The beauty about a non-fiction book – versus a news segment, documentary or even a podcast series – is that it has almost unlimited ability to explore the nuts and bolts behind what we end up seeing in news headlines. We learn about crucial characters, circumstances and preceding events, without which the main story would never have happened. In a good book, these “pre-cursors” often prove far more fascinating than the so-called main events.
One of my favourite non-fiction writers is Michael Lewis, author of the books behind the hit Hollywood films Money Ball (where Jonah Hill as Peter Brand convinces Brad Pitt as coach of the Oakland Athletics baseball team to construct a team based of a statistical model) and The Big Short (Christian Bale playing the unhinged, drum-whacking hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who foresees the collapse of the US sub-prime housing market and goes all-in).
Lewis has a knack for uncovering compelling real-life examples of against-the-grain ingenuity in scenarios the narrative potential of which we might otherwise dismiss (e.g. baseball competitions).
My favourite story of Lewis’ is Flashboys – an exploration of the world of “high-frequency” share traders who use cutting-edge technology to exploit loopholes in the rules of stock exchanges (where shares in companies are traded) to effectively get a small piece of the huge trades which routinely occur between the world’s biggest financial institutions.
The main plot in Flashboys involves the banding together bit of a motley crew of talented finance professionals, who take issue with the fact that high-frequency traders skim profits from transactions – often being made on behalf of superannuation/pension fund members or “mum and dad” investors – without adding any value themselves.
And with this shared passion, the group are motivated to build a new stock exchange from the ground up, to inhibit this dubious practice and, in doing so, effectively provide a cheaper a service to the market. They call it ‘IEX’.
The reason I’ve been reflecting on the story of the founding of IEX is that, according to Flashboys, the majority of its founding members had a major formative experience in common. Each was profoundly impacted by the 9-11 terrorist attacks in a personally devastating sense. This is probably not surprising when you consider the tenants of the twin-towers at the time of the attacks included some of the world’s biggest banks and offices of the New York Stock Exchange.
But despite this potentially life-ruining trauma, this group of individuals were somehow not broken but instead galvanised, and achieved something extraordinary. The building of IEX was seemingly a result of them having obtained a new perspective on their lives in finance. Yes, 9-11 rocked these guys to the core. But in doing so, I reckon it stripped from them a lot of the arcane conditioning (i.e. bullshit beliefs and habits) they had picked up along the way. Like we all do. Fear. Self-doubt. Complacency. Entitlement. Procrastination. People pleasing….
What happens when you take all those things away? You’ve still got skills and capabilities. But your guided by your core values and beliefs. In the case of the guys who built IEX, we see a marriage of high-level finance capabilities with the value of fairness and a belief that financial markets should better serve those who ultimately own the assets. And that marriage yields an impressive system with the potential to forever disrupt the nature of stock exchanges.
The consequences of COVID-19 will undoubtedly rock a lot of us to our core. The threat to our health. The social isolation. Lost jobs and wealth. It seems like no aspect of our lives will be untouched. And granted, it might take some time for us to collectively find our groove again, even when the immediacy of the threat to our health has subsided.
But we can take solace in the fact that whatever the extent of this crisis, we won’t be robbed of our core beliefs and values. Nor will we lose our natural abilities, skills and experience (even if they do develop a few cobwebs along the way). We might however, shed a lot of our learned, often self-destructive conditioning – if only temporarily. And with that, we might just see a period where we apply our extraordinary modern skills in accordance with our collective essence.
Given the current state of the world, even pre-COVID, this period could prove humanity-defining.