Staying on track when derailment hits

11 Jan 2017 • by James Irving, CFA

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James Irving, CFA explores the reality of losing your way on the journey to success.

Have you ever suffered a “derailment”? Most people will at some point in their lives. Different people have different backgrounds, so it is not possible to write an article that perfectly matches everyone’s experiences. That said, most CFA charterholders are overachievers, so let me try to write something that is intuitive for our membership.
 
You have generally been successful in what you have set out to do. Maybe that was always likely. Maybe your parents were well off, and this allowed them to provide you with a swathe of opportunities. Maybe, alternatively, you battled your way “in”, to the circle of privilege. Either way, you have long been considered capable, talented, intelligent, hard-working, knowledgeable – or at least that is what people kept saying. Not only did they say it, they were so kind as to give you rather a lot of little pieces of paper to certify the fact (maybe one of these was your CFA Certificate).
 
You kept your scholarships, your degrees, your awards, your certificates somewhere, in a drawer or a den – maybe some of them adorn the walls of your office, your study or your retreat. More importantly, these little pieces of paper certificating your ability to perform (to compete, in the post-agricultural, post-industrial, post-post-modern West) were filed deep in your mind. They act as wedges, preventing wobbles in otherwise unstable constructs such as self-confidence, self-worth, selfrespect, self-recognition of role, etc.
 
Now imagine that one day you suffer a realisation, which spawns cognitive dissonance. The outside world no longer fits with your internal model. Your plans, desires, aims do not map onto reality anymore. The distinction is material. As some point a line was crossed. Perhaps the exact moment of crossing went unnoticed (like a ship steaming in the night over an equator into the unfamiliar hemisphere). Now, however, you are unequivocally, unmistakably, on the other side of the line.
 
As you stare into the sink, watching the water swirling down into the secreted system of pipes, swirling in the wrong direction, you ask yourself the first of the great questions of Russian history: “what’s to be done”?
 
Pressure point
Many people who later became famous, or more precisely infamous, have found themselves on this verge, this cusp. Some worked in finance. Some were traders who had exceeded a limit. Some had run up losses which if disclosed to an employer would likely lead to censure, demotion or dismissal. The details of the specific circumstances encompassed are as varied as the broad swath of experience which abstracted, post-post-modern life permits.
 
How we answer a question like “what’s to be done” at a moment like this will, sometimes, determine both our own ultimate fate, and that of those around us. Some will frankly face and meet the implicit challenge. They will ask the second great question of Russian history: “who’s to blame”? They will honestly admit their mistake. They will approach their senior, explain what has happened and wait for the sky to fall. And they will be rewarded, at least sometimes, with a positive discovery. They will be rewarded with the realisation that it is ok to make mistakes, and to fail; that the courage and character implicit in their disclosure is actually respected by others; that people will, perhaps surprisingly, often do their best to help you when you honestly admit that you are not exclusively high powered cannons and amour plate, but rather that you are as vulnerable as everyone else (after all that).
 
In denial
The other way leads to denial of reality, a denial of the need to come clean, and ultimately a denial of any opportunity for those around you to help you out (or at least to have the opportunity to try to help you out). Depending on the context the results could be minor, or very major. Sometimes, sadly, those who stray find themselves on a death march. One person who experienced something of this nature was Diederik Stapel. He was a Dutch academic psychologist who committed fraud, and who wrote the book Ontsporing (The Derailment) in 2012 about his experiences. It is not possible to do better than to quote his words (in translation):
 

“I’ve spun off, lost my way, crashed and burned; whatever you want to call it. It’s not much fun. I was doing fine, but then I became impatient, overambitious, reckless. I wanted to go faster and better and higher and smarter, all the time. I thought it would help if I just took this one tiny little shortcut, but then I found myself more and more often in completely the wrong lane, and in the end I wasn’t even on the road at all. I left the road where I should have gone straight on, and made my own, spectacular, destructive, fatal accident.

I’ve ruined my life, but that’s not the worst of it. My recklessness left a multiple pile-up in its wake, which caught up almost everyone important to me: my wife and children, my parents and siblings, colleagues, students, my doctoral candidates, the university, psychology, science, all involved, all hurt or damaged to some degree or other. That’s the worst part, and it’s something I’m going to have to learn to live with for the rest of my life, along with the shame and guilt. I’ve got more regrets than hairs on my head, and an infinite amount of time to think about them.”

I would suggest that all financial professionals keep these words in a little file (perhaps the one next to all those certificates of capacity and hard work). The file might be labelled something like “wisdom” (or “the hard-earned wisdom of others”). Add to this file up over time. When in doubt, refer back to it; confirm your bearings and get back on track (with the help of others, if needed).
 
 

By James Irving, CFA
Published: 11 Jan 2017