Zen and the art of fund management

Bankers are apparently turning to transcendental meditation to alleviate the otherwise intolerable stress of their work. Poor lambs. Michael Lewis, the famed chronicler of Wall Street excess, suggests some more, shall we say, appropriate ways for masters of the universe to unwind

I'd like to start by making a confession: it's never been easy being me. Managing billions of dollars of other people's money and countless millions of my own has been highly stressful.

There was a time when I thought my anxiety, not to mention the investigations of my affairs by various US government authorities, might break me – and so, on the advice my attorneys, I took some time off. That period of my life, thankfully, is now over. But I discovered that I'm not the only extremely distinguished Wall Street trader whose life is more difficult than ordinary people understand. Looking over the stories that people have been emailing to one another over the past few months, I see the anxiety of financiers hitting new highs: old bankers have been killing themselves. Young bankers, burned out by their 90-hours-a-week jobs, have been quitting in droves to work for start-ups; hedge-fund managers are now telling the public that the stock market feels so dangerous that they are selling their holdings and going into cash. The most widely circulated horror story was about people giving up golf. Apparently, Wall Street guys have been fleeing their game because their anxiety has them feeling they need to text all the time and they can't free up their hands long enough to swing the club. It's like we've all become teenage girls.

So maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised that the story that got all of Wall Street's attention was about a hot new stress reduction strategy: transcendental meditation.

Several of my esteemed hedge-fund colleagues apparently actually do this. David Ford told Bloomberg Pursuits that his mantra helped him make a killing in the emerging markets crash – and he isn't alone.

"Ford is part of a growing number of Wall Street traders, including A-list hedge-fund managers Ray Dalio, Paul Tudor Jones and Michael Novogratz, who are fine-tuning their brains – and upping their games – with meditation," said the story, which went on to say that the TM classes at Goldman have a waiting list of hundreds.

Personally, I would find it stressful, if I worked at Goldman Sachs (which, thank God, I don't!) to be on a waiting list for anything. Why can't they just buy as many gurus as they need? But I digress. The point of this crazy meditation article was how much money a guy can make these days just from staying calm.

"Meditation used to have this reputation as a hippie thing for people who speak in a particularly soft tone of voice," a meditation expert explains, to correct the popular misperception. "Samurai practiced meditation to become more effective killers. It's value neutral."

I'm a big believer in value neutrality. I also get that the new way to get an edge in the markets is to trick your brain into no longer worrying about whether you have an edge – and just letting the intuition fly. The problem is that there's no way meditating can give you a competitive advantage if everyone in the financial markets is already meditating. How can there be any edge left in doing whatever hundreds of grunts inside Goldman Sachs are already lining up to do?

Any hedge-fund manager who wants to pursue the calming strategy obviously needs new, superior, stress-relieving techniques, unknown to the weaker individuals whose anxiety he seeks to exploit. Here are a few secret strategies, unknown to the larger investing public, used by only the most successful hedge-fund managers, myself included. To begin:

Find a fat kid and sit on him

Fat kids aren't as thick on the ground in Manhattan since the soda ban was proposed, so you might need to get driven to a Jersey suburb. Identify some serious waddler, follow him until he is on his own, then leap from your limo, toss him on the ground and sit on him.

"A lot of people think that sitting on fat kids is just a mean thing done only by high school bullies," says one hedge-fund trader – who, like many extremely successful hedge-fund managers, struggled with his appetites when he was himself a child. "That totally misses the point of sitting on a fat kid. The act itself – of hurling a little fat kid being to the ground and using him as a human stool – is terribly relaxing. And it's value neutral, especially after the kid stops screaming. Once you realise that you can literally sit on your own past, and subdue it, you cease to worry about whatever it is you have just done with other people's money." This strategy comes with the small risk that some police officer witnesses the scene and fails to understand your actions. Relax! For those who don't have the nerve to publicly sit on a fat kid for a few minutes, there are other state-of-the-art calming strategies. Such as...

Identify people who have no hope in life and use their distress to soothe your own

One serious hedge-fund guy who just shorted a huge number of French government bonds told me that, when the pressure of his trade gets too overwhelming, he just goes to his local hospital and checks himself into a cancer ward. Obviously, he doesn't have cancer; he just uses the people who do, to put his position into deep perspective. (And, of course, offers to donate the money for a new wing to the hospital, in exchange for the bed.) "I don't know why," he says, "but it just makes me feel at peace with myself, and all my trades, to be surrounded by people who are seriously worse off than I am. It makes me feel good about my situation, even when my investors just asked me to cut my management fee. There really is no problem so big that a trip to the hospital doesn't solve it."

But be warned: this strategy isn't for everyone. As one of my colleagues put it: "Eventually you just get used to the fact that pretty much everyone in the world has it worse than you do, and so the juice goes out of it. In the presence of other human beings, you just feel numb – because you have nothing in common with them. I tried hanging around with sick animals and even some fish, but they never worked as well."

A few extremely successful Wall Street guys even claim this particular calming strategy has led to negative psychological returns.

"Surrounded by people who don't know how long they have to live just emphasises how serious the pressures are on me," as one trader put it. "Because my problems are much more relentless. When you have terminal cancer, you probably aren't in these markets, and so you don't have to face the harsh reality that your net worth is on the line every day."

Which brings me to the third strategy:

Find someone who can help you to see the humour in your problems

I can already hear a lot of guys thinking, "But there is no humour in my problems." The answer is to cast your mind back in human history and ask: who in the past most resembles you, in the seriousness of their emotional and psychological trials? To ask the question is to answer it: monarchs. The rulers of nations also shared our biggest source of stress: that no one dared make light of them. They, like us, were surrounded by courtiers and toadies and liars; they, like us, faced both the love and the hostility of an entire society. But they found a way to cope with their stress: a lowly but witty person who could serve as their Fool. Every extremely successful financier, like every king, can benefit from employing a court jester.

This person's job is to find the humour in you and your problems. Of course, he will usually fail to do so, because there is nothing the slightest bit ridiculous about you or your problems. But his failure in itself you will find calming. And you can pay him next to nothing.

In the end, we who sit on top of the financial world all need to remember that anxiety is a relative thing. The best among us realise that it doesn't matter how much of it we feel, so long as everyone else in the financial markets feels more of it. And so if you don't have the stomach for these cutting-edge stress-relieving strategies, you can always just give up trying to reduce your own stress, and instead create more stress for other people. Stage a raid on some unsuspecting company, or just go on TV and say you're getting the hell out of the markets and putting everything into cash. It's a less original solution, but it totally works. µ

This article first appeared in Bloomberg View. Michael Lewis is the author of the bestselling book "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt".

general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before