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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Who's the Man? Part 3

A while back I made the acquaintance of Bob and Doug, two finance pros who were trying to make good in Japan. Later I hired their boss, who I call The Man. Whatever you may think of me, favorable or not, multiply it by ten for The Man. Part 1 and Part 2 of this story are elsewhere; now for part 3:

Years ago, Asian finance was new. It was the wild west, except it was the east. Tremendous fortunes were made and lost and made again as the local cattlehands were home-schooled in sophisticated finance and the big boys in the rest of the world learned the local ropes. The cowboys had crazy rides; some left for the Big Time, but too many ended up on the wrong side of a fight and checked out at Boot Hill.

The Man was one of their titan gunslingers. At first like the rest of them he worked for the money. Later, when he had plenty of money, he didn’t leave for the Big Time like so many others. Instead, he worked for the thrill. And the thrill-seekers were the most deadly gunslingers of all.

The Man had a lifestyle like my recent experiences, but amplified ten, maybe a hundred fold. Ten, almost twenty years ago he was drinking every night, hanging out with the top girls until the morning, taking groups of them home to one of his palatial penthouses. Racing in the mornings in his race car. Chauffered in the evening in his stretch S600. Replicating the penthouse, car, and chauffer lifestyle in four Asian capitols. Business magazine covers and lifestyle interviews, hookers and girlfriends, friends and enemies, deals and parties, they were all blurred and mixed beyond separation in the life of a local God.

Yeah, I could see how one could get hooked on that.

But the rollercoaster goes up and down, and after a few rides he decided he would switch gears every cycle and try something new. To stay fresh. To keep the thrill. And, frankly, the mirror was telling him that he was getting old for the 24 hour cycle of wanton gluttony and lust.

Later he told me he wanted to turn the roller coaster sine wave into a sane wave.

The Man was a local God because of his multiple successes, his resiliency, his support of newer talent, and his commitment to staying in the region. And his spending coupled with his relatively privacy might have had something to do with it also.

But he was looking for something new to do. Maybe it was something more meaningful. Maybe it was the next level of money making. Maybe it was a family. It had to be something, right?

But what was it?

SIDEBAR: Mid-life Crises When You Have It All

One could rightly wonder: how the hell can you have a midlife crisis if you are The Man? Why hop off the platinum rocket ride for a life of marriage, kids, and a severely reduced lifestyle?

I understand this.

There is a lack of depth in the ride. Like channel surfing through 1000 channels of entertainment, there is much to see and much to do, but little feeling. The constant pace and change overloads the senses and ultimately dulls their ability to feel. Like a drug habit, it takes more and more to engage the novelty receptors until, at some point, you become a mannikin in the display case of excess, draped in riches but feeling nothing. Nihilism through excess, a paradox to be sure.

When you are defined by your objects rather than your attributes, well, that is when you have lost your compass. Later when you find that your attributes support your objects rather than your objects supporting your attributes... that is when you are truly lost.

His old retired mentor had recommended a talk with Mr. F. And Mr. F had an interesting proposition to offer. The Man asked his top people to check out Mr. F, and they had only confusing data to report. A Man of Mystery. The Man thought he was familiar with most forms of financial success. Did Mr. F represent something new? It was intriguing. And The Man was curious.

So... Mr. F. had stymied The Man’s ordinary diligence and his henchmen. So it was time to meet him face to face. Not the typical Asian way — with support staff and sycophants and hangers-on crowding the meeting — no, a real one on one meeting in the classic James Bond 007 tradition. To see what happens when you combine a Man of Mystery with The Man.

As I flew over Virgin Gorda I cursed the lack of runways sufficiently long for a long-range jet at Beef Island or Virgin Gorda. Why didn’t Branson put a real runway on Necker Island?

I was going to meet The Man in the British Virgin Islands, a haven for the tax free rich. The Virgin Islands were so named by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. The name was in recognition of the legend of St. Ursula, which claimed she was a British princess who travelled all over Europe with 11,000 virgin maids before being slain by the Huns and later becoming the patron saint of students. I should be so lucky.

This was a mano a mano meeting, Fight Club rules. Ok, so I am now breaking the first two rules. But the fight was going to be shirtless and shoeless.

The rules were set by a CEO friend of The Man. He only accompanied me as far as the port and then left me to go alone. I was little surprised that The Man could use this CEO as a gofer. I later found out that the Man controlled this CEO’s company, in fact bailed the CEO out of a life-threatening situation, although this was not common knowledge.

So there we were — shirtless and shoeless, relaxed on the beach, meeting for the first time.

There are strategies for fights with unknown oppononents. One known strategem is from The Thirty-Six Strategies, an ancient Asian text similar to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Broadly speaking it covers a variety of cases with almost mystically ambiguous epigrammatic prose. Only some of these apply to confrontations with largely unknown agenda. But like any fight, such confrontations reply upon circling to assess both the opponent and the situation mixed in with posturing, feints, attacks and counterattacks, and building up verbal referents for future defense and offense.

Unlike Fight Club, this will be entirely fought with words and psychology. It is verbal sparring.

One of my favorite strategies for verbal sparring is number 8, where you attack with both an obvious and a subtle force, the revelation of the latter causing last-minute confusion in the enemy. Unlike physical forces, however, this strategy is even more powerful in verbal sparring since you can launch a multitude of attacks at very little incremental cost. This in turn allows strategy 8 to be mixed with strategies 6 (feint in the east, attack in the west) and 7 (make something from nothing), as well as 11 (sacrifice the plum in favor of the peach) and 13 (scare the snake — hey, didn’t I tell you they were ambiguous?). I love verbal repartee laced with layered and subtle complexity. But this works when you feel you have an intrinsic advantage in creating and/or dealing with complexity. The Man can keep much detail in his head simultaneously; he is famous for keeping very little documentation.

My next favorite grouping is strategies 20 and 25, wherein you create confusion and break effective routines with unusual or strange behaviors. I like this grouping for business meetings. I used it along with strategy 31 (the beautiful woman trap) when I met Bob and Doug, and on several other meetings blogged elsewhere, but I knew this would not work against a razor focused opponent like The Man.

(Of course, as you can tell, my very top strategy is number 35, which is to mix together strategies.)

The Man knows these strategies as well as I. Perhaps better, in fact, as he has negotiated far more deals in adversity than have I. It would be foolish for me to assume he is rusty.

Perhaps the only place I might have an advantage is in honesty. In straight out factual analysis and sensibilities. In rationality based on truth. He probably has never tried that!

What the hell? Why not try the very relationship philosophy I have been practicing in personal relationships, but with a business relationship? Explicit rules and truth. And a three party relationship. They require commitment and shared experience, rule generation, but mostly pride to reinforce it. The Man clearly liked rules. The shared experience was something I could propose. And pride was something we both had in plenty, but could he do the key trick, which was to sublimate little self-prides under the pride in overall success?

So I throw caution to the wind and lay it all out. No tricks, no traps, no feints. The rules of the road up front, the explicit disclosure of the contradictions, a shared plan, and a commitment to a relationship overall.

The Man was fascinated. Day turned to dusk. Dusk turned to night. He was incredibly interested in my description of this process, the biology, the sociology, the research and my personal experiences. The relationship to Asian and Western culture and systems of business. It clearly resonated at a fundamental level for him. Here was a novel approach in a world that was growing too ordinary and uniform when seen through his jaded eyes.

We arrived prepared for a fight. We exit as partners building a shared experience.

But I wonder:

1) To what extent will our shared experiences be based on his hedonistic life?

2) Oddly, half of the Fight Club Project Mayhem rules overlap with mine. Would this endeavor be as destructive as Project Mayhem? Or

3) Will The Man, as I advised him, map his sane wave to his circle of life?


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