Finally and for the first-time, I took the high speed rail from Hong Kong into Shenzhen.
Despite the lunar new year festive period, the station didn't seem as crowded as I remembered it pre-COVID.
I got my tickets online from 12306.cn, the official site of China Railway for all rail passes in China. I collected the hard copies from one of the counters the day before to avoid any long queues on the day itself.
Once you pass through the gantry, numerous signboards will prompt you to fill up an online health and itinerary declaration form, which will generate a unique QR code for scanning at the border control points. While there are no swab or PCR tests at this point, you are required to obtain a negative PCR report within 48 hours before departure.
And that's it - this post is as short as the journey on the high speed rail.
The year was 2011. The government debt crisis in the EU had reached a stage that required the bailout of several countries long thought to be considered creditworthy and stable. I was a senior analyst then and the bank that I was working for wasn't spared from this contagion. The outlook was bleak and the bank's share price had taken quite a beating. As part of 'austerity measures', there were also talks of bonus and job cuts across the offices from Europe to Asia. The economic turbulence and uncertainty kept everyone on their toes.
On one afternoon that year, I was pulled into my CEO's room for a chat. A few words were said, the message wasn't direct, but in short, I had been given a "golden ticket". I was also being recommended for an overseas training trip to HQ. At that point of time, I had no idea what this meant. After more than a year into the job, I felt I didn't need the training and as a result, gave it up to another colleague whom I felt needed it more.
Much later on, I realised that it was in fact an all-expenses paid two-week trip to wine, dine, possibly stroll along the Champs-Élysées, and rub shoulders with our colleagues from all over the globe. The valuation training was simply a side show.
A few weeks later, I resigned to join a competitor bank for a no-brainer 60% increase in pay. The money came at a time where I had to fund several huge upcoming expenses including the downpayment on my new house.
But the news of my departure didn't go down too well. While everyone else was 'congratulating' me, my CEO refused to speak with me during my final days at the firm. Later in that year, I also discovered that the entire analyst/associate pool had basically been decimated, leaving only the VPs and one analyst. That was supposed to be my golden ticket. I was supposed to be the last man standing, for better or for worse. A couple of years later, the team that I jumped ship for was shut down as part of an internal cost cutting and re-organization exercise (talk about karma).
Decisions like these can be tough. Some might say it was foolish to trade goodwill for money. I was paid a handsome amount in the process and without that money otherwise, I probably would not have been able to fund the purchase of my house amongst other things.
Besides, goodwill (to be blatantly transactional) is only good if you can derive something tangible from it in the future. Don't get me wrong that we should do something only if it pays in the short-term. Many of the benefits and opportunities I enjoy today are the seeds of goodwill planted 10-20 years ago.
But being able to effectively gauge when to cut your losses and call it day, versus hanging around and sticking it out requires a certain amount of psychological conditioning, constant self-persuasion and perhaps a certain wisdom (some say craziness) - even more so if you have something seemingly more commercially lucrative on the table.
"Summertime soldiers" is the term that Marc Andreessen uses to describe people "who only joined [a company] in the first place because [it was] already successful and have no interest in really bearing down and applying themselves to a challenge". These people while hardworking, are also apparently not the type of people you want to retain and groom.
While it isn't technically wrong to jump ship for a better paying job, I think that the incident of 2011 gave me some wisdom in deciding whether I would become a summertime soldier in my future engagements. I never regretted what I did, but given the choice to re-write history, I probably would have went for that incentive trip, soldier on being the lone analyst within the firm and later on down the road, find a way to make back that 60% increase in pay.
After two years and given that it was the year end, I thought it was timely that I should spend some time to consolidate and reflect on the takeaways, the hits and the misses during this time. But nothing actually came to mind. So I spent the crossing-over to the new year in a relatively low key fashion. No celebration, not a lot of booze, no chugging of beers, no fanciful dinners or gatherings. All I did was head up to the open-air rooftop of my hotel at approximately 23:50 in anticipation of the fireworks overlooking the Hong Kong city skyline. Even after the clock struck 00:00, there was also no spectacular display of fireworks, not at least from where I stood.
Yet, this was how I enjoyed the new year crossing. The simple peace and serenity of taking in the cool 15 degrees outdoor air, the sensation of looking forward to a restful morning on the following day. And perhaps more importantly that the rest of the world only wakes up and starts to go to work two days later.
Some might even call it a short reprieve from the shitstorm of work awaiting in the first week of the new year.
During my investment banking analyst days, a VP once asked me what I did on weekends. I gave him the rhetoric of being too busy catching up on work to be able to plan for anything else.
It was true anyway.
Whenever anyone asked me about my banking days, I always told them that we worked seven day weeks, had after dinner drinks at 9pm, went back up to work around 11pm, got off past midnight and then back into the office the next day at 930am. that routine changed slightly as we grew into our jobs with travel increasingly becoming a part of it but the hours never really changed.
Aside from the mandatory 2-week compliance leave that we were entitled to, there was hardly any downtime, and hardly a moment to "switch off". This daily cycle can put a toll on you, both physically and mentally.
I recalled one of my colleagues popping pills to regulate this blood pressure because he was getting increasingly affected by the incessant badgering, the non-stop phone calls and the never-ending refreshing of pitchbooks and financial models.
"Regardless of how little time we have, one must learn how to block out work when it is time to rest. Otherwise, you would go crazy." - that was what the VP had said to me.
There is stress everywhere, in every blue-collar and white collar job, no matter how much you try to justify it using salary. It could take the form of overtime hours, a nasty boss, an unreasonable client, unhealthy working environment, etc. Everyone deals with the vicissitudes at work differently.
Some say this deprivation of normality over long periods of working in a high pressure environment leads to overcompensation through the splurging on the extravagant stuff. Despite what the rest of the world says and thinks, I think one of the biggest takeaways from doing investment banking wasn't really the money, but the fact that you can put yourself under tremendous pressure and yet pull off functioning as a normal person under any circumstance (at least for those of us who made it out sane).
Yet, there are those who seemingly made it out but never really left. You can of course leave an investment banking career and still stay rooted in a toxic mentality. These are the same people who continue to measure success through lofty titles, name dropping and the size of their pay checks. You can always sniff these people out by what they choose to talk about with you. Only just recently, I was re-connecting with an ex-colleague over WeChat. Much to my surprise, within a few text exchanges, he started asking where I was now, if it paid well and other stuff related to corporate hierarchies and knowing who's who. I did not write him again.
And so, there will always be nasty people to meet and unpleasant experiences, but there is also the mindset we take with us to deal with it.
We can continue to complain about working on weekends, how much of a pile of work awaits us on Mondays, how we are not commensurately comp-ed to our peers, how much we are sacrificing personal, social and family time for work, or how sucky the markets are. Endless worries.
Life will forever be a struggle, but to some extent, we are almost always in control of the decisions we make and always have the choice of deciding how we want to let the little things shape us and the way we move forward.