I have a friend whose child is going to West Point. The kid wants to be President. How do you know at age 18 that you want to be President? So the kid is structuring his life around running for President. He stays off of social media. He takes the right classes. He makes the right friends. He’ll get the best tours of duty in the military. He’ll get out after five years, and go to Harvard Law School. He’ll start his political career. Etc. If you know when you are a little squirt that you want to be leader of the free world, you can work towards that goal. We all used to speculate that one of the guys in my Academy class had political ambitions. Narrowly missed being a Rhodes Scholar, got a patrol boat command, went to Yale Law School, became disillusioned, and now works in the private sector. My man.
I have another very good friend from Lehman Brothers who seemed destined for greatness. But then he was abruptly laid off. Years later he says to me, “You know what bothered me most about getting laid off? I wanted to be CEO.”
“You wanted to be CEO of Lehman Brothers?” I asked, incredulously.
“Sure. Didn’t you want to be CEO?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I just wanted to be a trader.” Anyway, he is now a CEO somewhere else.
Now, I don’t want to be President, and I don’t want to be a CEO, but I am not without ambition. What do I want? Well, mostly I want to be rich, but beyond that, I want to be the best financial writer in the world. I am getting there, slowly. Measured in clicks and eyeballs, I do pretty well. Measured in book sales, I leave something to be desired, though that might change soon. And the other thing is that I don’t necessarily want to be known as a financial writer—I want to be known as a great writer, period, which is one of the reasons I write these newsletters. I can write anything. My first book was a memoir, my second was a novel, the third will be narrative non-fiction, and the fourth will be essays. I am trying to get some flash nonfiction published in journals. If I put my mind to it, I could do poetry. I may be the most versatile writer in the world. But I’ll never be John Updike—I just don’t have the natural ability—but my writing is clear, if not literary.
Ambition is a good thing. Sometimes I will recommend someone for a job. Inevitably I tell them: if you want to hire someone who is smart and ambitious, don’t be surprised if they turn out to be smart and ambitious. Ambition is good, but ambitious people can upset an organization. There is such a thing as having too many strong personalities. I was perfectly happy to mind my own business and trade ETFs at Lehman, but after a while, I was starting to feel a little underappreciated. But it was never my ambition to be, say, head of equity derivatives. Just pay me and let me do my thing and I’ll make everybody rich.
I have a friend in the Coast Guard who is an Admiral. He will be putting on his second star imminently, if he hasn’t already. Just to put some perspective as to how big an achievement this is, the Coast Guard has about 35,000 officers and enlisted and there are about 40 admirals. Out of all the admirals, he is ranked about 25. He is the 25th-highest ranking person in the Coast Guard. He may someday be a 4-star admiral, and the Commandant—the head motherfucker in charge. He gets paid about $150,000 a year, but he is one of the most successful people I know.
What is his secret? He is an unfailingly positive guy. He has a disarming, almost goofy sense of humor. He never takes anything too seriously. But most importantly, he never says anything bad about anyone. You might be cynical about this and say, well, he is just playing politics, but no—he is just very sincere. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. And because of this, he has risen to the top of an organization that has its share of mean people.
You don’t get ahead by being a pessimist, and you don’t get ahead by being a dick.
What about Trump? Trump was a dick—doesn’t say anything nice about anyone, capable of shitting on anyone outside of his immediate family for his own personal advantage, and yet he became…President. The first class I took in grad school was called Persuasive Writing, where you learn how to write arguments. None of the rules of persuasion apply to Trump—the guy is like a walking YouTube comments section with an exceptionally high Flesch-Kincaid, and yet is a powerful persuader. And Trump changed persuasion forever. He has several imitators now, including Biden, in some respects. There are people in finance who imitate Trump’s tactics. Now, the loudest voices—not necessarily the smartest—win. But yes, you can be a jerkoff and become President, and Trump is far from the first jerkoff that became president. If you want to read some history on this, study up on Zachary Taylor.
But Trump has also wanted to be President his whole life. We Generation Xers remember that he ran for office in the 1980s, and was considered to be little more than an entertaining oddball. Nobody took him seriously. The amazing thing is that Trump is essentially the same guy that he was in the 80s, and it took three decades for his message to resonate. And he certainly didn’t structure his life around becoming President. There will never be another Trump.
So what is your goal? Do you want to become the best trader? The best investor? Mayor of your town? Congressman? Senator? Dean at a university? C-suite executive at an S&P 500 company? In each case, the path to getting there is the same:
One step at a time. In other words, by being a working stiff, and putting in the time.
No one newsletter, no op-ed, no podcast is going to put me on the map. It is an accumulation of all these things, and putting one foot in front of the other, and doing the unglamorous work over a period of years and decades. Eventually you come across these people that are struck by lightning, and they become a star fund manager at the age of 28. This is common in entertainment and athletics as well. If you trained a camera at my desk during the workday, you would see that there is nothing exciting going on. Just me in front of a computer, writing day after day after day. You might see me getting fatter with time-lapse photography, but that is about it. There is a very trite saying about how success is like an iceberg—you see the tip of it, but you don’t see the years of work that went into it. This is true. Very successful people have an obsession that normal people can’t even imagine.
What I don’t understand is when people have no ambition. And yes, just because you may not have any professional ambition, does not mean you have no ambition. I know several people who work lunch pail jobs in finance whose ambition it is to be the best father they can possibly be. Not everyone has to be rich and famous. And everyone is good at something. Some people are really good at dick tricks. You can be successful doing just about anything. But as for the people who aspire to nothing, and want to simply exist, passively consuming content on the couch, and producing nothing, well, we’ll see how many people show up at your funeral.
My only real ambition in life is to contribute more than I consume. So far, I am succeeding.
Go fuck yourself,
Music Recommendation: Rage Against The Machine – Killing (In The Name). I’m not all electronic music. Every time I listen to this I get goose bumps—the most Generation X song in history. I am sad to say I was never in a mosh pit for this song.
P.S. We’re Gonna Get Those Bastards will always be free. Please forward to whoever you like.