The following remarks are from a speech delivered on Sunday, 28 July 2008 to the Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck (New Jersey) annual dinner in memory of Lucy Feiden Rabin, Andy Neff’s mother-in-law.
The five key lessons I learned from the sudden dissolution of my company
by Andrew Neff
I have picked up five key life lessons over the last few months since my company, Bear Stearns – which I worked for 20 years and that was in business for 86 years – disappeared in the midst of a financial crisis and panic. It turned me into a “Bear Stearns refugee,” but more importantly, it made me a “kollel boy” – a fulltime student of Torah.
These are the lessons which I want to discuss:
- God runs the world
- Your prayers are answered so think carefully what you pray for
- Think about your legacy
- Every cost has a benefit and every benefit has a cost
- Handling tests: it’s easier than you think
Lesson 1: God runs the world
When Bear Stearns collapsed, it shocked the world. It was not the normal course of events. Companies that are in business for 86 years without so much as a losing quarter (except for the last one but we ironically were profitable again) don’t go out of business and they don’t go out of business overnight.
Many people have asked me if I knew or sensed what was happening. Actually, it was just the opposite. We knew we were having a bad year, but we were in cyclical business. We’ve had good years and bad years. In fact, my area – equities – was having a good year and the firm was profitable again – highlighting (we thought) the strength of the business model. Besides, we weren’t going out of business…
But we went out of business. Whose fault was it? Was it our new CEO? Our ex-CEO? The shorts? The press?
Moreover, why Bear Stearns? Why us? We were known as a very charitable firm. We had a policy that I’ve never seen before where the partners (who were known as senior managing directors) were required – required as in showing a copy of our tax returns – to give at least four percent of their salaries to charity. We were good people. Why us?
I have developed a different perspective. Let me digress with a reference to Psalms. The backdrop for the third chapter of Psalms is rather unusual. King David thanks the Almighty during the rebellion of his son, Avshalom. As I heard from Rav Yissocher Frand, the normal course of events is not for a son to rebel against the father. Usually it is a political opponent or an aide. But these circumstances – the rebellion by his son Avshalom – were extremely unusual. To King David, that was a sign that this rebellion was outside of the natural course of events and that God was watching over him and runs the world.
What happened to Bear Stearns was outside nature, outside the normal course of events.
Until the demise of Bear Stearns, I knew what my schedule was going to be, more or less, for the next year or so. I was working on projects through the year 2010. I was firmly in control and I knew what the future would be.
But it wasn’t to be. I learned that I was not in control. For many of us, we went through many of the signs associated with shiva (the seven-day mourning period after the death of close relative). We were in denial, we were angry, we were depressed. Finally, we began to accept our situation.
I, too, went through these stages. I was in denial. I was angry. I was depressed. Because I was not in control.
But I’m passed that now. I was only able to get beyond it because I came to realize Who is in control of the world. The events at Bear Stearns are all part of His plan. You can be angry with His plan but it doesn’t change His plan. An analogy: it’s like going to a museum and getting angry at the exhibits. But that is a rather silly reaction because it doesn’t change the exhibits so you may as well enjoy the museum.
One more reason to see God’s hand: looking at the calendar, all of these developments around Bear Stearns happened the week before Purim. Some could say “what a coincidence” and ask “how can you see God’s involvement in a financial crisis?” But that is the story of Purim – a story where God is both hidden and omnipresent. God’s name is not mentioned in the Megillah, and that is the point: we don’t need to see a sea split to know that God is involved in our lives.
Lesson 2: Your prayers are answered, so think carefully about what you pray for.
We are relative newcomers to Teaneck. We moved here about three years ago. I think the most important force one faces in life is peer pressure – for better or worse – so you have to focus carefully on what the peer pressures are where you live and work. In Teaneck, there is peer pressure to learn. Everyone does it. Every shul competes – in a friendly way – to have the best learning programs. The shuls and the battei medrashim (centers of study) are thriving, and speeches from noted rabbis and the ongoing classes attract crowds. That is one of the main reasons that we moved here.
I had often thought about taking some time off for learning. While my children are “frum from birth,” my wife Nancy and I are baalei teshuvot – we became observant later on in life. I have done many things including classes with rabbis and other courses, but I essentially saw myself as a bit of an idiot savant – an expert without the actual expertise. I have “done the daf yomi” [daily page of the Talmud] for over 10 years and attended multiple classes, but I never had learned the basics of prayer and Talmud without English on the other side, nor have I spent time delving into the Torah and commentaries.
I thought about taking a sabbatical.
But I couldn’t take off after a good year, since I needed just one more good year. And I couldn’t take off after a bad year since I really needed a good year to take off. Outside of these two mutually exclusive conditions, I would take time off to learn. I was kidding myself.
I had started to talk to Rabbi Eliyahu Roberts, who is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck, several months before. He and I had started learning Talmud about once a week but I realized it was not enough to get me to where I wanted to be. So we began to talk about learning at the yeshiva with some of the boys in his yeshiva one or two mornings a week. But when it came down to it, I could never find the time.
But the Almighty found the time for me. He cleared my entire schedule. God opened up all of my mornings. Arranged a sabbatical year for me, so to speak.
We may never know what God’s plan is and I certainly don’t know why Bear Stearns went out of business. But I knew that the message – whatever it is – is that something was supposed to change. It was not supposed to be business as usual. Ironically, I could have had a position if I wanted it at the new firm. In fact, the person who did what I did at JP Morgan coincidentally resigned the day Bear went out of business (for entirely unrelated reasons). So I could have glided from one spot to the next – from one vine to the next – with nary a glitch. But the emails we get from God aren’t always so clear. That is where prayer comes in.
God does answer prayers. Sometimes the answer is murky and unclear and sometimes it is as plain as a smack on the side of the head.
So that is how I ended up spending my mornings learning at Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck.
Lesson 3: Think about your legacy.
I was on Wall Street for 25 years, including 20 years at Bear Stearns. I had some great calls and made people a lot of money (and – full disclosure – may have lost people a lot of money at times as well). I was on the Institutional Investor All-Star team for 16 years, the Wall Street Journal All-Star team for nine years.
But that is not what I will be remembered for from my years at Bear Stearns. The religious world remembers me for running the Bear Stearns minyan.
Just a bit of history. When Bear Stearns was at 245 Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, there was a minyan in the stairwell – owing to its legacy as an Olympia & York building. That changed when we moved to a new building at 383 Madison. Because of tighter security, there was no common area for the minyan so it just stopped. However, after a few months, a summer intern from Yeshiva University asked me if I could get a minyan going. Since it was a new building, I was able to get the conference room next to my office and we were off and running.
In fact, word got around and we started attracting outsiders – from nearby firms. Then – after a few weeks – I got a call from the head of Human Resources at Bear.
I heard you have a minyan at Bear, he said.
Sure, do you want to attend? I asked.
No, but there is a problem. There were issues around security with outsiders coming to a “secure” floor.
What can we do, I asked.
I left it in their hands and – more importantly – in Hashem’s hands.
I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out that there is a law that requires a company to provide its employees with “a reasonable accommodation to prayer.” So while the company did not want an official “Bear Stearns minyan,” they agreed to give me a room every day for prayer – for the “Andy Neff meeting” and to which I could invite some of my friends to enable me to have a minyan. Hence the minyan where we regularly had 20-30 people and – on a fast day when we had a sefer Torah – we would have more than 100 people.
So here is the final irony. Bear Stearns is gone but the minyan – which started at 245 Park – lives on. Roughly one third of the attendees were from JP Morgan, which owned three buildings adjacent to our headquarters, so we simply transferred the “management” of the minyan over the JP Morgan. So, it looks like a perfect plan: how to make Bear Stearns go away without interfering with the ongoing minyan.
Lesson 4: Every cost has a benefit and every benefit has a cost.
Wall Street is a great place to have a career – especially from a financial standpoint. Moreover, there is the prestige associated with Wall Street and the power, etc. What’s wrong with that?
The Mishnah asks, “Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone else. Who is strong? The person who controls himself. Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has. Who is honored? The person who honors other people” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1). What ties all four of these comments together? Each of these traits – wisdom, strength, wealth, honor – can only come from you. No one else can really provide it for you because if you depend on others for these attributes, then they all go away when the external forces – other people – go away.
There is a cost to being on Wall Street, and probably in other high-powered positions as well. You lose track of priorities. You live with such stress all the time that you don’t know what it is like not to have stress. The analogy I use is of a scuba diver who lives from oxygen tank to oxygen tank not realizing that all the oxygen in the world is available to him five feet above on the surface.
The Talmud says that the world to come is inverted from this world. That was hard for me to understand until I left the high-powered world. After you move beyond the business world, what you think is important loses its importance. The things I feared losing the most were the small things: a secretary, car services, etc. But in that world, the things that you give up easiest are time – time with your family, quality and quantity time – which are the things that I realize have the most value.
I’m not saying that effort is not required and that you shouldn’t devote time to your work. It’s just that there are ways to do it without stress. And much of it seems so unimportant in retrospect. In choosing between family and materiality, you need to keep your priorities straight.
Lesson 5: Handling tests is easier than you think.
We learn that God never gives us a test that we can’t handle. To me, conversely, that says that I was not ready to handle this test until now. I feel thankful that I have matured – spiritually and emotionally – to a level that I can handle something like this situation.
Moreover, for many of us, our careers are our lives – or close to it after our families. The loss of a career is devastating at many levels. And the financial turmoil is another nightmare.
But the positive for me is learning that I can deal with it. It’s a new reality, but I am ready for the next reality.
I want to add one other very important item to the list of lessons. “A good wife – an eyshes chayil – who can find?” I can’t underestimate the importance of a partner who is truly your partner in growth, in Torah. My wife, Nancy, has been praying every day for me to take the time off to learn. It’s important to have a relationship that can handle change, and ours has gone from a secular lifestyle to observing Shabbat, with Nancy on the same page all the way.
About the author: Andrew Neff was a senior managing director at Bear Stearns where he was a senior securities analyst covering the technology sector. During his 25 years on Wall Street – including 20 years at Bear Stearns – he was cited on the Institutional Investor All-Star list, frequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal and appeared frequently on CNBC. He now learns at the Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck.