What “The Big Short” Can Teach Us About Passion & Drive

If you haven’t yet watched the movie The Big Short, I highly recommend it, but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, the movie is about the 2008/2009 financial crisis and, despite my love of calling out Big Banks, that’s not why I think the film is an important one. 

What secondary theme am I loving here? Workers as volunteers.

That’s right. The most effective characters—Michael Burry and Mark Baum—volunteer to do the right thing: bring down the big banks at their own game. Their sources of personal motivation may have been diametrically opposed, but their goal was the same: to win a big payoff from the greedy institutions who created the crisis in the first place.

It’s Wasn't About The Money

The story was about drive and passion. Neither character was doing it just for the money. Let me explain why by first introducing the two characters I'm focusing on (there are others):

Dr. Michael Burry

His obsession with personal honesty was a cousin to his obsession with fairness…His ability to focus set him apart even from other medical students.
— Description of Dr. Burry, p. 33-4 The Big Short by Michael Lewis

He's a genius neurologist who accidentally turned hedge fund manager thanks to his investment blog. He loves his work in the financial sector so much that he digs into the minutia because it fascinates him. One look at him—he looks like a dishevelled beach bum squatting in a banker’s office—tells you he’s driven by the thrill of uncovering opportunities, usually in stocks, that others have overlooked. He’s not about the power and the money.

Like an archeologist, he wants to find and excavate the unheard of, neglected opportunities. He's the one to discover that highly-rated Mortgage-backed Securities (MBSs) are made up of bad loans, yet no one selling them seems to fully understands them because they're too busy making money to care. So he bets against them by asking banks to create Credit Default Swaps to enable him to bet against the housing market.

Mark Baum

Instead of money, [he] attracted people, whose views of the world were as shaded as his own…All of them enjoyed, immensely, the idea of running money with [him]. Working with [him], you never felt you were working for [him]. He’d teach you but he wouldn’t supervise you.
— Description of Baum [Eisman], p. 22-23 The Big Short by Michael Lewis

He’s a fund manager, and a consumer advocate of sorts, who hears about the status of MBSs and verifies it, not by diving deep into spreadsheets like Burry, but with feet on the street. He and his team witness the slumping housing market first hand by visiting developments and attending a the American Securitization Forum. They uncover an alarming increase in late payments and foreclosures, mass speculation/delusion associated with the expectation that housing prices will continue to rise, real estate investing moving to fringe investors—usually the last to invest before a bubble bursts.

It was the golden rule. The people who have the gold make the rules.
— Quote from Baum [Eisman], p. 25, The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Making money is not like I thought it would be. This business kills the part of life that is essential, that has nothing to do with business. For the past 2 years my insides have felt like they’ve been eating themselves. Most people won’t talk to me anymore, except through lawyers. People want an authority to tell them how to value things, but they choose this authority not based on facts or results. They choose it because it seems authoritative and familiar. I’ve never been authoritative or familiar.
— Excerpt of Burry letter to Scion Capital investors

He’s disgusted by the industry and wants justice for the average American who gets fleeced by the financial industry and he sees his opportunity to get them to feel a little pain for a change by investing in Credit Default Swaps, essentially betting against Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), which are made up of MBSs. He is on a mea-culpa-fuelled quest, driven by remorse over his past behaviour and decisions, all made in the name of money and devoid of empathy.

Burry and Baum do what they do because they have a deep desire to do something significant. They want to win at what they do but winning isn’t about the money. It’s about getting it right, even if they could be vilified in the process. In this sense, they’re driven from the inside out. Money is a secondary consideration, far behind their own personal drive ignited and sustained by the intangible. That’s what makes them amazing.

Characteristics of the Best Performers

We love these guys because they represent the best of what we seek in others and want to find in ourselves. That is, when money isn’t a significant part of the equation.

As business realizes that its best people are really volunteers, there because they want to be, not because they have to, the model of the voluntary agencies may become increasingly relevant.
— p. 184 - The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy
‘All our best workers are volunteers.’

’The only people who work this hard are people who want to.’
— Netscape and Microsoft describing their workers, as quoted in The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy

The best employees are essentially volunteers, there because they want to be there, not because they have to be. Not worrying about your job or money or power means you focus on what matters: making a difference, having a purpose, finding meaning in what you do. It means you speak up when something doesn’t seem right. It means you do work you love, not work you have to do.

Talented individuals don’t like to be ‘human resources’, or to be managed. They prefer to be led by someone they respect.
— p. 163, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy

It also means you don’t differentiate a great deal between work and play because it’s all good to you. You want to be at the office. You want to contribute. You want to be part of the team and work to make the whole team better off. Your colleagues are collaborators, not competitors. You’re not scared of making mistakes, if anything, you fear stalling in your personal and professional growth. And I don’t mean promotions here, I’m talking about being fuelled by intrinsic motivators.

When you operate this way, you don’t look for the carrots or fear the sticks. You fear the day you stop caring or stop thinking deeply about opportunities and problems that present themselves, no matter where you are in the organization.

And this is a win/win for the employee and the employer because who doesn’t want someone who behaves like the above? So why, as employers, do we keep using carrots and sticks? Why as employees do we keep seeking them out or avoiding them?

Senior management’s job is to pay people. If they fu*k a hundred guys out of a hundred grand each, that’s a million more for them. They have four categories: happy, satisfied, dissatisfied, disgusted. If they hit happy, they’ve screwed up: They never want you happy. On the other hand, they don’t want you so disgusted you quit. The sweet spot is somewhere between dissatisfied and disgusted.
— Quote from character Greg Lippman, p. 63 of The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Because we think that money is what makes the world go round. And it does, to a point. It gets the world spinning alright but what builds momentum is personal drive and that can’t effectively be bought in a knowledge economy. The ones who are truly good at what they do and who sustain performance do it because they want to, not because they have to. This fact holds true in school, in work and in life in general. 

Developing Immunity

Being mindful of the above, we need to immunize ourselves against the carrot-and-stick environments with the following:

Our self-respect is a fragile thing, even if we pretend otherwise — damage it and we cease to listen.
— p. 136, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy
‘Enough’ now is essential for ‘more’ in the future, provided you know where that future is. Greed can get in the way of growth. Citizens want a future as well as present dividends.
— p. 199, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy
  • Savings (liquid courage) that offer the required peace of mind to allow us to speak up and/or walk away, or a lack of fear around financial insecurity that allows us to do the same
  • Continuous learning that keeps us curious, sharp and able to move on when we feel the itch
  • Empathy, which makes us never forget that we are members of the human kind (be human, be kind)
  • Gratitude to remind ourselves of just how lucky we are to have what we have and to get to do what we do
  • Community and family that tells us we are more than what we do for a living, that humanizes us
  • Enough self-respect to know that we’re “enough” even if we walk away from a prestigious post, that we need to live our values and resist doing what we know deep down is wrong or simply wrong for us

I loved the movie so much that I watched it twice and I've secured the book by the same title and I’ll be reading it shortly.

I hope to find a similar theme within its pages, and it’ll be even better if it contains some of the characters’ inner thoughts as they happened.

What do you think of the above? Can you relate? Do you seek fulfillment beyond the paycheque? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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