We Are All Here to Feel a Little Stress
Probably the most memorable moment in my Lehman associate training class in 2001 was when we were getting a presentation from a guy in FX research.
The guy was clearly an introvert, with a thick shock of black hair, and some Southern European-sounding name. A lot of people might find FX research to be a boring job. I think it’s endlessly interesting. You get to dive deep into the monetary policy, economic statistics, and the politics of countries around the world. I know some FX research guys, formerly at Nomura, who were experts on Latin American countries. They made quite a name for themselves. I gathered that they were meeting with senior officials in government and central banks. It’s good to be the expert at something.
But this guy was not too exciting, and was not making FX research sound very exciting. At one point, my friend sitting next to me raises his hand, interrupts him, and asks him the following question:
“Is your job stressful?”
This got a big groan out of the room full of MBAs. But the speaker paused, thought about it for a second, and then said the most profound thing out of all profound things I have ever heard:
“We are all here to feel a little stress.”
I mean, that’s why you go work at an investment bank, right? To feel some stress? Being a trader is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Being a banker is also stressful, in a different sort of way. Honestly, FX research is probably one of the least stressful jobs at a bank—but it is still stressful. You have deadlines, and you are accountable to your calls.
Why all this talk about avoidance of stress? Why is stress the worst thing in the world? I have another word for stress, although it is imprecise: pain. When you are feeling pressure, you feel anxiety, and when you feel anxiety, your heart races, your adrenaline is pumping, and every muscle is tensed. You have a physiological response to a psychological stressor. Who wants to go through that?
But see, when you go through stress, and you come out the other side, you are stronger. Nietzsche was right. Because when you go through pain, and you deal with it like an adult, and you face it head-on, and you emerge—victorious or not, you grow. You grow as a person. You grow mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
And the people who put themselves through the most stress often come out the biggest winners. You think Elon Musk lives a stress-free life? Tesla was so fucked up, he was building cars in a tent. He’s trying to take over Twitter, and now he’s getting raped by lawyers. Why put yourself through all of this? For money?
Yes, for money—but also growth.
Think about how different my college experience was from most people’s. I spent an entire year at the position of attention, getting hazed by upperclassmen, having to memorize and spew shit, doing push-ups, obstacle courses, sleeping 3 hours a night, and taking 22 credits at a time. Or I could have gone to UConn, partied, smoked a bowl, and skipped some classes. I chose to experience more stress so that I could experience more growth, though I was not in possession of the vocabulary to describe what I was doing at the time. I was doing it because it was tough and I thought it would make a man out of me. Essentially the same thing.
Human beings are always in search of the easy way—without fully realizing that the easy way is the hard way. There are eight million people on Social Security Disability in this country. For sure, lots of those people are, in fact, disabled, but you have a lot of people who are not who are clamoring to get on the list—for $11,000 a year, so they can live at a subsistence level and—do what? Not work. Because work is stressful. So they sit at home, play video games, rough up the suspect, and find that they are even less happy than they were when they were working—except they cannot locate the source of their unhappiness.
I can locate it. Self-esteem is something we experience when we do esteemable acts. Even something as simple as showing up and bagging groceries is an esteemable act. You are doing something of value, and you are compensated for it. Working hard is a bit like running—nobody wants to do it, but you always feel great afterwards. When you go to work and bust your ass and earn your paycheck and come home and crack open a beer, it is a very satisfying feeling. Life an entire life in such a fashion, and it is a life well-lived.
It's funny, because just a few moments before I wrote this paragraph, I read an article about how California wants to lower the work week from 40 to 32 hours—and pay everyone the same. Leaving aside the economic illiteracy of this for a moment, the underlying assumption here is that people would be happier working less. Would they? Anecdotally speaking, Americans work more than anyone—and are also happier. France tried a shorter work week for a time, with disastrous results. Don’t get me started on this shit.
Lots of people remember psychologist M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled. Do you remember the first line of the book?
Life is difficult.
The next 300 pages of the book go onto explain how most psychological problems stem from the fact that people operate under the assumption that life should be easy—and it’s not. If you are a high achiever, whether a CEO, an author, an actor, a musician, or someone at the highest levels of government—life is difficult. And you made it difficult, by choice. And that is a good thing. Anytime you see a billionaire, that is someone whose life is difficult. Maybe even a billionaire who inherited billions. Look at MacKenzie Bezos—I think one of the ulterior motives of giving away all that money is that she is trying to make her life easier.
So sure, you can have an easy life, but it won’t be a very interesting life. And it probably won’t be very much fun. The passive income thing cracks me up. The real estate industry is full of people who want to have an easy life. Buy some properties, collect some rent checks, make six figures, sit around, life is good. But passive income is one of the greatest illusions in finance, and people pursue it to the gates of insanity or death. The reality is that passive income is actually active income—your tenant gets drunk and sets off a fire extinguisher. Pencilneck clogs a toilet and you have to chase a turd in the middle of the night. And the bigger you get, the more things there are to think about.
One of the best pieces of journalism I have read in the last 10 years was a piece from (I think) the New York Times that talked about what Dylann Roof was doing in the days leading up to the Charleston church massacre. He wasn’t doing much of anything. He was hanging out with a bunch of miscreants, in a trailer, doing drugs, and playing video games, living off welfare. He didn’t have a job. None of them had jobs. They had a completely stress-free existence—they weren’t responsible to anyone or anything. And yet Roof committed one of the most heinous crimes in American history. The connection is impossible to miss.
I don’t run from stress. I run towards it. Headfirst, with no helmet. I don’t fear stress—I fear the absence of it.
We are all here to feel a little stress.
Go fuck yourself,
Music recommendation: Mat Zo – Superman. You should really click on this, the most uplifting trance tune I’ve ever heard.
Mat Zo is a mad scientist producer, just an absolute fucking genius. But as happy as this song is, Mat Zo said later that the whole time he was producing trance, he was depressed, and almost suicidal. Now he produces electro, and he said if you ever hear him producing trance again, you should check him into the hospital.
This song gives me tears of joy.
P.S. We’re Gonna Get Those Bastards will always be free. Feel free to forward to whoever you like.