Bloggers riff on similariites between the music, investment 'biz'

Musicians and investment professionals have a lot in common. But, our resident investment expert claims, to say the best investors, like the best musicians, made it to the top through luck is wrong. Try telling Led Zeppelin they were just lucky, and see what happens. 

Rusty Kennedy/AP
Leadsinger Robert Plant, left, and guitarist Jimmy Page, right, of the British rock band Led Zeppelin perform at the Live Aid concert at Philadelphia's J.F.K. Stadium, on July 13, 1985. Led Zeppelin, like the best investment bankers, did not achieve stardom through mere luck.

One of my favorite financial bloggers, Felix Salmon at Reuters, has a post up that might be my least favorite thing he's every written.  In it, he manages to (inadvertently, I think) insult every hardworking investment professional along with every truly talented artist, musician and writer in less than a dozen paragraphs.  That's quite a feat!

Riffing on a new attention-craving paper by Nassim Taleb (remember when Taleb said was no longer writing about financial markets?), Felix takes issue with the pop-philosopher's gambit that working in investment management is going to get harder because it will be more crowded and dependent on luck.  Contra to Taleb, he says the investment industry is relatively easy to participate in versus breaking through in the arts - where success based on randomness is a naturally occurring force.

While Felix rightly points out that participation in the investment business is shrinking, he wrongly characterizes the industry as a walk in the park in which most workers have it made.

I suppose I have two issues with this:

First, the notion that being in the investment management business carries little risk of failure and is easy belies the fact that thousands are washed out each year after failing to hit firm targets or client expectations.  In the meantime, countless thousands who attempt to break into the industry find themselves competing in a draconian, Hunger Games-esque popularity contest/ Kobayashi Maru exercise with a lottery-like chance of moving forward.

And for the lucky few who can establish a foothold in the business, here is what awaits them: self-medication and whatever the opposite of zen is.  There's a reason the investment industry carries with it elevated instances of drug abuse, divorce, alcoholism, stress-related illness and the like.  And that reason is not that the work is simple and everyone's sitting around waiting for their lucky break.  The handful of practitioners who seem to have found a way to balance success in the industry with a state of overall well-being - your Gross's and your Dalio's - are notable insofar as they have actually done just that.  Talk about black swans, they are black swans who can rollerblade.  The majority of us are losing our hair and our waistlines at a faster rate than many other professionals, let me assure you.

As to the idea that most artists and creative types who break through are merely lucky, I would amend that by saying most mediocre artists who break through are lucky (like Carly Rae Jepsen or Jessica Simpson).  But most truly gifted artists who break out were going to break out no matter what.  And then sometimes an amazing artist or writer or musician who deserves to break through gets unlucky, but this is the exception - it is the reason why we know names like Jeff Buckley and Mitch Hedberg and John Kennedy Toole.  But the cream rises to the top in most cases, while force of will along with undeniable talent plays a significantly larger role than random fortune.  Led Zep wasn't lucky nor was Alicia Keys and the possibility of there being a great many similarly-talented artists who we've not heard of is undoubtedly a slim one.

I doubt I can get Felix to come around on either of these points of dissent, but I think the argument is an important enough one that it merited an opposing point of view.

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