Reducing the Costs of Our Faustian Bargains

2012 by Garza

One thing the financial meltdown has done is give us some good books and a decent movie that, collectively, depict the high-stakes lives of investment bankers. Read Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, or watch Margin Call, the story of the last 24 hours of existence of a fictional investment bank having some resemblance to Lehman Brothers, and you get an idea of the demands the investment banking industry places on the lives of its professionals.

An article yesterday about investment bankers on page C-1 of The Wall Street Journal brings real meaning to the version of their lives we find in books and movies. The subject of the article is a soon-to-be-published longitudinal study by Dr. Alexandra Michel, an assistant management professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshal School of Business, who followed the lives of approximately two dozen investment bankers over a period of about 10 years.

It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, the Journal’s article reveals a modern-day Faustian bargain. Like so many other bright young people who join investment banks each year, these talented engineers of finance virtually surrendered control of their lives to their employer and, no doubt, to a collection of uncompromising managing directors. And, in exchange, they received big salaries, a constant stream of limousines and fine food and other perks paid for by the firms or their clients, an opportunity to work on exciting projects and rub elbows with titans of business, and, one assumes, the possibility of unimaginable wealth for those who successfully run the gauntlet.

Dr. Michel’s study focuses attention on the physical and emotional costs to the bankers of their bargain. According to the Journal, every banker she observed developed some sort of stress-related physical or emotional ailment after being on the job for a few years. By the fourth year, some developed allergies and substance addictions. Others had conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders. The study also reported insomnia, alcoholism, heart palpitations, eating disorders and explosive tempers.

I doubt Dr. Michel wants us to feel sorry for the investment banking profession. Few who sign up for this way of life are taken by surprise. But the article raises a question for any professional or executive who is expected to perform at a high level under conditions of high stress: What can I do to reduce the consequences of stress, to minimize the costs of my Faustian bargain?

Performance experts Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 2001 that answers the question. In “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” Loehr and Schwartz borrow from what they learned working with professional athletes to theorize that achieving peak performance in the office requires you to get in shape. And getting in shape means building up your capacity in four critical areas: body, emotions, mind and spirit.

Body. Your body is the foundation of your ability to think clearly and manage your emotions under stress. Stress breaks down the body, and the professional or executive who doesn’t take steps to renew himself or herself physically is missing an opportunity to achieve optimal performance. Focus on getting sleep. Replace bad eating habits with better ones. Build into your schedule time for regular exercise.

Emotions. Anxiety, worry, temper tantrums and other forms of distress affect performance. You have to build up your emotional capacity to avoid the energy drain that comes from negative emotions. Learn to identify the onset of negative emotions, and then follow Loehr and Schwartz’s suggestions for managing them. It’s really about building an all-important component of your emotional intelligence or EQ.

Mind. Your cognitive capacity, of course, is critical. It’s important to build in recovery times during the day to stay mentally sharp. Loehr and Schwartz suggest taking a couple of short (15 minute) breaks during the day. You might even build into your day a regular (and brief) meditation practice. These and other tools offered by Loehr and Schwartz are valuable ways to keep your mental edge.

Spirit. Finally, to sustain your motivation in the long term, you need to tap into your sense of purpose, your deepest values that give you direction in life – what Loehr and Schwartz call spiritual capacity. Taking time for reflection and learning to connect what you are doing in your work with your deeply held values are keys to long-term performance and a greater sense of well-being.

This isn’t easy work. It takes discipline and mindfulness. Fortunately, the high performing professional or executive already has these traits or can acquire them.

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