August 2nd, 2007. There was excitement in the air. The décor in the ball room at the Times Square Hilton was exquisite, the populace dressed in crisp business suits, shaking hands and introducing themselves, and right on the center of the far wall, the projector screen proudly displayed “Bank of America. Higher Standards.” As the fresh batch MBAs from top business schools walked into the room, the mood was clear. The long-cherished dream of working on The Street (also known as Wall Street) had finally come true for the many aspiring bankers and traders assembled.
As we settled down, my mind flashed back to the yesteryears. As a 9th grader, I was an ardent fan of Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street”. The momentum that was generated 14 years ago had finally met with success. I was one of 13 associates about to start an exciting career in Investment Banking (oh, those big bonuses!) with the Technology and Media group of Bank of America. The Global Head of Investment Banking, Mr. Brian Brille opened his address to the class with the statement, “You are all starting here at a very historic time….” Exhilarating!
Flash ahead-The saxophone loudly played the title music of “The Titanic”. The faces of the people walking out of the building with card board boxes said the story. The moment was historic. September 8th, 2008 – I stood outside the Lehman Brothers building at 745 7th Avenue, as the street artist waved dry erase markers at passers-by, urging them to express “words of gratitude” on his painting of the Lehman Brothers CEO, Mr. Richard Fuld. The excitement was over, the bonuses had evaporated, and two Wall Street giants - Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers - had met their end. The remaining had been severely battered.
It all seemed like a dream. Emotions ran high through my head as I walked past Times Square– disappointment, anger and embarrassment. As the newspapers played into the blame game voicing the opinions of the general public on people working on Wall Street, Wall Street had become something like a criminal’s haven overnight. I felt it when I introduced myself to my neighbor on the Amtrak train, “Oh! You are one of the guys responsible for this mess”, he said with a wry smile. I had my own blame list too, which I used to defend myself. But something did not reconcile. It was true mean, I worked with many of these very people. They were good people – inspiring, driven to succeed, hard working and charitable too. What went wrong?
Over the last few months, some deep thinking , some sobering and heart-felt conversations with empowerment gurus has seemed to provide the much needed answer and possibly a long-term solution to a problem that had always existed through history and now had manifested itself in a different form - the problem of collective greed, or more simply put, greed itself.
It seems like a regular Bible lesson – something that I had learned as a 4 year old kid, too. Only that it took me 24 more years to realize what its unfathomable power can be. As individuals, we don’t seem to think lightly about it in ourselves. When my cousin ardently pointed out that I was being greedy when I took up my job on The Street, I made light out of it, “Well, a little greed does not matter much. After all, there are so manpeople out there who are doing the same. The world will come to a stop if we start thinking so idealistically!”
Greed is an addiction – it starts out as an innocent desire to be comfortable and live comfortably. But somewhere along the way, instead of us controlling money and position, they begin to control and dictate our lives. As my ethics professor at Cornell University once put it, “Watch out when you tell yourself ‘I deserve it’!” And there are hundreds of ways to justify it too – after all logical rationalization seems to be the biggest gift that college education has given us. But as greed grows stronger by the day, fed by our own justifications and inattention, it becomes a way of life.
And when things are going wellgood, it seems too unimportant to notice, as was my case during my brief stint on The Street. We unconsciously became part of a system that has been built oncollective greed (after all the first “commodities” to trade on Wall Street in the early 17th century were human slaves!) and glorified the system when the music is playing well.
But it is when the music stops that reality dawns, of course only after all the anger and frustration has been released and we are ready to honestly look inside our own selves. True, our contribution to this crisis maycould have been insignificant, but if we are not honestly spending time cleansing our own hearts, we just have tomust mentally prepare ourselves for much more of the same. As we vent our frustrations on the Thains, Fulds and Madoffs during of this crisis, it is also important to realize that they were just reflections of the very same greed within our hearts - perhaps only nurtured by more sophisticated and favorable education, power and circumstances than what we may have had. It could have been any of us.
What may be needed in this time of crisis, along with a monetary solution to bail us out of it, is a program to help us monitor, take personal responsibility for and possibly eliminate the greed from our hearts– a Spiritual Stimulus if I may call ityou will. We all want to see this situation change, but to prevent this situation from reoccurring, we need a deeper change. As Mahatma Gandhi wonderfully put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world!” How we do it, time will tell. But let us use this time to at least resolve (unlike our ‘serious’ New Year Resolutions!) to rid our heart of the pollution of greed. It can be a big step in creating a better world for our children.