The Virginia Curveball

Sometimes life can throw you some curveballs. You expect it. It’s the fastballs that get you, though. The high heat an inch from the tip of your nose that makes your life flash before your eyes. Those are the ones that knock you on your ass.

Two weeks after we got to Virginia, my wife realizes she’s pregnant. High heat!

It threw us for a serious loop that we’re only now coming out of. For those wondering how the hell I ended up working as a Financial Advisor, there you go. The call came out of nowhere – a recruiting call via Monster.com – and I was made an offer two weeks later and it came with immediate benefits. The pay sucked but there was that whole building your own business angle that was appealing. It meant paying some serious dues the first couple of years but, with a baby on the way and one $1000 trip to the ER under our belt, beggars can’t be choosers. Besides, I’m always up for a challenge and the daunting task of getting three licenses – Series 7, 66 and Life & Health – in 12 weeks ranked up there with the best of them.

The exams were a bitch, probably the toughest I’d ever crammed for, but I got through them solidly, scoring 87, 85 and 86, though I forget which were which. Not bad for having ZERO prior financial experience. Their training resources were everything they said they’d be. Unfortunately, that’s about all that was.

“Mind of a capitalist, heart of a social worker.” This was the catchphrase that caught my attention in the career briefing and I bit hook, line and sinker. The danger of needing something to believe in and not having a “God” to do the deed. The idea of helping people with their finances was extremely appealing, especially after the amount of knowledge I’d attained in the first 12 weeks. A whole new world had opened up to me and I wanted to bring other people into it. I was like a newly converted missionary off to save the masses.

I can’t say that I didn’t know it was going to be a sales job, because I did. What I didn’t realize was what a suck-ass sales job it was going to be. I had no idea it would be so difficult to make people understand the need to save money and protect themselves. It’s not like I was Vin Diesel in Boiler Room, scaring little old ladies into investing their life savings into Endrun or WorldCon. I was pretty good about filtering out the hype from our training (ie: weekly classes on how everyone needed Variable Universal Life Insurance) and focusing on what people really needed. That was part of the problem, though, as the vast majority of the people I saw were flat-broke, living paycheck to paycheck, with barely my fee saved in the bank, if that.

I got really lucky with my first client, though. He rolled over $500k into our funds and, between that and a Long Term Care policy, my pace numbers shot through the roof. In terms of production, one client had put me six months ahead of the game! This was a good and bad thing, though.

Backtrack to about a month or so after I started, when we got a new boss in the office, Let’s call him…Sleazy. He was from New England, full of that northern energy and all about the rah-rah. I was extremely impressed by him at first, kind of like Dorothy and her first meeting with the Wizard. Sleazy talked a good game, told all the right stories, pushed all the right buttons. One of his favorite stories was about how he was a covering manager for a new guy on an appointment with a natural market prospect (translation: family, friend or “someone who’d recognize your face if you stopped them on the street.”) and how the guy slipped up on his script and, after Sleazy smoothly picked it up, the guy exclaimed, “Yeah! That’s what I forgot. You gotta watch this guy; he’s a slick one!” It was told as a cautionary tale but would prove prophetic.

Anyway, things began to fall apart over the summer as more and more people quit (24 total in my 9 months there) and Sleazy’s games became more and more apparent. He’d read every self-help book and management guide out there and the more you talked to him, the more you realized that an original thought never came out of his mouth. He’d talk about people behind their backs, play divide and conquer, complain how there wasn’t a single successful advisor in the office and throw his own ratings on the overhead projector so we could know what kind of bonuses we were costing him.

He and I quickly became adversaries as my penchant for speaking up in dissent often found us at odds. I’d question everything, becoming known as the office skeptic. Because of the pedestal they’d placed me on over that first client, I also had some unearned credibility with my peers, particularly those that had started after me. I was very straightforward with them whenever they asked my opinion on things, arguing with management that I wasn’t going to lie to them about how hard the job was and the likelihood that the majority of us wouldn’t make it past our first year.

It was the nature of the system: Last man standing wins and the company profits, regardless. It wasn’t about serving the clients and it wasn’t about developing successful advisors. It was about keeping the money flowing into the coffers. Yeah, I know. Duh! Welcome to corporate America. For me, though, it was like thinking you’d finally found the one that was different from the stereotype and realizing you were terribly mistaken. Sucker!

Anyway, my saying these things openly wasn’t exactly appreciated. The group of friends that I’d made – not a terribly like-minded group at all, mind you, other than we all drank like fish – came to be known as the Purple Circle and I was pegged as the ringleader. Two months of management’s harsh glare broke that up and I doubt Sleazy ever saw the irony of his referring to me as a union organizer.

My favorite one-on-one with him was mid-fall, shortly after he’d almost fired me when he found out I’d went to a competitor to check out their operation. It was an entertaining dance getting out of that one but he was easy to lead. He thought he’d finally figured me out, though, piecing together the various truths and lies I’d told him to keep him at bay – without knowing which were which – and went for the heart. Told me how his parents didn’t have much while he was growing up, how he’d worked for Greenpeace after college, how he’d taken a $500 cash advance on his credit card during his first year in the business while his wife was at home with newborn twins. I managed to well up but not tear at the story and promised to make a point of getting on board and stop fighting his system.

Time was running out.

At this point, early-November, my closest friend and last ally was done, ready to quit. After convincing her to stick it out for the previous three months, I began realizing that the job was the least of her problems. She needed a clean slate. Much talking led to her sister in NY. Much manipulation kept her decision a secret to the last minute. She quit on Monday, November 25, three days before Thanksgiving. Despite knowing it was coming, it hit me hard and my mind began racing. What was so different about her situation from mine?

That night, speaking to my wife who was back in NY for Thanksgiving, I told her about it. She said she’d cried crossing the GW Bridge and couldn’t imagine driving back to Virginia. It was like the planets had aligned. We worked out a plan – no pun intended! – and a week and half later, I sat in front of Sleazy, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and handed in my resignation.

It was a bittersweet day, though. Like discovering a way to make gold from lead, then discovering that you can’t afford lead. The experience I’d gained was invaluable but I knew there was no way in the world I could make a living selling it to others. The compromises were too great for someone with the mind of a socialist and the heart of an artist. I’ve got these licenses, though, and they’re good for two years so, who knows? Maybe I’ll find some progressive company to place them with and work freelance? Maybe I’ll start my own if only I could find the right information on how to go about it.

Back to the curveballs and the high heat, though. This one missed and I’m back up in the batter’s box, bat pointed to the outfield, eyes drilling into the pitcher’s head, ready for the next pitch.

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, still opinionated. Reading, writing, running, gaming, soccer, beer.

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