11 April 2020
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Tell your children about Gary Cohn if you believe in them

Another Donald Trump-inspired disastrous day at the office for stock players came along Wednesday in the States, which then hurt our market on Thursday. And it was primarily linked to the exit of someone called Gary Cohn.

Gary who? That might be what you’re asking even two days later but this guy is definitely a significant entry in that record of prominence called Who’s Who!

However, if you’re in the ‘Gary who?’ group, you’re not alone. One of my very well read colleagues, who will remain nameless, surprised me when he admitted not knowing who the guy was until stocks started plummeting on the news that he’d told his President, that his chief economic adviser was “out of here”, or words to that effect.

But this guy is not just some notable economics expert, he has been recorded in history as a poster child for all young people who need encouragement and self-belief. This is a guy’s story that all parents should tell to their children and bosses should share with employees to plant the seed that anything is possible for them.

Yep, this guy started life with a huge handicap that could have seen him packing groceries or washing cars for a living, but instead he wound up as president and chief operating officer of the most famous investment house in the world — Goldman Sachs!

I came across the Gary Cohn story whilst reading Malcolm Gladwell’s eye-opening book David and Goliath.

A couple of years ago, Business Insider marked Cohn’s stay at Goldman this way: “Wall Street titan Gary Cohn, the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, celebrated his 25th anniversary at the bank last week.”

Cohn grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and at a young age he was diagnosed with dyslexia, which made school a real challenge. Unbelievably, the boss of Goldman Sachs was seen by schoolteachers at parent teacher nights as a future truck driver!

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with truck drivers, apart from the few who have terrorized me on this country’s highways, but given what this guy became, it looks like his teachers should have been truckies!
He did get to graduate and even walked away with a degree from an American University in 1982 but the job market was not kind to him in those early days.

After college, he was on the unemployment queue.

Interestingly, this largely unmotivated young man did have an interest in stocks and financial markets but his schooling CV only qualified him to be a salesman flogging aluminium siding — quite ironically, given he ended his work-life with the President of the USA over tariffs on aluminium! And this business was a division of US Steel!

By good fortune, he was transferred to the Long Island office and wrangled time off on Fridays so he headed for Wall Street.

Gladwell says that showing ingenuity he waited by the security entrance to the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange for a few hours and nearly tossed it in, until luck dealt him a life-changing opportunity.

“And then literally right after the markets closed, I see this pretty well-dressed guy running off the floor, yelling to his clerk, ‘I’ve got to go, I’m running to LaGuardia, I’m late, I’ll call you when I get to the airport,’ I jump in the elevator, and say, ‘I hear you’re going to LaGuardia.’ He says, ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Can we share a cab?’ He says, ‘Sure.’ I think this is awesome. With Friday afternoon traffic, I can spend the next hour in the taxi getting a job,” Cohn told Gladwell.

It was a true instance of “no guts no glory” and what a pay-off!

His cab-sharing buddy was a top options guy for a big brokerage so he pretended to understand options to make his cab ride to LaGuardia pay off. However, I don’t think Gary at the time could imagine the dividend. “I lied to him all the way to the airport,” Cohn told Gladwell. “When he said, ‘Do you know what an option is?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, I know everything, I can do anything for you.’

Basically, by the time we got out of the taxi, I had his number. He said, ‘Call me Monday.’ I called him Monday, flew back to New York Tuesday or Wednesday, had an interview, and started working the next Monday. In that period of time, I read McMillan’s Options as a Strategic Investment book. It’s like the Bible of options trading.”

That cab punt led him to work on the floor of the commodities exchange until Goldman Sachs noted his potential greatness.

That was 1990 and in 1994 he was made partner at Goldman — something others on Wall Street would have optioned their grandmother for to get such a gig!

The rest is history but Cohn says he thanks dyslexia for his success!
“The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed,” Cohn told Gladwell. “And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside. It doesn’t faze us.

“I’ve thought about it many times, I really have, because it defined who I am. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia. I never would have taken that first chance.”

Gladwell reckons being an underdog provides a quirky opportunity. He thinks an underdog's disadvantages can be converted into advantages. And Gary Cohn is one of his favorite examples.

This comes from the book David and Goliath: “I was a troubled student as a young child,” Cohn admitted. “And at that period -- this is the early 60s, the world of dyslexia hadn't been as developed as it is today. You know, I don't think anyone really knew how to diagnose the problem.”

Gladwell says: “He couldn't do school. He acted up in class. He got kicked outta schools. His mother never thought he would graduate from high school. When he graduated from high school, his mother cried. Why? Because it was a day she thought would never come.”

Unbelievably, Gladwell told CBS.com that “Cohn still has difficulty reading, but he's figured out ways to work around his disability, skills that have led him all the way to the president's office at Goldman Sachs.”

He also points out that “an incredibly high percentage of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. That's one of the little-known facts. So many of them, in fact, it's like a joke among dyslexic researchers that you go into a room of very successful businesspeople, and you have a show of hands on who has a learning disability, it's like half the hands in the room go up. It's fascinating.”

Richard Branson, Kerry Packer, Henry Ford, IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad, Charles Schwab and even Steve Jobs were from the ‘D-class’!

The disability forces people like Cohn to become a good listener and made him fearless when it comes to taking chances. “People that can't read well, we tend to build a great sense of listening,” Cohn admitted to CBS. “We also tend to build a great sense of being able to deal and cope with failure.”

The Cohn story and the book David and Goliath are something that every person who thinks he/she has been dealt a losing hand by lady luck or fate just has to read.

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