Some of us may have had the pleasure, or displeasure, of knowing people like Talal. A bullshitter of epic proportions whom everyone knows is a bullshitter, yet who carries on bullshitting without respite because with the passing of time his bullshitting knowhow has evolved and overtaken his capacity to tell fact from fiction.
By way of background Talal was an Egyptian lad who was raised in the US. I met him years ago in Washington DC, before he became an alleged investment banker.
What I recall most from that first encounter was thinking to myself: “My God, this guy is an extreme exaggerator.” What I didn’t give him enough credit for at the time, however, was his creative capacity. Only now, looking back, can I admit that he infused high levels of creative genius into his stories.
The way his brain fabricated these tales should be the subject of a National Geographic feature on the intricate workings of the human brain.
Everybody knows a Talal
In practically every group you’ll find someone like Talal. And they’ll generally exaggerate anywhere between 25-30% away from the truth. Outliers like Talal, however, will occasionally hit 100%+. For instance, someone will ask him how many women he’s been with and, without hesitation, he’ll double where he thinks others in the group would fall. So not only does he fabricate rapidly but he gauges his surrounding, constantly adapting output in accordance to input. A magnificent mind.
His were stories we loved listening to even when we knew they were wholly unfounded. If he accidentally bumped into a cute girl at the bar, excused himself, walked away and reached the group and someone asked him what just happened, he’d reply something to the effect: “Oh, she asked me if I was alone and wanted to have a drink but her breath was kicking like Van Damme so I had to escape.” An innocent kiss on the cheek in the real world translated into wild sex in his matrix.
Initially, Talal used to tell everyone he was Italian. Even though his surname was as Middle Eastern as shawarmas. He figured it would yield better returns with the American girls. As we got to know him better and learned that his only link to Italy was a 1-week family trip to Rome when he was eight, he skilfully preempted any attempt to question him on his nationality and dismissed the whole thing as a joke.
Fast forward some years and we’re both in London working in financial services…
Now you’d expect that as people get older for sense to set in, right? I mean, come on. You can’t keep bullshitting people. Well just the opposite happened with Talal. His stories continued to evolve.
Years later in London
While some of us worked for bulge bracket banks, he was privileged enough to work for a highly specialised boutique none of us had ever heard of. So specialised and secretive was this boutique advisory firm that it did not even have a website. It’s true, there are organizations, especially hedge funds, which display little more than a simple home page on the net. But not only did his company not have a web presence but he only used a generic Gmail account for e-mails. His business card only included his name and Gmail address. “We fly below the radar,” he claimed, while giving me a pathetic attempt at a James Bond look.
What were we to think? We gave him the benefit of the doubt. Talal was an investment banker at a small firm. Fair enough.
Hold on. A proper business card he did not have. A suit he never wore. A corporate credit card we never saw. Specific deals he worked on we never heard much of, apart from the occasional ambiguous reference. What our group of friends knew – correction, what we were told – was that he worked on deals any of us would have killed for, and that’s taking into consideration some of us were working at bulge bracket investment banks. Talal’s daily routine was simply the thing of financial fiction. Fantasy even.
A typical week went something like this. On Monday, he had lunch with the King of Saudi Arabia in his private villa in Marbella. That evening he would fly to Germany to meet with the country’s richest widow whom he was in the habit of “playing chess with on Tuesday evenings.” She would send her private jet to pick him up wherever he was in the world. How did they meet? On a yacht in Cannes one summer evening. Wednesday he was back in London in the office – the only day he was in the office given his schedule. Thursday he would spend in Paris showcasing a trophy hotel asset to a Mexican billionaire. When in Paris he, of course, made time to have dinner with the Latvian model he was dating. He’d have desert if he was lucky. Then, Friday he met with one of the biggest mining investors in London to discuss the sale of an iron ore deposit in Chile he was negotiating.
Basically, when you heard about this guy’s day, you couldn’t keep your jaw from hitting the ground.
Meanwhile, I was building PowerPoint presentations and Excel models day in day out from sunrise to sunrise. Monkey work.
Then, on a day I had off – yes, it can happen – I decided to give him a call as I sat in Starbucks enjoying my coffee and reading the paper. This is how the conversation went:
The ibanker: “Hey Talal, what’s up?”
Talal: “Hey man, not much. Busy busy.”
The ibanker: “Can you chat?”
Talal: “I’m actually in a meeting with the President of Nigeria. I just stepped out to use the bathroom so good timing. Got a few minutes.”
The ibanker: “Christ! What are you doing meeting with the President of Nigeria?”
Talal: “I can’t say.”
The ibanker: “Come on Talal.”
Talal: “Really. It’s confidential.”
The ibanker: “Who am I going to tell? Tell me.”
Talal: “Ok, just keep it to yourself.”
The ibanker: “Of course.”
Talal: “We’re getting his buy-in to help a British oil company acquire the second biggest oil field in Nigeria.”
The ibanker: “Cool.”
Talal: “Yeah. We’re giving him a warm cuddle cause he’s playing hardball. It’s a game. You know how it goes. Wait…I can see him in the conference room now. Looks like he’s getting excited. Our CEO probably invited him to spend a few weeks at his villa in Monaco. Always works.”
I want Talal’s job.
The ibanker: “That’s cool. I’m just sitting here–”
Talal: “Wait, hold on. My CEO is calling me. Let me call you right back.”
I put the phone down and took a sip of my latte. A few seconds later I hear a familiar voice order a coffee. I turned around. It was Talal, wearing a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops. He casually ordered a coffee – yes, in Starbucks - paid the cashier, took his drink and sat down.
What the f@*$!
My phone rang. I answered.
Talal: “Hey, sorry about that. CEO just told me the President has agreed to help us out. What were you saying?”
I’m staring at Talal across the room as he said this and noticed him picking his nose with his left index finger while on the phone.