In 1987, I had the opportunity to work for a very successful independent trading firm in Chicago, IL. I was mesmerized by every thing and every one in that place. I could see these ominous buildings all standing solidly at the end of LaSalle Street as a mere inkling of my understanding as to what it really contained. Wow—what it contained-power, wealth, strength, strategy, and wisdom beyond my wildest dreams. And I wanted it. It was that simple, I wanted it all. For years, I would pass by that building and feel intimidated. I would ask myself if I was worthy and wondered how I could begin to get in front of let alone through the ’golden’ doors? It was a challenge and my awe of the place left me wondering if I could ever live up to my impression.
Until I finally walked through those doors in the Fall of 1987, they had always loomed just out of reach. But, on this day, I knew that it was just a passage to where I thought I had belonged. When I got in, I never realized how different it would make me feel from the vantage point of looking down towards street level at the rest of the world. Even though I was just the smallest part of that new world, it made me feel very good for a second. But for the life of me, I can’t remember why. What I do recall very vividly at that moment is catching a glimpse of a face from below and then turning my back. Suddenly, the pride that I had been experiencing up to that point seemed to diminish and I realized that I did not like myself in that place. My personal reality was that this place offered me a different kind of trading exchange experience that I had not counted on or even considered. On that day at the window, I traded for something better than anything that building or what it represented could offer. Here is how it happened.
Some of you may not remember the significance of October 19, 1987. But it marked the beginning of a whole new data objective across the globe that included placing fail safes in trading so that we would not see what was later to be called “Black Monday” repeated in history. I have to say, my first day of work was the Friday before the big crash and for as much as I was intimidated on that day, the reality of the situation had not fully set in on the Monday when I came in to work after trading closed at 3 pm. The same people that made me slightly stutter and break out into a cold sweat on Friday were now in the elevators trying to sell their BMW’s for some cash to make their margin calls. They even asked their buddies and their enemies who had not been hit so hard to take over their car payments until they could get back on their feet. You see, they had traded on borrowed money and did not actually have the funds to back up their high stakes options.
I was stunned. How could people have been allowed to do that for all these years? It took the trauma of Black Monday to formulate new policies that allowed only smaller percentages of trading on margin to prevent the catastrophic results of that day from recurring again. Many individuals were ruined and several companies who had also traded on high margins simply went out of business.
The harsh reality of the situation was emphasized when the windows in the old section of the building, despite not opening all of the way up on the high floors, were nailed shut by custodial crews to prevent suidice attempts. The new addition of the building that contained an atrium had elevators with relatively low railings and netting was secured to bridge the gap from the rails to the ceiling to present the same. Thankfully, the company that I worked for was only impacted slightly because of their individual proprietary trading positions. A large number of the other firms were not so fortunate.
This was not what I had expected to see at all. What happened to the power, wealth, strength, strategy, and wisdom beyond my wildest dreams? It fell amazingly short of my expectations. But, it was something that I will remember for a very long time. On Black Monday, it was clear that people were in shock as I rode that elevator to my job and watched High/Low stock prices tumble from 80 to 40 with no stock splits in sight. I was overcome by the same feeling that I had when I when I had stood at the window on the firms personal trading floor. What a difference a day makes had a very deep and personal new meaning.
Perhaps it had been my inner spirit or a "gut feeling" telling me that things were going to change in a very abrupt manner. I have since discovered that the world has a way of self-correcting and changing things pretty quickly when it want to. On that day in particular, I felt a direct correlation to the rapid change in this world and an immediate impact on its people. The 'exchange' didn't lose a lot of money. The 'exchange' did not go out of business--people did.
After that, I decided that I did not 'want it all'. Especially since it was very visible how easy it was to lose it. As a people, we still needed to look up to our institutions. But, we could not do so in the hope of making it our only objective. So, I remember that we are all just human and that no matter what, we cannot control everything that may be in our paths. Or for that matter, everything that may be thrown into our paths. But, we can plan better and be realistic in our aspirations and live within our means. I confess that even with this knowledge, it has still been a difficult road to alter my thought patterns after spending so many years looking up towards that ominous building for what I thought would be my answer to every thing. I still believe that there are nice things that I would like to have. But, things should not define who we are to each other.
The exchange buildings survived and surprisingly, so did I in that environment for the next two years. That same independent trading firm was later purchased by a large international bank. And, I have seen my own small fortunes come and go in the decades since and have experienced the same relational mistakes that I should have learned here long ago. Still, there is one item for which I am grateful and will keep in my small pile of treasures-taking the first steps at discovering the value of people over that of static things.