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