Blessed are they who enjoy the luxury of savouring the taste of hot food after seeing steam rise from their plate. Verily, they belong to a class of people for whom time is no master. One may even say that they are quite privileged. Slave or no slave, much do they differ from the rare breed of women and men we know – personally, for those of us who are so lucky – as investment bankers.
Everyone of us is slave to at least one master in life. And a master no real banker takes lightly is time. It does not forgive, forget or fail.
From the moment an individual seals over his or her commitment to the bank via contract, joins a team and embarks on a journey into the corporate world’s greatest money making establishment, time will define his world. Soon after it may come to change everything about him or her.
Having a young army of energetic souls willing to sacrifice all of their waking hours to the service and pursuit of money certainly adds to an investment bank’s arsenal. However, the organization is able to deliver jaw-dropping results by also simultaneously pushing the limits of human productivity. Before joining an investment bank we see a boy who may be comfortable running around his neighbourhood for a half hour if he paces himself and breathes correctly. A few years into the job we encounter a man whose ambitions only Everest will satisfy. His ability to now achieve much more in a fraction of the time partly due to his growing respect for time.
Rise at 6 in the morning. Shower and dress rapidly. Rush to work. Don’t be late to your morning meeting. Finish the client presentation. Dial in to all the important calls. Meet clients. Send your loved one an I-miss-you SMS. As the list of priorities, tasks and objectives continually rises, so does the need to break down time into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Yet just as it takes time to tame a wild beast, it also takes time to appreciate the gravity of time itself, though of course time is a beast none can tame. Consequently, the uninitiated, in their path to manhood, and unable to shoulder the weight of responsibility in turbulent banking waters, will relegate some everyday things – most take for granted – to oblivion. One of them happens to be hot food.
Think of the appetising meals you enjoy at your pleasure. A warm omelette, an oven-hot slice of margarita pizza, a bowl of boiling pho noodle soup or a steamy chana masala dish. When you start your life as an investment banker, the warmth of these servings suddenly becomes as consequential to you as the perfume a gladiator is asked to wear before entering the arena, surrounded by the masses, sword at hand and ready to fight – to the death – against an equally strong and desperate warrior.
I’m fairly sure I did not eat a single hot meal at my desk my first year at the bank. By the time I finally ate, my food was either cold or it had been on the desk so long that I felt compelled to throw it away. It was practically impossible to go through even half my meals without being interrupted half a dozen times, at best. Seeing colleague’s half-eaten breakfast on their desk well past 8pm was commonplace. Occasionally I’d place a tasty, barely-eaten chicken baguette (lunch) in a drawer in the afternoon only to take it out in the evening before surreptitiously escaping from the desk to a quiet corner visited by none where I could quietly finish my food. Then, even though I’d find myself all alone and had time to slowly finish the remnants of the baguette sandwich I’d devour it like a famished pig because I was paranoid that…something…would arise momentarily. It was unnatural not to be interrupted as long as I was in the building.
You never see a young banker simply enjoying a meal at the desk. Invariably, the homo sapien is simultaneously carrying out at least 2 of the following activities while eating: listening in on a conference call; working on a presentation; reading a research report; building a financial model; sending mischievous messages to one of the cute interns. Not that you were directly told to work while eating but you felt highly pressured to because everyone was doing it. Guilt would rise if you were sitting there taking the time to cut up your meal nicely and take etiquette-friendly bites.
“Would you like some Dijon mustard with that,” asked Bruce with a tone of sarcasm. It was my second week on the desk and a day I chose to have myself a nice hamburger for lunch. I was starving and so I decided to avoid calls – someone else will pick them up – for ten minutes and do nothing but enjoy a good meal. I look up, hamburger still in hand. Big mistake. I didn’t answer him. Just didn’t know how to reply. “How about a side of asparagus? Huh.” It now sinks in that he’s not trying to be funny. “Does this place look like a restaurant to you? I want to see a draft of the South Africa presentation in 15 minutes.” Bruce wanted to see a 30-slide presentation done in 15 minutes. Long story short, that half eaten hamburger was not attended to again until after 11:30pm when it was thrown into the bin.
Time is always ticking nice and loud in a bank. With at least 14 clocks in sight at any one time or in any one place in the building, you were never allowed to forget it.
For newcomers who found themselves in this predicament, eating of a meal was handled in one of two ways: savagery or delay. The first was about eating your meal as quickly as possible, even if it meant looking like an absolute savage from 7,500 BC. Like prisoners given less than a minute to finish a meal before it was taken away, sizeable quantities of food were gulped down as quickly as possible without regard for decorum. For others, a meal would simply serve as desk decoration, sometimes sitting still for hours, until occasional moments arrived throughout the day where a bite or, if very lucky, two could be had. Either way, you never “enjoyed” your meal and rarely enjoyed a “warm” one. In the early years on the job this was standard.
Then there were the few die-hard extremists for whom banking was god and food simply fuel. Though they are outliers in a world of outliers I will briefly touch on their unique ways. Taste mattered very little to them. Their chief concern was to keep going so they could prepare more presentations and reports, faster and faster, without wasting any time. They did not eat as we do. It wasn’t about what they were in the “mood” for. No sir. Theirs was a diet based on vitamins, protein shakes and various meal substitutes they would take with water, at their desk, in order to save time.
Many take warm food for granted.