All You Have to do is Ask

The guy laughed right in my face. “You have no business card.  You’re not dressed in a suit. Your official office phone is a cell phone number, and you have no marketing materials for me to take home and look at.” The man talking to me had a bright red sweater and silver gray hair. We were eating in a steakhouse right off of 54th and 5th.

Half the people in the steakhouse were like me: someone was raising money. The other half were rich people, enjoying the privileges they had earned. The poorer people were going to pick up all the tabs.

I sat there feeling bad about myself. Feeling like I was faking my way through life, again, and just once more wanting people to give me a chance.

“And yet,” the man said, “you want me to invest money with you.”

Four years later the man killed himself because he lost a lot of money with Bernie Madoff.  It almost sounds like a cliché as I write about it. He used a noose instead of shooting himself in the head or taking pills. How did he decide that? All suicides are sad. I try to picture what his last thoughts might have been. He was once a little boy. His mother loved him. When he was a boy he laughed at jokes about farts and he ran around and played in a sandbox. Like we all still want to do even as adults.

When we were having our steak lunch it was in 2005 or maybe 2004. Who remembers those years? The middle years. Between 9/11 and 2008. What happened then? Nothing. I ran a fund of hedge funds. Who cares anymore?

Howard J introduced the two of us. Four years later, in 2009 Howard said to me in the hallway of the Safra building (Edmund Safra being another man who died horribly: either murder, suicde, accidental fire, or all of the above), “Jimmy,” Howard said to me,  “what are you going to do? The guy was 70. He played golf every day at the most expensive golf club in Long Island, and then  he had $0 in the bank. Life is over.”

Back to 2005. The guy with the bright red sweater pointed his fork at me. He wanted to teach me a lesson. He was chewing his steak. “You need to get your act together.”

And this future suicide was right. I had no “act”. I’m not a good actor. Now, I feel bad for him. But afterwards I was a little upset. I called up Howard after that lunch and I was upset with him. “Howard, pre-qualify these guys a little better next time. I just wasted 90 minutes and $100 so I could listen to you guys going on about flyfishing. The guy didn’t even shake my hand good-bye.”

I do need an “act”. I like to sit at home, even on beautiful sunny days. I don’t like to go to meetings. I never return phone calls. I rarely return emails. I refuse all LinkedIn requests (how many social networks does one guy need? But I like facebook and twitter and I used to like Quora). I just turned down a request to manage a $30mm managed account because it would involve me being on the phone a lot. Three different groups of people told me I can make a lot of money doing an investment newsletter but I refused all of them.

I like to spend time with friends. But I’m asleep before dinner so that usually rules that out. I like to spend time with people I love and who love me.

Some lessons I learned:

A)  I’m too judgemental. I didn’t like that guy in the red sweater. But now he’s dead by his own hand. Not only that, it turns out they found most of the money. All of Madoff’s customers are probably getting their initial money back. He didn’t have to kill himself. And he’s probably not a bad guy. He was proud of his success and wanted to teach me a lesson.

B) Every day is a story. I asked Howard J to qualify his lunches a little better. But it wasn’t that bad. It was a story I could tell now.

C) Learn from everyone. I should’ve tried to learn more from the guy. How did he make his money? I could’ve learned something and instead passed up a valuable opportunity. How often each day do I pass up valuable opportunities to improve myself? My new rule is: if I recognize a meeting is not turning out the way I want, then try to learn at least one thing from the meeting.

D) Less needs = more happiness. Last month, Howard J called me up for the first time in a long time. We spoke for awhile. He said, “Jimmy, few men under the age of sixty realize that they don’t need a hundred million dollars to be happy. It’s an important lesson to learn.”


Another Howard J story. In 2004, we were standing in a park downtown, doing nothing. Howard is in  his 50s. An ok looking guy but doesn’t stand out in a crowd. “Jimmy,” he said to me (and he’s the only person who calls me Jimmy), “I can walk up to any girl and get their phone number.”

I pointed out a girl that seemed way beyond his league. He walked up to her and started talking. Within seconds she was laughing. He waved me over. She was smiling. He had his business card out. She was writing her phone number on the back. “See, Jimmy. All you have to do is ask.”  She laughed at that also and, smiling, handed over her phone number to Howard. A few months from now they are getting married.

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