Getting Lucky & The Stock That Changed My Life

“Chance can be thought of as the cards you are dealt in life. Choice is how you play them.”- Ed Thorp

This past week I was on a panel with Abby Joseph Cohen and Liz Ann Sonders. How the hell did that happen? I want to share with you some pieces of my story and how chance was on my side.

My parents got divorced when I was seven years old. My mother never graduated from college and had no marketable skills to rely on in the workplace. So for the rest of her life, she worked hard, making ends meet. In 1996, just a few years after my parents separated, her brother put some of her money into a stock tip he received from a friend. It was a little tiny biotech company called Celgene. Well, it turned out that Celgene was the one. It’s the type of chart that people look at twenty years later and say, “man, I wish somebody told me about that.”

That stock changed my mother’s life and towards the end of it, it gave her so much joy knowing that she would be able to leave some money for myself, my brother and my sister. It’s funny, I spend so much time cautioning people, warning them how hard it is to find that lottery ticket stock and how it’s even harder to hold onto it. And yet here I am, the beneficiary of such a rare event.

Celgene got me interested in finance, although not to the degree with which you think a story like that would. I wasn’t reading annual letters or anything, but I applied and got into the Kelley School of business at Indiana University. But when I was 18 years old, I had no business being on a college campus.  I basically lived there and hung out, eschewing classes. Well that was reflected in my grades, so they kicked me out. Twice.

When I finally graduated from Queens College in 2008, I jumped at the opportunity to work at a financial services (insurance) company in New York City. I felt fortunate that my screw-up hadn’t set me back.

The atmosphere at the agency on Fifth Avenue was very seductive. Here I was, in my early twenties, and I was working around people making serious money. Only the bloom quickly fell off the rose. Nobody was concerned about buying insurance, least of all from an arrogant twenty-three year old who called them and showed up in a suit and slicked back hair. At the time, most people were just worried if they would have a job next month. But there I was, calling and meeting strangers and trying to sell them insurance while telling them “I’m definitely not trying to sell you insurance” (good news, I didn’t sell a single policy). I even told people I was a fiduciary! I didn’t know what that meant, but I heard people around me say it and it sounded smart. Looking back on this time is pretty humiliating, but I was a kid, I didn’t know what I was doing.

And then I met somebody who would change my life.

My dad knew I wasn’t happy so he introduced me to a patient of his, let’s just call him Steve, because that’s actually his real name. Steve is a financial advisor, and I must have made a good impression on him because for the next twelve months, every day, he would send me research reports. I was immediately hooked. I had no idea what PIIGS, meant but I liked it.

So after 18 months and zero policies sold, I “failed out of the business.” I went to work every day at the local library. I had spent my whole life goofing off and I was paying the price. But now I was ready to get serious. So I read and I watched the stock market and tried to learn as much as I could.

A friend of mine at the insurance agency put me in touch with somebody he knew at a local E-Trade branch. The interview went great and I was so excited. After a few days, the general manager called me up and said that there were more qualified candidates, but that he liked my attitude and wanted to take a chance on me. I was on cloud nine.

But I got a call the next day from HR, questioning me about this ding on my credit report. When I got kicked out of college, I had already signed a lease for my sophomore year. So I transferred the lease to somebody who would be living there in my place and covering the rent. But unbeknownst to me, when a few payments were missed and never collected, my name was still on the lease, so my credit got hit.

While E-Trade was looking into exactly what happened, the guy that hired me left and a new general manager was brought in. He never brought me in for an interview. I was crushed.

It would be another almost two years before I met Josh in May, 2012 at the train station of our home town. I’ve been with him and Barry for almost five years now. Wow.

You hear a lot of people talking about the role luck played in their lives, but you can tell when it’s bullshit, when it’s a thin veil of false humility shrouded on top of a giant ego. I definitely work hard and all that, but I know how lucky I am. If I had to list all the things that had to happen for me to get on that stage with Abby and Liz Ann, this post would be 40,000 words.

***

Last year, a funny thing happened. I got an email from a wholesaler that wanted to meet us. The name looked familiar, but I didn’t really think much of it. And when he walked into the office, I immediately recognized him. It was the original general manager from E-Trade that tried to hire me in 2010. It’s a small world.

Video of the Yahoo AMS event

 

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