Books

Why I left Goldman Sachs and Paolo Coelho bio- book reviews

When transiting via Hong Kong, one of the good things is being able to browse the book stores in the airport which include several outlets of Relay and Page One. I was able to pick up a couple of books on my last trip. However, I noticed that the prices, when converted from HK$ to US$, aren’t exactly that much cheaper than in Beijing, where I’ve also bought several books over the past year.

The first book I bought in the HK airport was Why I left Goldman Sachs. As the title says, the author, a former GS executive director got fed up of the company and decided to quit. Instead of leaving quietly though, he wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times that got a lot of attention,which is how I first heard of him, and then he wrote this book. He left, not because he was angry about the greed and extravagance, but because of the increasingly exploitative manner that clients were treated, which he found veered toward deliberate deceit and a violation of the firm’s supposed sacred trust it had with its customers.
In a way, it’s almost like how Leonardo DiCaprio’s stockbroker character gleefully conned and made fun of his clients in the movie Wolf of Wall Street. The author Greg Smith had joined the firm right after graduation and spent 8 years working up his way up, so to walk away was a major sacrifice. However, as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, with Wall Street the main culprit with its bogus financial products and tricky trading, Smith became more troubled as he saw colleagues deliberately convincing clients to invest in stocks, futures or other products that they knew were flawed, but profited from. Indeed, the growing culture of greed and deception he describes are what helped cause the financial crisis and the widespread perception of bankers and finance firms out of touch with the real world.

I don’t have a love for the finance industry, but I was intrigued about what’s it like to work in the industry, especially at Goldman Sachs, arguably the best among its investment banking peers. Smith tells us his life story, profiling his entry and rise in the firm. Indeed he shows how the finance industry exists in a different world than the rest of us ordinary people, a world where a bonus along the lines of $100,000 is considered disappointing.
However, I also wanted to know what pushed Smith to make his daring decision to denounce his company publicly, and here, the book disappoints somewhat. Rather than any momentous revelation or conscience, it seems the author gradually got disappointed at the excessive greed among his colleagues and the diminishing of the firm’s “values” and “culture.”
Smith seems like a man with decent morals who did not get caught up in extravagance and excess luxury, despite getting annual bonuses of up to $500,000, though apparently it is not that high for bankers. A South African, he got a direct scholarship to attend Stanford and stayed in the US afterwards, whilst helping fund his siblings’ education and bringing his mother and father to immigrate to the US.

I also recently finished A Warrior’s Life, a biography of Paolo Coelho, the famous Brazilian author who wrote The Alchemist and has sold over 100 million books worldwide. Coelho is a special talent, having literally been a rock star when he was younger in his home country, before going on to be a bestselling author whose books topped lists all over the world. The guy has had an interesting life, having been a playwright and stage actor, being captured by the secret police mysteriously, and dabbling in Satanist worship before breaking free and then getting chosen to join a mysterious Christian “order,” which inspired him to go on quests like  spending 40 days in the Mojave desert in California and the Santiago path pilgrimage in Spain.
Yet to be honest I found the book a bit disappointing. I wasn’t really inspired by Coelho, despite his success and crazy life. He indulged in a lot of irresponsible behavior including running a boy over on a teen joyride and dropping out of school. He was quite reckless when he was young, and as a result, his parents even had him institutionalized several times.
In addition, there were several instances when he exploited naive followers, in one case persuading a guy to write half a book for him for no pay, and in another, taking a guy to Spain to be his personal servant but without giving him any money and forbidding the guy to find other work which Coelho explicitly stated in a contract. To his credit, Coelho is very candid about all this with his biographer and by extension us readers. Rather than a warrior, as the title of his biography says, he seems to have had a lot of luck, privilege and whimsy amplified by his artistic and literary talents. There’s no doubt that he’s a fine writer, but I just didn’t find his life story appealing.

This one, I got in Beijing, for a little over $10 at an English bookstore in the basement of a mall which features a giant LED screen covering the outer courtyard.

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