January 10, 2013

A chance encounter at Goldman Sachs during my junior year at USC changed my life. Until that time, I had planned to go to graduate school to continue studying Psychology. During my junior year, my mother mentioned I had an older cousin who worked at Goldman Sachs. She pleaded with him to let me come down and visit. Once I did I was hooked! After spending a whole day at Goldman, I knew graduate school was out the proverbial window. I just loved the aura on that trading floor, and I loved being around confident executives who so casually, it seemed to me, tossed around $100 million dollar trades. As I note below in the rest of chapter 1, The Beginning, I changed directions and after graduation began my career at Merrill Lynch. It was at that time, unfortunately, I began making decisions that were totally antithetical to my distinguished cousin.

 

Rest of Chapter 1, The Beginning

I was in my early 20s, and I understood that without sports I would have to find another way to earn a living. My father owned a hardware store that had been in the family for three generations. My brother Todd, however, who was studying at UCLA, expressed more interest in carrying on the family business. I had to find something else.

Through a friend of my mother’s, I became intrigued with the brokerage business. I was majoring in psychology at USC. When I told my mother that I was thinking about becoming a stockbroker, she stepped up to help. That was Tallie’s way. She was a wonderful mother, and never missed an opportunity to make my brother and me feel as if our success and happiness were the highest values of her life.

“I have to call your cousin, Richard Levy,” she said. “He’s highly educated and newspapers have reported him as being one of the most successful brokers on Wall Street.”

I’d never met this cousin, yet my mother felt certain he would usher me into the elite world of high finance. Richard, on the other hand, who was a star at Bear Stearns, was underwhelmed with the plea for intervention from my mother. He was based in New York, and he didn’t have the time to tutor a distant cousin who wasn’t even studying in the Ivy Leagues.

“Why don’t you call Todd Goodman,” Richard suggested. “Todd’s right there in Los Angeles. He should have no problem helping your son get started.”

Todd Goodman was another cousin of mine, and he was a money-management legend in his own right. Todd would become the founder of Goodman Investments but at the time my mom called him he was a lead performer in the Los Angeles office of Goldman Sachs. She pleaded with Todd to give me a break. “Have him here by four tomorrow morning. And tell him to wear a suit and tie.”

I was on summer break between my junior and senior year when my mom orchestrated my interview with Todd. Although we had never met previously, I knew of his and his brother Jeff’s success. Both were partners at Goldman Sachs, and they managed portfolios for some of the biggest names in the entertainment business. When I presented myself to the Goldman Sachs offices at four in the morning, I didn’t know what to expect. I found a room bristling with energy and alive with action. Todd stood at the heart of it all.

“So, you’re the baseball player,” Todd said as he sized me up. “Where do you plan on going to business school?”

“I’m not planning on getting an MBA,” I answered. “I want to learn about the brokerage business.”

Todd wasn’t impressed. “What do you mean, you’re not going to business school? You’ve got to get an MBA.”

“I want to be a stockbroker, not an investment banker.”

Todd looked at me as if I were a child complaining about school. “A stockbroker’s nothing more than a salesman. Maybe you should just sell cars.”

“Can’t I just learn about stocks from you for a while?”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to watch you work, to learn about the business a little.”

“Okay,” Todd told me. “You can watch.”

I wouldn’t exactly call my time at Goldman Sachs an internship. Still, my time with Todd certainly convinced me that I wanted to build a career as a stockbroker. I loved the excitement. I sat in the trading room listening to the lingo and feeling myself infected with the adrenaline rush. I watched men screaming orders that had values in the tens of millions into the telephone. Although I didn’t do much more than pour coffee and lick envelopes, I felt the same level of excitement in that room as if I were playing on a team in a stadium with 20,000 screaming baseball fans and national television was broadcasting the game.

On the advice of Todd, I interned at a few other brokerage houses while I was finishing up my final year at USC.  Those efforts paid off. By networking in the industry, I had a few job offers waiting for me once I had my degree in hand. Although Todd’s influence helped me secure an interview with Goldman in New York, I understood that was not enough. Moderately good grades and a baseball pedigree from a California school were not going to get me beyond the first round of interviews at the world’s most prestigious investment bank. As my interviewer told me in no uncertain terms, “Goldman typically hires only from the Ivies, and we only accept students of exceptional distinction.”

Within a week of graduating, I accepted a job offer to work at Merrill Lynch in Orange County.  In order to ensure that I could make it to the office before five each morning, I moved 60 miles south. By the second day I felt miserable. I missed my girlfriend, my family, and my home.

The job required that I stay in the office from well before dawn until after nine each evening.  The job wasn’t even fulfilling.  I hadn’t yet earned my securities license so I was restricted to cold calling and sending out research materials. Other brokers referred to my tasks as paying dues.  Being a team player, I felt willing and eager to give the job all I had. Within weeks, however, the pressures were wreaking havoc on my personal life.

I had graduated college in tip-top physical condition—lean and muscular. That changed quickly after I started my career as a stockbroker. The long hours left zero time for exercise. During the day, I would chow down the catered meals brought into the brokerage house. When I finished in the evening, I gorged myself with more pizza, burgers, or burritos from fast food restaurants. Within months, my weight had ballooned by 30 pounds, none of it muscle.

“You could lose 15 pounds just in your cheeks,” my girlfriend would tease during my weekend trips home.

“What the hell are you doing down there?” My friend, Brad, would look at me with astonishment. Health magazines had given him cover shots as baseball’s most fit athlete. “You’ve only been out of college for a few months, and you already look like an old man. I don’t know what’s going on down in O.C., but you need to mix in a salad once in a while. It’s time to boycott In-and-Out.”

They were right. I was working myself to death and I felt miserable. I studied for my Series Seven exam with the appropriate agency for securities professionals, and I earned my license a few months later.

Once I had my license in hand, I learned the truth about the brokerage business. It was cut throat. Unlike my experience as a baseball player, where men of good character and fairness surrounded me, in the brokerage business I was living amidst deceit, greed, and questionable ethics.

I was only 23-years-old when my supposed sponsoring partners at Merrill Lynch shafted me for commissions to which I was rightfully entitled. From that treachery, I learned that I would have to play by a new set of rules to make it as a broker.

I left Merrill Lynch in anger because I felt cheated out of several thousand dollars of commissions. If neither the firm nor my colleagues would stand by me, I saw no reason to stand by loyally to them.

In retrospect, I recognize that my decision to leave Merrill was one of the first in a series of sliders. I felt my moral character deteriorating. Rather than standing up for fairness, integrity, and discipline, and the other virtues I had been groomed to follow as an athlete, I began my descent to the lowest common denominator in the brokerage business.

Instead of promoting and living by a solid code of ethics, I compromised my own values and ceased to function as a team player. I allowed myself to become influenced by the worst part of the industry, meaning that I thought about my own short-term needs rather than the greater good of the team and a winning season.

It was similar to my decision not to earn an MBA, as my cousin Todd Goodman had urged me to pursue. All of those years committing myself to baseball, I suppose, had taken a toll on my ability to focus on delayed gratification. I felt less inclined to look into the future and commit to further investment of time. I had reached my early 20s and felt ready to get paid.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I came to prison that I began to see those traits. The more than 12 months I spent locked inside the community of felons gave me the space I needed for introspection. By realizing where and how I had gone wrong, I could understand my weaknesses better. That self-awareness made a difference in my adjustment. It gave me better direction for the rest of my life.

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