we do. Typically, a junior banker will roll into work relatively late because she was at work until midnight, one, or two o’clock the previous night finishing the corrections or first draft of a presentation or model which a senior banker dumped on her desk before he went home and demanded be put on his chair overnight for when he arrived in the morning. It will often take several hours, if not all day, for the senior banker to review the changes and give them back (for why, see infra), so the junior banker will fill her morning with odds and ends of other projects or deals she is working on plus the inevitable conference calls with clients and internal meetings on live and prospective deals. Afternoons are more of the same, with the addition of new assignments and working meetings on current projects with immediate superiors like Associates and Vice Presidents, who will always have their own corrections, suggestions, and annoyances to impart to the beleaguered young banker, plus informal conferences and bullshitting sessions with her peers in the bullpen. Add to this workflow pattern the complication that most junior bankers are working on multiple live and prospective deals or projects at the same time, all of which are in various stages of completion, activity, and panic level, and you begin to see that a junior banker’s workday is one of constant juggling and interruption.

This pattern applies in corporate finance and M&A generally, as bankers at every level have their mornings consumed by reacting to overnight developments in the news and their own ongoing projects and their afternoons and early evenings consumed by internal and external meetings and conference calls which are designed to push said projects further toward completion. Senior bankers like me, who are responsible for originating and closing all the deal revenues which pay for this goat rodeo, come in to a stack of presentations and models to review, a stack of emails and phone calls to and from clients and colleagues to reply to or initiate, and a calendar chockablock with conference calls and meetings with deal teams, colleagues from other departments (who actually do much of the work we get paid for), and, of course, the all-important client. And this is just on non-travel days, when we actually have a full day in the office to “catch up” on this shit. Rare is even the most well-intentioned senior banker who is able to carve out 20 or 30 minutes to review the presentation a junior banker turned overnight for him before his clients and capital markets colleagues leave work at the end of the day and the telephones stop ringing. Many a time have I rolled into the office at 7:30 am fully intending to turn my comments on an urgent pitch waiting for me on my chair by the time the Analyst or Associate comes in at 10, only to get to it for the very first time at 7:00 pm. This is commonplace.

Similarly, senior bankers, if they are lucky and doing their job, will come up with new assignments, projects, and prospective deals during the course of their phone calls and meetings each day. Given the relentless interruptions senior bankers are subject to themselves (see supra), it is the extremely rare (read nonexistent) Managing Director who calls up the poor slob Vice President tasked with distributing assignments to Analysts and Associates (known to IBD management as “The Staffer” and junior bankers as “That Asshole”) to request staffing on a new project before he runs out the door at 7:37 pm to catch the booze car back to Darien. This is when the put upon Staffer tries to snare an elusive Associate or Analyst before she sees him coming and stick her with a new assignment. (The role of Staffer is the poisoned chalice of Vice President-hood in my business.)

And given that my business, as I have attempted on many an occasion to pound gently but relentlessly into your Well-Meaning and Charming Little Heads, is a client service business, the temptation, thrust, and almost universal practice for anything we do is to do it as soon as possible. After all, if we don’t spread the S&P 500 into Swedish kroner for the client by tomorrow morning, those fuckers at Morgan Stanley certainly will. That means overnight, and that means little Suzy and Billy are going to forgo getting laid for the sixth Friday in a row so their Managing Director can deliver an LBO analysis to the Corporate Treasurer of Google on Saturday which he will not read until Tuesday at the earliest, if he even remembers to take it home. This is what is known colloquially among the denizens of investment banking bullpens as “Living the Dream.”

* * *

So, to a perceptive observer, the life of a junior investment banker in corporate finance or M&A looks pretty lopsided:4 lots of interruptions, busy work, and futzing around during normal working hours, and hard, sustained project work overnight and during weekends. It is certainly different from that of their peers in capital markets, who typically work very intensely from 7 am to 7 pm Monday to Friday, then go home and relax or party with friends and family on nights and weekends. From the perspective of a capital markets banker (I was one, briefly, many moons ago), it seems like corp fin and M&A bankers dick around at very low intensity most of the day. They rarely notice the latter only turn on the afterburners after they and pikers like me go home.

And, speaking as a former junior banker myself, I must say working overnight and on weekends, while often a pain in the ass, could actually be pretty pleasant. On weekends in particular, you could roll in after noon, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt if you wanted, and put in three to twelve hours of solid, uninterrupted work on the presentations and models you had in your inbox before you left to down some beers or equivalent with your non-working pals. Being able to focus intently on a difficult model or a tricky presentation without some asshole Managing Director or Vice President breathing down your neck or regaling you with some dipshit story about the strippers he had in his Hamptons hot tub last weekend could be pretty sweet. Given that you’re going to grind through the work anyway, it’s nice to be able to do it without constant interruption.

Of course, there is another very real, very important reason lots of work gets done in investment banks during weekends. It is the obvious, best time to consummate mergers and acquisitions, when public markets are closed and the last minute scrambling on deals can’t kick up disruptive rumors or market movements.
That, plus the complications introduced by the frequent occurrence of clients having the audacity to conduct their deal business in different time zones:
Which is why, at the end of the day, Your Contumacious Correspondent thinks the no- or limited weekend policies Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, and Credit Suisse are foisting upon their minions are so stupid. They certainly won’t stop clients making insane demands (or, what is the same thing, Managing Directors agreeing to or even suggesting such demands in order to curry favor). They certainly won’t change the ineluctable dynamic that meetings and phone calls during the day not only prevent much productive work from being done but also create new work to be delivered tomorrow. They absolutely won’t make Managing Directors refuse to take a client phone call or host a meeting to close a deal just so they can give a new assignment to some 23-year-old before 5 pm. All they will do, if everybody observes them to the letter, will be to push work that could be otherwise done productively and relatively painlessly over the weekend into the lobster shift on weeknights. That sounds like a pretty shitty tradeoff for twenty somethings in my book.

* * *

Of course, nobody who has any drive, ambition, or cleverness is going to pay the least fucking attention to these nonsense rules. The Analysts and Associates who find ways around them, and who deliver high quality work when it is requested and needed—not when some never-been-a-banker HR weenie says it should be—will be noted, cultivated, and rewarded disproportionately by their superiors. The clock watchers and slackers who religiously follow the weekend work prohibitions will be isolated, paid badly, and given lukewarm recommendations. The only possible good outcome they will have is being able to lie about being one of the rule-breaking, 100+-hour-working Wall Street badasses to impress their Zynga and Snapchat interviewers after they get constructively fired from the Street. Given how justice seems to operate in the world, such clowns will probably end up internet multimillionaires anyway.

Nobody ever said Wall Street was fair.

Related reading:
The Invention of Leisure (November 12, 2013)
In the Nation’s Service (December 29, 2011)
Come Fly With Me (February 12, 2011)

1 As usual, I speak of junior bankers on my side of the house—corporate finance and M&A—who actually do work insane hours on a regular basis. While the novice denizens of the sales and trading side of the house also work hard, although differently (see supra), none of them regularly clock 80, 90, or even 100+ hour weeks in pursuit of the almighty shekel. The sales and trading floor is almost always emptier than a western movie set at high noon and quieter than a tomb after 7:00 pm on weekdays and anytime on the weekends. If anyone other than skeleton staff passing trading books from their time zone to traders in another is actually at their desk during those times, you can damn well bet Risk Management and Compliance would like to know why.
2 I have picked up and made my own a phrase which a senior banker once offered me in centuries past: “You could fire a cannon through the bullpen before 9:30 am on a weekday without fear of hitting anybody.” Interestingly, senior bankers like him (and now me) often try to get into the office much earlier on non-travel days—like 7:30 or 8 o’clock—because we can get more work and planning done before our clients start calling and our assistants start pestering us for three-week-old expense reports.
3 The argument that junior bankers’ hours have no functional utility but rather are simply of a kind with the widespread hazing rituals many social organizations impose on their initiates is spurious itself for three major reasons. First, it ignores the why of the tradition, which I have laid out at length above and elsewhere, in favor of the how. This simply begs the question. Second, as at least one commenter to the linked piece notes, if hazing investment banking juniors is supposed to make them unthinkingly loyal to the bank and industry which does it, it is remarkably ineffective. Junior bankers do wear their trials, real and imagined, as a badge of pride, but it conveys no loyalty to the bastards or firm who did it to them. It is an undeniable fact that bankers of any seniority will jump to another firm at the drop of a hat (or large signing bonus). If anything, the hazing of junior Analysts and Associates weakens and destroys the reflexive loyalty and gratitude to their employer most of the innocent young lambs bring to their jobs when they are first let in the magic door. Lastly, the hazing we do does little to degrade the moral compass of our young charges. At most it just makes them more cynical about large bureaucratic organizations and disillusioned about the charms of my profession. Rare is the first or second year Analyst or Associate who has to make a decision with the least moral content whatsoever; they just have to decide at 3:00 am whether to do the 30 page Excel model or the 60 page Powerpoint presentation first.
4 Of course, you can see a couple of things worth noting if you have been paying attention. First, the 80, 90, or 100+ hour workweeks are never planned. They arise organically out of the junior banker’s project load, normally because two or more of her assignments go live and active at the same time. There is nothing to do but gut it out when that happens, and that means working 16 or more hours a day and going home at 6:00 am to shower, change, and return to the office. Second, these stupid work limitation rules are really only coming into effect now because most corporate finance and M&A bankers don’t have enough productive, money-making work to do in the first place. As soon as the market turns, you will see these rules die an ignoble and unremarked death.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.