THE INSPIRATION PLACE PODCAST
Well, hello, this is your host, artist Miriam Schulman, and you’re listening to episode number 46 of the Inspiration Place Podcast. I am thrilled that you’re here. Today we’re talking all about my journey from leaving the riches and glamor of Wall Street to choosing a simpler creative life as a professional artist. In this episode you’re going to hear how I climbed up and down 37 flights of stairs in a single afternoon and what that taught me about the value of life. You’ll hear how lessons of grieve and hubris led me to break free of my golden handcuffs. And yet why I regret nothing and feel that nothing I’ve done is wasted.
But most importantly, we’ll also talk about why you shouldn’t wait for a sign from the universe to reconnect to what matters most to you. Now, if you’ve been following me for a while, you may have heard me talk about how, like many of you, I did not go to art school. I was told I couldn’t make a living as an artist and I believed these naysayers. That didn’t mean that I didn’t take art classes or create art. In fact, in college, I took so many art history classes that I had to change my official major from engineering to art history. I actually still kept what I guess some might consider a minor in engineering and at my school we called that modified with.
Even though I did take a lot of art classes, I still had enough engineering classes that, about a year after I graduated college and I still didn’t know what to do, I did get into a top engineering school. Now you hear the hesitancy in my voice. I am proud of that fact, but I never really wanted to be an engineer. I just didn’t know what else to do with my life and I bet many of you can relate to that feeling. I did want to be financially independent. I was being raised by single mother, my father passed away when I was five years old. I knew that a degree in technology was my exit strategy. So I packed up my bags for said top engineering school and moved to Cambridge. It’s not that I didn’t like math. A lot of people assume, because I’m an artist, like, “Oh my God, you must’ve hated that.” Nope. I actually liked it. In fact, I loved my computer programming classes, the few that I did take when I was still an undergrad.
Now this was the early 1990s and I did think it was kind of fun making computer code, do what I wanted to do. To me, that was just kind of like magic. And the only reason that I didn’t major in computer science as an undergrad is because our computers were really, really slow back then. It’s not like we had to use punch cards, but it was really slow and it would take all night to debug a piece of software. So in the last computer science class that I took, I actually didn’t hand in all my homework. So I didn’t do so well in that class. I aced the exams, but you know what happens if you don’t hand in all your homework, you don’t do so well.
Anyway. This episode is not about my academic life. It isn’t about that at all. I just want you to understand why I considered a technical degree a viable option. I was really poor. I had student loans to pay back. I didn’t have the same clothes as my classmates and I wanted all that I saw when I was at Dartmouth. I wanted all that. And it wasn’t a superficial thing. I just really was in survival mode. I saw how my mother struggled because she didn’t complete college on time. She did finally finish college after my father passed away, but I saw how she struggled and I did not want that life for myself. So I had the skills to pull off a technical degree, plus I actually did like computers, and I still do which is why I’m able to run an online art class site and a podcast and all these other magical things that we make happen here at The Inspiration Place.
However, I didn’t really want to be an engineer. So while I was at grad school, I was very easily seduced by the head hunters who came a calling. They were looking for engineering graduates like me to fill positions for the trading desks on Wall Street. So in 1992 I was offered a job for $65,000 a year. And if that sounds like a lot to you now, just imagine that this was 1992. I thought I had just won the lottery. Holy cow, I was hired to work for the same training desk chronicled in Michael Lewis’s book, Liar’s Poker. I won’t lie. It actually was a lot of fun. The traders wore custom made bespoke shirts and treated us to fancy dinners with the finest wines flowing. And if you were into it, they also had expensive cigars to offer.
This was an unprecedented era of greed, gluttony and outrageous fortune. Remember the Michael Douglas movie Wall Street? It is kind of like that. There’s a pretty interesting story inside Michael Lewis’s book, Liar’s Poker, where two of the top guns, John Gutfreund challenged the head of the proprietary trading desk, John Meriwether, to a round of Liar’s Poker. Liar’s Poker is basically a child’s game of bluff. I forget what we used to call it when we played it as kids but I remember playing some similar game to that. Like, “Do you have any twos? Do you have any threes?” And you just kind of have to lie your way through it.
But these men, and they were all men, they played it for high stakes money. Now I do remember asking a coworker if the story was true. Back up a little bit. So the fable is that John Gutfreund, who was the head of fixed income, challenged Meriwether, to a round of this poker. The story goes that he says, “We’ll do it for a 100,000,” and Meriwether said, “No way, make it a million.” So then Gutfreund backed down. So I remember asking a coworker was the story true? Did he really make a million dollar bet? And my friend said, “Oh no. If it was for a million dollars, he probably would have played that round of poker.”
The reason that Gutfreund backed down is because Meriwether said that he would play the game, but the terms were for a finger. Yeah, a finger. True or not, either way, these were my bosses. And if it sounds a little too much like a mafia story, you’re not too far off. By the way, we worked on one of the top floors of 7 World Trade Center. Do you want to put a pin on that piece of information? Because we should probably come back to it. Actually no, let’s talk about it right now. About six months after I started working there was when the World Trade Center was bombed. Not the plane’s, not 9/11, this is 1993. Do you remember there was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center?
A lot of people have forgotten about that incident as it has completely been dwarfed by the events of 9/11. But in February of 1993, a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The urea nitrate hydrogen gas enhanced device was intended to send that North Tower crashing into the South Tower, bringing both of them down and killing the tens of thousands of people who work there. It failed to do so. And unfortunately, six people did die that day, and injured over a thousand. Do you remember that story now? Okay. I was there that day. And let me tell you what it was like on the front lines.
So my desk was on the 37th floor. The cafeteria was down on the second floor. I was having lunch with my friend and coworker, Victoria, when the power suddenly went out. We did hear ambulances and sirens circling the building, but being on that floor, we really didn’t know what was going on. We were told it was a ConEd failure and we believed them. Don’t forget, this was in the days before smartphones and instant access to information at your fingertips. So we thought, “Okay, no big deal. We’ll just go back upstairs and go to work.” Now since the power was off, the elevators were not running. We actually chose to walk back up to the 37th floor. Yes, that was a hike. But don’t forget, we were both in our twenties and we had been doing our step aerobics classes. But it still was a pretty challenging climb up, I admit.
It wasn’t until we arrived on our floor that we learned the truth. Our suite of offices were in 7 World Trade Center so not one of the main two towers. But our office faced directly the North Tower. I will never forget the site or that day. The windows exactly opposite ours had been smashed and smoke was pouring out of the windows. Helicopters were circling the building, and it was then I learned the truth. The tower had been bombed. There was no ConEd failure. Yet another round of Liar’s Poker and bluffing and lies and deceit. There were people trapped inside that floor and they were using their computers to smash the windows to try to escape. And what were my coworkers doing, who knew the truth, when I arrived on that floor? Were they evacuating the building? Were they calling their loved ones? Nope. Nope. Nope. They were working. They were working. Do you remember wondering why, when the first plane hit the tower in 2001, why didn’t the workers evacuate the second tower? That’s why.
The culture of the office, the culture on Wall Street, is that you work no matter what. So here I was, 23 years old, I hadn’t even been working there six months and I saw the first signs of a death sentence had I stayed in that environment. There was a terrorist attack in the building adjacent to ours and people were sitting there working. What did I do that day? I grabbed my purse, I headed back down that side door and back down 37 flights of stairs.
Now my friend, I wish I could say to you that I made my decision on that day to leave my job, but I didn’t. But it was an awakening. The golden handcuffs kept me there, I just wasn’t anywhere near ready to take that leap of faith. Back then I really didn’t think I could make it as an artist and that was the furthest thing from my mind. I still had student loans to pay back and I thought it was a good job.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Some of you probably have stayed in situations far longer than you should have. I actually stayed in that job a few more years and I even followed the top traders, with their fancy suits, over to an even fancier Greenwich office where these famous guys started a hedge fund. Once again, I had a walk-on role in a Michael Lewis novel. Now if you thought that that Wall Street job sounded fantastical, the hedge fund world is completely next level. Shortly after I arrived at the hedge fund, the entire research team was flown to London for an onsite training. I recall there were about a dozen of us and they put us up in the Meridian, arguably one of the best hotels in London. During the day, the partners, a few of which have won a Nobel Prize for their work, taught us finance. That was by day. And by night they treated us to fancy dinners out on the town.
The following week, the Greenwich team, along with the London team, are flown over to Italy for a ski trip weekend. To be perfectly honest, at this point I kind of had enough and I was missing my new husband. I even remember asking a trader if I could bow out early, but he insisted that I go. Poor me, right? Just listen to the rest of this story. From Turin, Italy, we were shuttled off to a ski chalet on the border of France. If this all sounds really glamorous, I admit it was. But the reason I share all this is not to brag, but to share with you the second awakening I had, which happened on this trip.
The first morning we arrived, I was assigned a ski instructor, which is something I actually really needed. Even though I went to school in New Hampshire, I never had the spare cash for ski outfit, ski equipment. I think they actually did teach ski during gym. The line was too long and I figured that wasn’t me. I just didn’t identify with the other skiers and I didn’t have the upbringing of my peers whose family took them to fabulous ski weekend vacations in Vermont. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This trip does sound pretty glamorous, but stay with me.
On the second morning, we divided up into groups based on our skill level. I was placed with the other, quote, advanced beginners. We were beginners who knew how to ski, but that was it. The small group was led by two of the partners of the firm. Here’s what happened next. We were waiting in a very long line for a ski lift when one of the research team spotted a second lift with virtually no line. Unlike the other line that we were waiting on, which had gondolas to whisk you up to the top of the mountain, this lift was kind of like what you might see a swing on a playground. I think it’s called like a rope pole or a disc pole or something like that. It was a round disc that had a rope in the middle of it and you straddled the disc and it pulled you up the mountain with your skis skimming the ground.
That, in and of itself, should have been a warning signal. When we finally reached the top, I learned why the line was so short. It was a black diamond trail. Now, if you’re not familiar with ski terminology, they assign color codes to designate the difficulty of each trail. A beginner trail is green and an intermediate trail is blue and a black diamond is where advanced skiers can get a little peace and quiet as long as they don’t mind the screaming. They are either very steep or full of bumps or both. And this one had both. I took one look at it, announced I would be taking off my skis and walking down. Except this was the firm. This was the culture where you work, even if there is a terrorist attack. And certainly you show that you’re a team player by skiing down a trail way out of your skill level to prove, exactly what or why I’m not really sure anymore, but my two bosses expected me to keep on my skis and work my way down the mountain. It’s not that I assumed it. They told me.
A part of me wishes I had held my boundary and my respect and just walked down the mountain just as I walked back down those 37 flights of stairs in 1993. However, part of me knows that it might have been a good lesson for these bosses to watch me wipe out over and over again as I made my way down that hill. I wondered if they worried if I would break a leg. I do know this had some impact on them because when I did finally leave that job one of the partners who pressured me to ski that day actually apologized. Now whether it was because I had retold that story many times to anyone who would listen and it made its way back to him, or the memory of me almost killing myself that day stayed with him, I’ll never know. Oh, by the way, those of you who have any finance history knowledge, this firm that I’m talking about was the infamous LTCM, which nearly blew up the world financial market in 1998. There’s actually a book about us with more true stories of hubris in Roger Lowenstein 2000 bestseller, When Genius Failed.
By the way, I have linked up that book, Liar’s poker, as well as The Big Short, in the show notes, which you can find at schulmanart.com/46.
Let me circle back to how these lessons led me to leave this lifestyle and finally pursue my art. I know that I’m kind of skipping a chapter. There is a chapter in between when I left and when I finally got up the courage to start making art. But right now, let’s just talk about having the courage to leave a high paying job. Shortly after the well publicized collapse of our firm, and by the way, if you have any relative at all who has gone to business school in the last 20 years, they have studied this firm. Shortly after the collapse we had all this hubris and people who make their employees work during terrorist attacks and ski down mountains, there’s a lot of karma coming back at you. So what actually happened, the collapse I’m referring to, is in 1998 our firm went completely under, losing billions of dollars and nearly taking the entire financial world with them.
So shortly after that happened, and yes, I was still working at the job, shortly after that happened, I became pregnant with my second child. And now I decided that a break from all this was in order. So I quit that job. And if you’re thinking that I quit a $65,000 a year job, you are wrong. By this time, it was a multiple six figure job that I was leaving. My husband was freaking out because we had bought a home in Scarsdale and had a mortgage. I was determined to leave anyway. I just told him I’ve saved the money, I’m taking a break and we will figure this out and I will figure it out later.
So it was during this break, this extended maternity leave that I made for myself, I was spending time being a mother. I was spending time reconnecting with what mattered to me. And, of course, I did finally have time then to paint. I was painting during that first job when I was at Solomon Brothers before I had my first child, but I had taken a break from any kind of painting with the birth of my second child. And now that I quit my job and I was just with my two kids, I did finally make time to do some painting as well. I joined a local art group and I made a few sales in my art. Yet that was still not enough to convince me to make the leap. And guess what? I started to dream about returning to the glamor of Wall Street.
It was this time when my oldest began her second year of nursery school in 2001, that 9/11 happened. Now, as many Americans recall, we watched with horror as over and over and over again, the collapse of those two towers. And if that weren’t enough, on the news that night I actually watched 7 World Trade Center. The building that I worked in, in the 37th floor, I watched that one melt and collapsed to the ground. That building was just across the North Tower. The building was the one that I worked in during my Solomon Brothers years, and I saw it melt to the ground. Now, luckily, nobody was in 7 World Trade when it collapsed. It collapsed around 6:00 PM that night. But I fully understood why thousands of people in the two towers lost their lives.
For some who were in the upper most floors of the first tower, there was no way out. However, it was the lives of those in the second tower, the ones who could have gotten out but did not, it was those lost lives that I related to. That could have been me. The flood of memories came back. The time when the first terrorist attack of ’93 happened and my co workers eyes were glued to the computer. The time when my bosses pressured me to ski down a black diamond slope that I was not prepared to do. The people who would wager a million dollars or a finger. When I watched those towers come down with the same horror shared by my country, heck, I’m sure the rest of the world, I knew for a fact that I was never going to return. Not then. Not when my youngest started school. Not ever. And it was on that day I decided I would do something different with my life.
Now, I’ll be honest, I did not know that it would be art at that time. I always wanted to be an artist. I didn’t quite have the courage to do it yet. We will continue this story in a future episode. But here’s what’s important for you to know right now. You do need to wait for the next disaster as the sign from the universe. If you’ve been waiting for the right time to start a new creative career, or to even start making time for your creativity, please don’t wait. It will never be the perfect time. I don’t know one person who began their creative journey or a creative career who did not wish they started it sooner. I’ve dedicated my life’s work to creating resources to help you. If you’ve been enjoying these podcasts, perhaps it’s time to recommit to your creativity.
If you’re looking for more skills in painting and drawing, or community to inspire you to keep going, consider the Inspired Insider’s Club. It’s my monthly membership program for those who want a backstage pass to my creative process so that you never run out of inspiration. To learn more about the club, go to schulmanart.com/join. Right now registration is open through July 18th. And if you’re already selling your art, or whatever your creative pursuit is, but you’re looking to increase your sales, I do take a limited number of private clients. Currently I have space to take on three more clients. If you want to learn how to take practical strategies to turn your creativity into a thriving business, I’ve done it. And I can show you how to do it too. To get started you can schedule a free strategy call. To apply for a free strategy session go to schulmanart.com/biz. This is by application only. And if I approve your application, you’ll get 30 minutes strategy call with me.
All right. That’s all I have for you today. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. On Spotify that means hit the follow button and on Apple podcasts just hit the purple subscribe link if you haven’t done so all ready. And the easiest thing to do is just tell a friend. Sharing is caring. Oh, and by the way, I do love to hear from you, my listener. So send me an email or even a direct message. I would love to learn what you want to listen to on this podcast. I can’t wait to hear from you. All right. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon. Bye for now.
If you’re interested in the Inspired Insider’s Club, go to schulmanart.com/join. We have registration open through July 18th, and if you’re listening to this podcast after that, you can add yourself to the wait list. To apply for a free strategy call go to schulmanart.com/biz. That’s schulmanart.com/B-I-Z.
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