How I conquered my banking job

My miserable work had turned me into a seething, angry man. Then I found an unlikely inspiration: Hannibal

By Andreas Kluth

Published December 17, 2011 10:00PM (EST)

This article was adapted from the upcoming book, "Hannibal and Me," out Jan. 5 from Riverhead. Andreas Kluth is now the Economist's U.S. West Coast correspondent.

I first read the story of Hannibal when I was a teenager. I loved it primarily for a teenager’s reasons — the action and suspense and romance of it all. I was fascinated by the spectacle and grandeur of Hannibal’s life, by his conquest of the Alps — with elephants, no less — and his victories.

These are the moments in his story that have been etched into Western culture and legend. One thousand years after Hannibal, Charlemagne, the great king of the Franks, tried to follow Hannibal’s path across the Alps as a way of staking his claim to the same greatness. Another thousand years after that, Napoleon did the same thing and had the greatest French artist of the time, Jacques-Louis David, paint him in a flowing cape on a rearing horse while crossing an Alpine pass, with the names of both Hannibal and Charlemagne carved into a rock in the painting’s corner. Boys like Harry Truman, the future U.S. president, read and reread the story of one-eyed Hannibal because “there is not in all history,” as Truman said, “so wonderful an example of what a single man of genius may achieve against tremendous odds.”

If I noticed the existential riddle hidden in Hannibal’s life story, in the sweeping arc between triumph and disaster, I did not dwell on it. I was too young to contemplate success and failure in life. For a teenager, successes are simply victories and failures are defeats. Hannibal, along with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, is thus antiquity’s perfect boyhood hero: a winner, not a loser. But it is a mark of the best and most timeless stories, as of the best poems and works of art, that they stay relevant throughout a lifetime, taking on different meanings and offering different messages at each stage of life. So, for example, at about the time I first learned about Hannibal I also first read Rudyard Kipling’s beautiful poem “If,” which included these lines:

“Meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.” At the time I found it a good poem, but no more than that. My own life had not yet caught up with the message of the story or the poem.

This began to change later, in my twenties. I remember one particular moment. I was alone at the time and sitting on a cheap IKEA chair that came with the London digs I was renting just behind Victoria Station. It was a typical London apartment: the sink had separate taps for hot and cold water, and you either froze or scalded yourself. There was a constant draft.

I was wearing a well-tailored Italian pinstripe suit that looked completely out of place in the flat. I had loosened my Hermès tie and was settling down to vegetate in front of mindless British television after a long and unhappy day working in mergers and acquisitions for a famous American investment bank in the City of London, Europe’s equivalent of Wall Street. The work was considered glamorous but was intellectually and emotionally unsatisfying, physically exhausting, and spiritually draining. That was my life. The long hours in my cubicle under fluorescent light left no time, and no emotional energy, for deep relationships. I was lonely and tired, and my plan that night was to cross over the brink of exhaustion and collapse into bed for a few hours, then to get up and do it all again.

But when I turned on the TV, a documentary about Hannibal was playing. There it was again: that familiar story of the man, the elephants, the Alps and the battles, the maps of his march from Spain through France and into Italy, the vector charts of his maneuvers, the reenacted scenes with Roman legionaries. But this time, I found the story unexpectedly perplexing. I suddenly had lots of questions, and they were personal. How come I, and most people, knew so much about the two years of Hannibal’s life that made him famous — the span between his Alpine crossing and his great victory at Cannae — and so little about the next thirty-three years of his life? What exactly happened to Hannibal during that time?

Why had his triumphs turned to disaster? And could the same thing happen to me?

The fundamental tragedy of Hannibal’s story usually forms only a dramatic — in the theatrical sense of Greek tragedy — backdrop to heighten the romance. The tragedy of Carthage, its demise as a civilization, is well known. When Truman, the boy who loved Hannibal, became president and visited bombed-out Berlin after World War II, he said, “I never saw such destruction” and “I thought of Carthage.” But the bitter irony, the fundamental enigma, of how Hannibal’s triumphs had led to that tragedy did not occupy Truman at that moment. It was suddenly occupying me, however, as I sat on my cheap IKEA chair, trying to make sense of my life. All people, beginning in their twenties and continuing until the end of their lives, tell themselves stories about their own journeys to make sense of life. This is one of the biggest ideas in psychology: that identity is story. The psychologists call these stories personal myths, life scripts, or self-narratives. The stories are not logical and linear strings of autobiographical facts. Rather, they’re selective memories with magnified turning points — a trauma, for example — that give shape to a life so that the young adult can view himself as part of the complex, confusing, and demanding adult society around him. An adolescent does not yet know who he is. But a young adult — having to choose a career, sexual partners, political affiliations, and so much more — needs to believe that he knows who he is. So he begins making up a story line, with himself as the hero. And that’s what I was doing, too.

That Hannibal should come to serve as one archetype for the hero in my own personal myth might seem ridiculous, but I didn’t see it that way. Hannibal lived an epic life, full of soaring success and crushing failure, whereas I was living a small and ordinary life, full of little successes and trifling failures, none of them of any consequence to anybody but me. But it was the trajectory of Hannibal’s story that fascinated me and that I chose to see as a warning that deliberately presented itself in this early “chapter” of my own life story. Hannibal was warning me to examine the successes that I had achieved up until then and might achieve next, and to ask whether they were leading me, as his had led him, down a treacherous path toward failure.

When Hannibal was a boy, he went with his father, Hamilcar, from Carthage in northern Africa to Iberia, where Hamilcar, a general, was trying to build a new empire to replace the one that Carthage had just lost in a humiliating war against Rome. When I was a teenager, I moved with my father and mother from our comfortable and safe suburb of Munich to New York, where my father was planning a new chapter in his career. The years in Iberia forged Hannibal into a warrior, as he trained by the side of his father to lead men into battle and to victory. For me, the years in America were also a crucible, as I tried to get by at a respected but cruel and Dickensian boarding school in New England. My equivalent of Rome in those days was to get rid of my German accent and then to learn flawless English as my weapon for the future. I set out to memorize the English dictionary—getting as far as L, I believe—and declared success when my verbal SAT scores were higher than those of many Americans in my class.

As Hannibal succeeded in his twenties, I had my own little achievements as a young man. High test scores, college admissions, academic honors, a coveted job at an elite(ish) bank. There were failures, too, primarily on the ledger of friendships gone awry or missing. But in the story that I was telling myself at the time, I did not dwell on them. At most, they seemed inevitable costs of success — after all, Hannibal lost half of his army during that two-week Alpine crossing.

A psychologist analyzing my emerging story would have said that the theme of “agency” — self-mastery, achievement, status — dominated over the theme of “communion” — intimacy, friendship, love. But just as Hannibal won at the Trebia, at Lake Trasimene, and at Cannae, I could tell myself that I was doing quite well. I seemed to be winning my little battles. What made me receptive to Hannibal’s story just then was that I suspected, or feared, that the story I was telling myself was a lie. My victories and successes were too banal to take seriously. I was wearing Hermès ties even though I thought they looked tacky. I was working on deals that bored me. I wore myself out so that I had no time or energy left to do the things that I loved doing.

I began to suspect that my success, and my entire existence, might be a joke. Officially, I was achieving things, relatively speaking. When the bank hired me, it flew me and the other London recruits to the headquarters in New York for our training program, and we were not allowed to travel on the same plane lest it crash and take all of us down at once. This suggested that we were important. Now, however, I was spending my days and my nights in the same cubicle under never-changing fluorescent light. Around me stretched an ocean of other cubicles, all of them filled with people like me. We had stiff necks and red eyes from staring at spreadsheets full of earnings ratios and other boring numbers day after day. We conversed in a strange language in which people were constantly “leveraging” something, usually “proactively.” Our business cards called us “analysts,” which meant that our job was to fiddle with these numbers until midnight or later every night. At that point a boss would call in from an expensive hotel room in some faraway time zone and tell us to fax documents to a client immediately. We faxed them. Then we waited in the cubicle for the fax confirmation, and kept waiting just in case the boss called again. Then we called a car service — the bank picked up the tab, because we were important — that took us home and the driver waited outside while we took a shower inside, so that we could take the same car back to the bank and start this process all over again.

This was my success. It was a success where booking a holiday was an act of masochism, because as soon as it was booked, I counted down to the moment — perhaps hours before departing for the airport — when a boss peered over my cubicle wall to announce that an “opportunity” had just presented itself for me to show my “commitment” to the “team” by canceling my holiday and staying in the cubicle to keep sending midnight faxes to executives in far-flung places. Then I got to tear up my plane tickets and settle back into my cubicle for more success.

I was alive — in a seething and angry way — to the irony of the situation, and so were a few of my friends at the bank. I took philosophical cigarette breaks with one of them, during which we walked along the Thames in front of the office. We were trying to figure out the personality types at the bank. Few of our colleagues appeared to see banking as a calling and nobody seemed to think that it was even remotely fun. So why were we all there? It must have been because we wanted to get somewhere else and saw the bank as a mountain range to cross. Perhaps we wanted training or experience of some sort for something bigger. But what? Neither my friend nor I wanted to be entrepreneurs or businessmen. We weren’t sure what we wanted. Once, when I was in the men’s room at work, an Italian colleague at the urinal next to me told me, sotto voce, that he couldn’t wait to get out of the bank so that he could go back to Italy to breed horses, but I had to promise not to tell anybody. Most of us, it seemed, were investment bankers because that’s what ambitious young people in the 1990s did, just as young aristocratic men in Hannibal’s time became warriors.

My friend and I also noticed that there were patterns to success and failure at the bank. Success was defined as a huge bonus and a promotion from “analyst” to “associate” to “vice president” to “managing director.” Bonus time came just before Christmas, and for weeks before, the atmosphere was tense and people behaved differently toward one another. On the bonus day, bankers filed out of the cubicle barracks, one by one, and entered the glass-walled offices along the perimeter to have their talk with the boss. Those still in the cubicles would peer through the glass walls to read the body language as the ones in the fish bowls received their envelopes.

The people I saw succeeding — with good envelopes and big titles — tended to stay at the bank, even though I could never get a straight answer from them whether they actually wanted to be bankers. Whatever life goal they couldn’t quite name yet but were ultimately aiming for was delayed. The more they got promoted, the longer they delayed it. Perhaps they forgot about it altogether. As they rose from one victorious deal to another, from one promotion to the next, they changed. With power and importance came impatience. Nothing that others did was done fast enough or well enough. They were anxious. One of them, a bit older than I was and very successful, gradually but completely rubbed his eyebrows out as he worked through the nights in his cubicle. A friend and I kept track of the divorces and breakups around us, as bankers worked so hard and focused so exclusively on their financial battles and power struggles that they ignored their partners. During one of those philosophy-and-cigarette walks, my friend, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, said that the bank was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: “In went nice, promising, interesting young people; out came sad, pathetic assholes.”

All this was gnawing at me as I sat watching the Hannibal documentary. Was I in my life at the same point where Hannibal was in his life after he crossed the Alps and as he was winning his victories? I decided that I needed to find out what came next in Hannibal’s story, during the decade that he stayed in Italy, undefeated the entire time. What was he doing there? Did he have a plan? Did he realize he was trapped? The documentary gave no answers.

I wondered whether Hannibal at the end of his sixteen years in Italy could still remember the face of Imilce, his lovely Iberian wife, and his newborn son, whom he had last seen when he left Iberia for Italy and who disappeared without a trace from history. Did success require sacrificing loved ones (as many of the top bankers around me did), or was sacrificing loved ones already the ultimate failure?

I wondered whether, in his dreams, Hannibal could stop seeing the face of Hasdrubal, his beloved younger brother. Hasdrubal had tried to lead another army from Iberia over the Alps to support Hannibal in Italy. But the Romans had intercepted his army and killed him. They cut off Hasdrubal’s head and marched it to the other end of Italy, where they catapulted it into Hannibal’s camp. Hannibal, who did not even know yet that Hasdrubal had arrived in Italy, last saw his little brother’s face as it rolled toward his feet.

How much can success cost before it becomes disaster?

Soon after, I accepted that I was certain “to fail” at the bank. The beginning of the end took place, perhaps inevitably, during one of those bonus talks in a glass office. My boss put on an earnest demeanor and declared herself disappointed by my recent lack of focus on a particular project. To my boss’s surprise, I agreed.

“It’s affected your bonus,” she said.

“I’m sure,” I said, and took the envelope.

“Won’t you open it?” she asked.

“Later,” I replied.

A couple of onlookers from the cubicles later reported that my boss seemed confused after the meeting. I was not. My days at the bank were now numbered, I knew, and I was looking ahead to what might come next. I left banking and became a journalist, later a husband and father. My idea about success and failure kept changing and are changing still, but the more they do, the more relevant the story of Hannibal becomes.

“The greater a man’s success, the less it must be trusted to endure,” Hannibal said to Scipio, a Roman aristocrat and general,  the first time they met, on an African plain at a place called Zama, the day before they were to do battle against each other. Scipio, though a decade younger, nodded. He understood completely, although he might have added that failure is to be distrusted just as much. As they knew, there is no escape from the two imposters. The question is what we become when they arrive.

Excerpted from "HANNIBAL AND ME" by Andreas Kluth by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Andreas Kluth.  

Andreas Kluth

Andreas Kluth has been writing for The Economist since 1997. He is currently the magazine's U.S. West Coast correspondent, covering politics, society and economy in California and the western states. A dual citizen of Germany and the United States, Kluth is a graduate of Williams College and the London School of Economics.

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