When I decided to walk away from a 14-year career in investment banking to write a novel, I figured I knew what to expect: a devastating pay cut and the possibility that I would fail to write a good book. What I didn’t realize is just how much banking had already prepared me for the writing life.
To survive and flourish on a trading floor requires endurance and resilience. You need an appetite for risk and hard work, the ability to tolerate uncertainty and frustration—to hold your nerve under intense pressure in volatile markets. Early starts, long days punctuated by bouts of intense concentration, moments of jubilation and despair, and long hours staring at screens. Back ache, sleep deprivation, and moodiness linked to the day’s performance. The best market players are both embedded and objective—great trades are often contrarian and depend on the ability to remain dispassionate. Good writers must cultivate what Nadine Godimer called a “monstrous detachment”—the ability to be completely involved while standing apart.
A market crash teaches you stubbornness and humility. Both are essential in becoming a ruthless critic and editor of your writing, since they allow you to receive feedback, slash your word count, or cut your losses and start over. Survival depends on your ability to cultivate a self-belief that insulates you from hubris and despair. A crisis of confidence will eat away at your soul and your performance. In The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, neuroscientist John Coates (who once worked at Goldman Sachs) describes how a trader’s losing streak can quickly lead to paralysis and an inability to take risk. A few false starts on the novel can lead to writer’s block, the terror of the blank screen, and the fear that you will never write a word again.
You swap the sound and the fury of the crowded trading floor—the phones, the yelling—for a room of your own. On a good day, this is a private paradise; on a bad day, it’s like being chained to a burning lake—alone, and hopelessly in love with a project that is crumbling. But this is not so different from being long and wrong when the Dow tanks. Or short and squeezed when it’s soaring upward.
Except you are never alone on a trading floor. It’s hard to write a novel without spending a lot of time in that room. I can write on public transport, in cafes, the changing room of the gym, and—most recently—at the wheel of my car at night when I was stuck in a snow drift for four hours. But a book is a solo project, and for me this remains the toughest challenge, since I sometimes long for the company of colleagues, the laughter and the shared experience of the deal.
Just as your working conditions are transformed, so too is the texture of time itself. A deal can be done in an instant, but a book will take years. This transition from short term to long term is quite an adjustment. The payoff is the luxury of taking “long looks” at things, and your reward is the intensity of the creative high. Your dopamine level rockets—and you would do pretty much anything for that fix. It’s these rare moments that pull you forward and convince you to keep on writing stories, to keep on trying to “fail better.”
Bankers expect to be measured by a number. Since you operate in an environment of highly visible deliverables, your performance is entirely quantifiable. If you produce revenue you’ll get rewarded—the only question is how much. You also learn very quickly that you are only as good as your last trade.
In an environment where books are increasingly treated as a commodity, the fiction writer is—commercially if not artistically—only as good as his or her last book. Each time you make a sale, your stock rises. You might write a great work that receives glowing reviews but doesn’t sell; if you keep this up you’ll struggle to find a publisher. And although there’s no evidence that the human appetite for stories is waning, it’s getting harder for writers to make money when so much content is free. What’s the price of a good read? This is partly a question about business models, but it’s mostly about the value that we as a society place on the arts.
But the good news is that writers can age very well while bankers may struggle to survive past 40. So if we can stay alive—commercially and artistically—there’s every chance of becoming a better writer. And perhaps while my ex-colleagues fret about inheritance taxes and cortisol overload, I’ll be so busy composing my next line I won’t even notice when the lights go out.