When I was living in Hong Kong, I liked leaving the house early, because it’s always good to start the day at a measured pace.  And you only had two windows of ‘measured pace’ in Hong Kong – either really early or late at night.  The streets turned somewhat insane around 8:30 to 9.  The air was still balmy in the morning, but on good days, you could walk the whole way from the escalators all the way down to Central without breaking a sweat.  As you passed Soho you would see the street sweepers come out and clean up the devastation of the night before.  The shops weren’t open yet, and the deliveries are just starting.  There would be the slightest tinge of a coolness in the air, one that would quickly turn muggy and suffocating as the day went by.

When I left the apartment and went downstairs, I would greet Mr. Wong, who would already be there or just arriving.  Alert, attentive, even when he was sitting there behind the counter, he was unlike any other doorman I encountered in Hong Kong.  He would press the button to let you in or out, the moment you were within two steps of the door.  His peripheral vision and motion detection abilities were superhuman.  The moment you stepped into his line of sight, he pressed that button to let you in or out.  He greeted you with a loud ‘Good morning!’ or ‘hello!’  Unlike our other doorman, who either ignored you entirely or watched you like a curious specimen, as you passed by or waved.  He never ate in front of the tenants, but there were times he disappeared from sight, into the little cubby-hole behind the desk, where I assumed he was taking his lunch or dinner.  And he was there from the time I left for work at 7, until the evenings past dinnertime.  There were only two shifts of the doormen during the entire 24 hour period, and he worked most of it.  Sometimes when we got back from a night out, he was still there, talking to the lady who pretty much kept the building running.

At various times I would see her cleaning the elevator, flattening the boxes, hauling the trash out one floor at a time from all 24 floors (2 buckets per floor).  Sometimes at midnight I would see her walking across the street with a cart loaded with cardboard and wood, and during the day I saw her eating, or talking with a friend in front of the apartment.  Once I asked her about her hours, and she told me it was from 6 am to 10 pm, although I saw her on the streets much later than that.  She had a gentle face and big, strong hands.

At night, the city slowed down.  There was a weary fog that hung over it, like exhaust from the day.  The escalators are going back the other way, the lights are out like stars, in the buildings that are so close together you can right through to all the little exhibits of life in them.  It becomes a city of individuals, instead of a city of crowds.  And for me, they were two of them – always hard-working, always there.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays, Living in Hong Kong

Recollections of Japan

I read this article about Japan and almost cried with nostalgia; I went to Japan occasionally for business and leisure for a period of about two to three years.

One thing any person can learn from Japan is its cultural pursuit of excellence.  In the belief that this is a neverending quest; whatever you call it, perfectionism, craftsmanship, obsession, a pursuit of unattainable ideals, its a mindset that there is a right, and a wrong (poorer) way to do things.  It’s a belief that presentation matters, that there’s an absolute standard by which one can be judged to do their job, that the way you do your job is a reflect of your own self.

Here are some highlights:

  • I lost 300 dollars in a restaurant, it fell out of my coat pocket.  After wandering around Osaka for 3 hours, I returned to the restaurant.  As soon as I walked in, before I could say anything, the server looked at me, exclaimed something with wide-open eyes, and went into the kitchen.  He brought out the 300 dollars folded neatly into a bag and handed it to me, his face exploding in red, as if embarrassed on my behalf.  I nodded deeply as I took it, just saying thank you, thank you.
  • I was on an ANA flight that landed in Narita.  There was a gift for me in the form of a box of candies/pastries.  I ate one, but wasn’t in the mood for any more and put the rest in the seat back pocket.  I left the plane and was already connecting through another terminal when a stewardess rushes up to me, out of breath, with the box in her hand, asking if I had left it.  I had left it there on purpose because I didn’t want it, but now I felt bad I did.  Thank you, thank you, I said.
  • I stayed at an onsen once.  This was out in the middle of nowhere, east of Kyoto, and to get there I had to take a cab that cost a few hundred dollars.  I watched the meter tick up with tears in my eyes and a pit in my stomach.  When I finally got there, it was past midnight and the staff had been waiting up for me, and it turned out they had been calling and emailing my travel agent because I hadn’t arrived yet.  Because I had missed one of the meals, they went into the kitchen and made me a midnight snack.
  • Also, I’ll never forget the time I was in a train station and wanted to use my spare change.  I was hungry, so I bought a chocolate mochi ball at a little kiosk.  I see her take out the mochi from the glass case, then she wraps it in a tissue paper.  Then she places it in another clear plastic bag.  Then she places the clear plastic bag in a box, with some dry ice all around it.  Then she wraps the box in wrapping paper.  Then she ties the whole package in a ribbon, then places it in a gift bag for me to take away.  I watched the whole ritual, which was mesmerizing.  Even though I was hungry, carried it for a while because I felt bad about eating it.
  • I once wanted to leave a tip at a hair salon.  With horrified expressions, the girl held up her hands in the form of an ‘X’, and shook her head violently ‘no’, ‘no’.
  • The taxi drivers wear suits and white gloves.  When they can’t find a place, they turn off the meter in the general vicinity of the place, such is the level of their responsibility.
  • One time I worked with a local REIT, who was our partner on the project.  When I work in other countries, it is common that they shunt all the responsibility on us – meaning that we’re responsible for the research, interviews, data, etc.  On this project, they had everything prepared in both paper and in files stored on USB drives, translated, neatly categorized into folders, color coded.  They delivered it all in a package with additional brochures and even souvenirs, like a stamp collection!  Understand that they were paying us, not the other way around.  The best part is that for about five years afterwards, they sent me personally a hand-signed Christmas card that always had some crazy feature to it, whether it was a pop-up diorama of a city, or an intricate cut-out of a nativity scene.

I’m not being naive about Japan, I know I’m only looking at the rose-tinted version of it, but nevertheless.  The lesson is still there.

Leave a comment

Filed under Endorsements, Essays

Story of an Addiction

For about two months, I was addicted to Candy Crush.  As is common in these types of situations, you can’t write or reflect on something while you’re engaged in it.  Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the addictive-prone qualities of my own mind, let’s get right into it.  

First, does anyone else notice that after a long time logged out from the game – ‘long’ being relative here, of course; let’s call it a day – that upon returning, you suddenly have a ton of dormant chains in your start screen?  Also, has anyone been able to get anything besides the fish, single candy bomb, or wrapped candy from the Daily Wheel?  Somehow the wheel always seems to automatically speed up or slow down to prevent my winning the really good stuff.  Thanks, King.  

The greatest satisfaction of Candy Crush is the fact that it magnifies the results of your decisions.  But before I get into that, there’s another variable.  This is the fact that there are enough options, enough small decisions you need to make whether in the form of the swaps or the powerups, that you get the feeling that there’s a true strategy here, that you have an array of weapons at your disposal and that this is a deep, strategic game.  It’s engaging.  

Now back to the magnification factor.  The only way to win the game is to set off chain reactions.  I played many a losing round where I spent 50 turns just eliminating three candies each time.  No dopamine surges result from this.  They only result when, after swapping two innocuous colors, suddenly there’s a bombardment of action and explosions, entire rows and columns disappearing, detonations of bombs.  When combined with the fact that you’ve made a lot of small decisions along the way, as above, you get – a sense of achievement.  You feel like these explosions are your accomplishment, due to your decision-making abilities.  It provides immediate feedback to you in this way.  Where else do you get that in this day and age besides social media?  

The juxtaposition of the normally calm, go-like, methodically decisions and the cascading, psychedelic destruction is also psychologically exciting.  I’m sure there’s some kind of principle in play here.  On a more macro-level,  I noticed also that they interspersed insanely difficult levels that necessarily require striped candies with others that for some reason, wouldn’t have been out of place in the teen or twenties levels.  There’s a good sense of pace and variation.  

Also, it’s too easy to access.  When you’re at the point in your day when your willpower is flagging, when you’re at the point when you’re staring at the screen and have forgotten why, there it is.  Good luck not clicking or opening it, after the memory of those dopamine rushes blasts the reptilian part of your brain.  

I didn’t spend any money on the game except in terms of opportunity cost, at my billing rate.  But I can see why the business model works.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Spellbound

In New Zealand we joined the Spellbound glowworm cave tour in Waitomo.  By the way, the signage as you approach the general Waitomo area becomes vaguely official-looking, as if the Kiwi equivalent of a National Parks Service were pleasantly guiding you to the proper destination.  

As I was surprised to learn, all of the outfitters in Waitomo are private.  The signs you see are most likely Blackwater’s, who from a tourist consultant’s perspective (me) has done a remarkable job in making it seem like they are the officially-sanctioned tour guide there (even taking out the entire domain of http://www.waitomo.com), and that everyone else is amateur hour.  I have learned a lesson from this and hope to use it some day.  


 

It was dark in that cave.  Of a darkness you don’t see in normal human life anymore.  We went inside with our headlights (what do you call these?  spelunking lamps?) and at the first bend, Norm ordered us to switch off our lights.  It was pitch dark.  ‘Can you see your hands in front of you?’  No, we all said.  It was disorienting, this complete blackness.  There was only the sound of the river underneath us.  It was cold, dark, uncomfortable.  I recalled that Norm had said that spelunking was, unfortunately, not as big as it was when he was a kid, and it made sense.  

‘Remember that,’ he said, as he switched his light back on.  

Here and there, as I swung my headlight around, there was what looked like bits of shiny mineral embedded in the walls and ceiling.  These, I was told, were the glowwworms.  They emitted a light that looks like a faint green, tiny LED.

Taking any pictures was futile.  If you’ve ever been in a Los Angeles and tried to take pictures of a particularly starry night, it was like that.  Maybe you might get the North Star.  Maybe Venus, if it’s that kind of night.  

Now deeper in the cave, we climbed into a raft.  Here, you could see greater clusters of the worms, again, looking like the stars as you would see them from a city, faintly there through the light pollution.  

Once again, we switched our lights off.  From the platform Norm asked us, ‘can you see me?’  We could not.  

We set off.  And I was looking at cavern roof and the lights there the whole time, but I can’t say how it happened.  It was so gradual.  We drifted in the water.  And the lights began to grow.  Into a multitude, into stars.  Into prickles of light with growing intensity scattered across the ceiling.  You looked, but you couldn’t believe that this had been there the whole time.  The worms completely covered the ceiling, and you could make out the undulating curves and texture of the cave.  

At some point you began to see constellations reflected in the water; then there was enough light you could see the walls.  We moved slowly, as if in reverence, like we were traveling through a nave toward the roar of a waterfall.  In the other room of the cavern, as I could now see it, there was a separate lower-tiered level of the cave, like a lake, with an entire new galaxy of lights there.  There was enough light to see the back of my hands.  I could faintly see my wife’s smiling face.  

Under those stars, everyone was silent.  

Afterwards, Norm climbed out first.  ‘Can you see me now?’  We could now.  We exited without turning our lights on again.  

In the original first location, he asked us again if we knew where we were.  Now, I could faintly see everyone.  

Artists talk about looking at something and not seeing it, or gazing at something long enough so that you discover depths and breadths that you didn’t notice before.  The tour was like that.  You would never notice something like this if you had the lights on, if you were looking at a phone screen, if you were distracted.  It struck me again that there are levels of ‘seeing’.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Endorsements, Essays

Gravitas

I have a few clients in their 70s and 80s.  One a movie mogul, another a former Drexel Burnham banker, another a gentleman managing his family’s wealth.  They show up to work every day.  Two of them work out of small offices crammed into apartments they either own or used to own, papers strewn everywhere in columns whose organization patterns only they know.

None of them is any longer in the day-to-day, direct operations roles.  Their greatest career accomplishments are behind them – and they plod along in hollow, but deliberate steps.  When speaking, all three of them reply in the prerogative of older men, with jumbled statements that are either not apropos of anything, with statements that vaguely, tangentially may relate to the subject at hand, as they sift through their memories.  Of transactions and deals, of spectacular sums of money gained and lost, personal tragedies, people who remind them of other people.

Still, they command enormous sums of money and resources, assistants, the respect of people around them.  All of them show up to work every morning.  Things would probably all fall apart if they didn’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Panama City (Panama, not Florida) Notes

Landmark architecture.  And you know who that is.

Landmark architecture. And you know who that is.

 April, 2014

  • I noticed a lot of banks, a lot of tall buildings, endless construction, a lot of luxury condominiums, and more of a downtown there than in say, downtown LA.  And yet Panama City has a population of less than 2 million people.  
  • Panama is clearly a money capital.  And like other money capitals like Hong Kong or Dubai, it has the same kind of physical terrain: High-rise condominiums.  Skyscrapers housing bank headquarters.  Landmark architecture.  Dense waterfronts.  My guess is that high-rises in the form of offices and residential are the highest value land use next to water, so in a free market these tend to get built first, especially where the governments are more concerned with being business-friendly than being besieged in all directions by interest groups.  
  • 80% of GDP is based on services and less than 5% on tourism.  I found that astounding.  
  • The metro just opened…about a week or so ago.  And it is exponentially faster than using a taxi along the same road, especially along the Transistmica.
  • Similarities with Bangkok: a highly urbanized city with dense traffic, the ability to get by reasonably well without speaking the local language, a tropical environment with the same ubiquity of, what shall I call it, professional women, and a tall, sprawling city.  Except that buildings in Panama are on their way up, not going the other way to disrepair like in Bangkok.  
  • As is common in Latin America, the taxis do not have meters, and fares must be negotiated in advance.  
  • Here is the price I got to/from the airport – $30 from, $33 to.  Good/bad?  The price to/from the Canals from the city center: $10 to, $20 from.  
  • Before going to the Canal, check the websites (like this one) to see when the ships will be coming through.  Don’t be like me and arrive 10 minutes after a ship passed through, and 3 hours before the next one.  But even without seeing the ships, the attached museum is well-done and a must-see.  The museum explains almost everything I wanted to know about the canal: how the locks work, the breakdown of shipping traffic, the tolls charged, how the canals were built, and how the new locks will be built.  Take in the monumentality of the achievement.  It struck me how mind-blowingly complex the actual process engineering of building the canal was: in the sheer range and variety of rail-bound machinery, boats, and equipment used to do the seemingly simple task of removing  dirt.  
  • Check out Casco Viejo; this was the one place everyone told me to go see.  Which of course, all manner of jet lag-borne sicknesses and itinerary malfunctions prevented me from seeing.  
  • One really good place to eat: El Trapiche for actual Panamanian food.  Good lunch and daily specials.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel Logs

A Ten Year Retrospective (2004-2014)

In 2004 I was a scared, lonely graduate of the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania with no job.  That summer I spent riding my bike around Philadelphia and felt like I had no purpose.  That fall, I moved to San Diego and interned for Senator Dianne Feinstein.  It was an unpaid internship, so I worked at a t-shirt warehouse fulfilling orders for $8/hour.  By the end of three months, I had learned how to use one of their electric dollies (it was a tower that allowed you to go up and down about two levels in this warehouse that was reminiscent of the aisles at Home Depot, except this place was much, much darker and dustier) so well I would be racing down the aisles at the touch of a lever.  I surfed almost every other day, and seeing the waves behind my eyes when I closed them, was the only thing that helped me sleep at night.  At Senator Feinstein’s office, I was taking constituent calls and researching the economic impact of American Indian casinos and military bases.  Little did I know that would help me later.  At this stage I was still confused, except I knew I wanted to do something related to real estate.

By the end of November, I had been promoted to $9/hour at the warehouse, and I was still rabidly surfing every day.  I remember there was this one time my contacts flew out while I was in the car – a freak accident because I was developing this condition called swollen pupillae behind my eyelids – and I surfed, nearly blind at -900/-1000, just by watching the color of the water grow darker and darker.  I also drove to the break and back, although I could barely see the colors of the traffic lights.  This just testifies to the fact that I was not in the right state of mind.

At Senator Feinstein’s office one day, we got this fax letter that was written in ALL CAPS and was sent from someone from beyond the border (Mexico), and described Mexican drug violence and retribution in such detail that I got scared.  It was written as if the guy was being chased and was trying to run away.  I gave it to my supervisor but he just smiled and said this isn’t a job for us.  I remember thinking that both me and the guy who sent it believed in a government that was more powerful than it actually was.  What if it were true?  Shouldn’t it be worth investigating?

While still down there I interviewed at the San Diego office of Marcus & Millichap.  The only thing I remember about the presentation was first, that the guy put up a slide showing a matrix of how much you could earn if you were a) a star, b) mediocre, and c) a dunce.  The dunces were growing their income from $80k to more than $120k.  The stars started at $150k and were growing their income to over $800k.  To me, for some reason, it didn’t seem like a lot.  It seemed normal.  I also remember that second, he looked at my resume and said, liberals can’t work here, shaking his head almost gently.  I said that on the whole, I was conservative when it came to economics and trade.  He nodded his head.

I didn’t get a job there or anywhere else for a while.  In December I responded to an ad in the UCLA newspaper, because I was staying with a friend in Westwood now, in a two bedroom with 6 other guys.  It was for a real estate job in El Segundo that paid $12/hour.  At that point I was so desperate for a job that this seemed like a lot of money, especially since my last paying one had paid $9.

I took the interview and got the job within three days.  I remember taking a test during the interview, it was a StrengthsFinder test that highlighted my weaknesses and strengths.  I put it in that order because the guy hiring me mentioned only a weakness that stood out to him.  The computer had indicated that I may be ‘easily bored’.  While this was true, my reply to him was that my focus was greater than my tendency to get distracted.

The substance of my work here was to validate about 4,000 contact records by cross-referencing them through Lexis-Nexis, public sources, and other means.  The job took me several months.  I don’t know how I endured that.  Actually, I do – it’s because the office itself was a prank-filled, roughhousing frat with outsize characters, some of whom were probably insane.  This was a time when young 20-year olds were making millions by merely picking up a phone and dialing.  It was like a gold rush.  To me, it was a social experiment and completely eye-opening, mainly by virtue of the fact that it violated every single thing I had learned at Wharton about business and valuations.  It shattered my worldview, I felt like I was a social anthropologist embedded in an alternate universe.  Those experiences were actually the origin of this blog.  I collected enough stories to later write a book about it.  People have said that the characters don’t seem real, to which I would say that is the highest compliment you can give, because that is exactly what I was trying to communicate.  It is all real.

I was there about a year, surfing at El Porto every day – sometimes three times: before work, at lunch, and after work.  I have fond memories about the level of my metabolism back then.  I could eat anything and get away with it.  I remember we used to take our boss’ Black Card (with permission of course), and order meals at restaurants that were on the order of three entrees per person.  I would finish my share.  But surfing meant a lot more to me than just an intense metabolism.  It instilled in me a reverence, an awe, an acceptance of the world.

At my job I started learning about real estate and how it was done, which has served me well overall.  In 2006 I moved onto another job, a quieter one, working for a private equity firm in the same office building in Rosecrans.  My boss this time was more sedate, and the office only had three people.  Two of us at times.  I just modeled the **** out of every P&L and setup sheet that was sent our way.  Now that I was on the buyside, technically, instead of on the brokerage side, it was harder to feel the pulse of the market.  I wanted to do a ‘deal’ very desperately, to learn more about this whole PE business.  By the way, I had gotten another promotion from about $30k a year to $40k.  To me, that was an improvement.  No equity though.

The only ‘deal’ I remember doing was that a Nevada broker tipped us off to some shopping center in Las Vegas, and my boss bought it and flipped it a few months later for a 75% gain.  I remember one of the partners calling in and saying ‘are you telling ME that you guys got me a 75% return in six months!  You guys are studs!’  Unfortunately, this was a deal that was a no-brainer deal, meaning I had no hand in underwriting or modeling it.

I must have underwritten/modeled a few hundred deals, and only one was acquired, an office up north in Berkeley.  To me at the time, the pace was too slow and I began making plans to leave.  It was also because I felt this inexpressible desire that the real estate shenanigans had gone too far, that something was just off in the world and that I might be in a position to be harmed most by it.  By ‘shenanigans’ I meant valuations of properties at sub-4 cap rates, price appreciation, etc.  I remember getting pitched a no-cash-flow deal.  Basically it was a real estate deal with a three year holding period where they wanted us to invest only for principal appreciation.  This was the level of certainty that people had that prices would only go up!  Something felt wrong to me.

Back at Penn, I had cold-called a company called Economics Research Associates.  I had found it by googling the terms ‘research’ and ‘economic’, two search terms that I felt aligned perfectly with what I wanted to do.  I discovered that they were a real estate consulting firm in the field of theme parks and casinos and resorts, which was far sexier than the original work I had in mind.  I gave them a call, and they politely told me there were no current openings, but I kept in touch.  One time in San Diego I remember I did a phone interview with a partner in SF while in the car, because I was too scared to say that I would call him back later.  I was driving, and kept driving aimlessly, because I had no presence of mind to pull over.

Anyway, I gave these guys a call once again.  One of the partners suggested we meet for breakfast.  I dressed up in a shirt and tie, which I never did at my job, and met him at Metlox Village in Manhattan Beach, where I actually saw one of my bosses in the background pacing back and forth, looking at his phone.  I knew he saw me.  No matter.  I talked to the partner of ERA about real estate developments in Dubai and Korea.  He said they could consider me for hire.

The other company I interviewed for at this time was Rip Curl.  My interviewer was a former banker and he looked at my resume and said, ‘you’re on the partner track at this company, why do you want to leave?’  There were a lot of things I couldn’t express to him at the time about the market and its valuations.  I said I wanted to represent a ‘brand’, be more integrated with operations, etc.  I remember showing up for the interview, in the OC, in a suit.  Everyone there, including the guy interviewing me, was wearing t shirts and flip flops.  We had a good talk, and afterwards he took me out to the parking lot, opening the back of his car, and gave me a wetsuit.  Now that, was a cool company.

I had no game plan or anything.  But I quit my job on the strength of…nothing.  Both companies told me they were not hiring.  I think it was more on the basis of wanting to escape.  So I surfed and bought a motorcycle and rode my skateboard around my block in Palms.  My motorcycle was an old CBR 600, with no fenders or plastics, in the naked style far before the manufacturers started designing bikes like that deliberately.  I crashed it one time trying to get on the freeway and ran out of gas on the 5 to the 10 interchange.  All this spooked me and I sold it.

But then ERA called me back two months later, because someone had just quit!  It was August 2006.  I was happy.  I was hired, and my first week there, they sent me to work on a project in Korea for a multi-billion dollar development.  I was young and naive and felt self-important.  I rode business class for the first time and got a taste of what all of my classmates were probably doing on a weekly basis.

I began flying to Korea on a monthly, if not bi-weekly basis.  There was a speculative theme-park boom (if you can call it that, because none of them got built) the likes of which had never before been seen.  This was insanity on a completely different level, although it was not only Korea.  Every market in the world wanted to be like Dubai, although Dubai was out-Dubaiing everyone else with the most imaginative real estate developments in the world.  I had never taken a real estate class at Wharton, but I try to imagine now how they would suggest we value things like casinos in the same of a sphere floating on water, or assault-rifle theme parks, or the investment return on recreating the Las Vegas strip in the middle of mudflats in an Asian country.  Well, no matter.  I could teach that class.

I was in the air more than I was at home in my apartment in Palms, and those were the years I was treated the best.  I had an expense account, flew business class, stayed at nice hotels.  This wasn’t like other types of consulting, where you had to stay onsite at a client’s company for months, or transaction-based where you had to get in, do the deal or negotiate, and fly out.  My business trips were leisurely, even.  I had one or two days of meetings.  And extra days or weekends to see the city (and my friends), party, play.  One of the proudest interactions I had with a client at that time was when, after a bout of mandatory karaoke, he took me aside and said that he hadn’t trusted that we could get the job done – but when he heard me sing so well (it was the Beach Boys’ Surfin USA) he knew that I had a solid character.

But when I got back from my trips, jet lag would hit me like a bomb.  I’ve never adjusted well going east.  Something about crossing the date line over the Pacific that just messes you up.  I’m in a paralysis of energy for about three weeks.

At ERA I was promoted twice within eighteen months.  Things were good.  At bonus time, the partner who had hired me asked me what I wanted for my bonus.  I asked for it.  I got it.  I probably lowballed it by a large amount.  Then ERA was acquired.  And things in the world began slowing down in 2008.

So we left to start a new company, Pro Forma Advisors, the week of September 8th, 2008.  We had great momentum.  I was close with the developer of Legoland Korea  (which is still on-going, by the way, one of the rare few), and my partners and I were close with a savings bank that at the time was acting more like a hedge fund, trading ethanol and investing in projects like wind farms in Germany and casinos in Cambodia.  They promised us a lot of work.

Then Lehman happened, and then, just to put it in surfing terms, it was like a giant wave collapsed on my head, picked me up and took me over the falls, and I almost drowned but then surfaced in the whitewash, and it was quiet and uneventful.

2009 was a bad, bad year.  For everyone else too, I’m sure, but it wasn’t good times to be in the real estate business.  It was the first down cycle I had seen and I won’t forget it.  The company survived though.  I traveled a lot, mostly for play.  For business travel, we took coach.  It was our own money and hard to justify.  I scaled down.  I moved in with my parents and I kind of just passed that year in a comatose, hermetic state.  Money wise, I did better than ever before, which taught me the economics about being my own boss, the realities of overhead, and the feeling of responsibility.

I jumped into starting the company without mentally preparing myself, but the year did it for me.  I learned about not ever really being able to walk away from work, when you’re trying to create money out of nothing and you have no name or track record.  It was time to look at what was really important.  I stopped drinking during this time period too.  I think in many ways I grew up, although the year did make me a little more withdrawn.  Especially since I lived at home.

At the beginning of 2010 one of my contacts from the brokerage where I used to work back in 2005 called me with an opportunity.  To appeal property taxes.  The business is growing and it is ‘ridiculous’, he said.  The business made perfect sense to me, and for me it was the world gone full circle.  It was satisfying in a way, like seeing a story end, tying up loose ends.  The valuations back in the 2004-2006 days, they really hadn’t been sustainable.  I had been right!

Right after I agreed to start helping out, I got a call from Berkeley offering me a scholarship.  I accepted that too.  I was still doing Pro Forma work.  I had no intention of ever going back to feeling purposeless or just ‘floating’ again.  That year I went down to the California Counties and appealed more than $100 million in property values personally.  I created a program where instead of taking 40 minutes to comp a property and put the relevant paperwork together, it took about 10 minutes.  I did about 800 of the cases before leaving in August for school.

At Berkeley I discovered my ideal lifestyle.  The city just kind of has that effect on people, doesn’t it.  In the morning I would take Chinese classes.  Then I would spend some time in the library either reading for class or doing tax work.  Then I would go work out or eat at the cafeteria (me and one of my classmates were the only MBA students there.  I thought it was a shame that the business students didn’t realize the value in getting a buffet for every meal for only about $6 per), read or take a nap, go to class and get the academic version of what had just happened in the last few years, read some more, then go to sleep.  It was about 6 hours of concentrated work a day.  Any more than that and it was unproductive and had diminishing returns.  I still think that is the ideal split, which tells you a lot about the kind of work I am suited for.

That winter I went to Beijing to continue my Chinese at BLCU.  It was a Siberian winter and I got sick the first week there, from a combination of something I ate and my decision to go running around the track in -10 degree weather.  I lived in a tiny room that with the heat on became drier than the Sahara, so I rigged a crazy humidifier system using a wet towel and hanging it from the vents on the wall.  I had never lived with so little, and never been colder in my life.  The classrooms had no heating system so we sat in there with fog coming from our breaths, my head so cold I couldn’t think, my fingers frozen solid, but I loved it.  I loved Beijing.  I loved the people, and I loved the way people spoke there (which is still a source of arguments with my Taiwanese wife).  I didn’t even notice all the killer smog.  I went to Hong Kong for the first time in the middle, then got sick again when I got back.  I considered it all an immunization process.  This one was really bad.  I had a headache that on the intensity scale was somewhere between ‘percussion drill’ and ‘jackhammer’, and my language partner took me to the hospital.  The only thing I remember her asking me was, ‘Chinese’ or ‘Western’ medicine?  I didn’t care, but I lay down for a day or two and felt better.  You can’t comprehend how grateful I was.  Before I left I took her to a ‘gourmet meal’ at Pizza Hut, which she had never had before, and I dumped three cartons of Haagen-Dazs ice cream off at her dorm, because she had never tasted that either on account of their stratospheric markup policies in China.

I also visited Erdos in Inner Mongolia during this time, one of China’s ‘ghost towns’.  We landed at the airport and had no transportation, but my translator had struck up a friendship with a minor official while on the plane.  He and his wife drove us into town.  The next day we had lunch at a restaurant whose menu was lamb-heavy, in the Mongolian/nomadic style.  The owner turned out to be from the urban planning department, and told me everything I had wanted to know about Chinese development.  Then we took a picture together.

When I got back to Berkeley in 2011, I looked for an internship.  I ended up at GE Capital in Norwalk, doing real estate valuations.  The scale of what they do there, and the systems in place and the resources and people available at their disposal, is mind-blowing.  I had never worked at a company that large.  I had never worked at a company where I needed a security badge, or one where the meeting rooms and work areas looked like the lobbies and business lounges of the Four Seasons (or the W, depending on which area of the floor you were in), and had never gotten that type of treatment from brokers and suppliers.  When you call a place and say you’re with GE Capital, you are a certified royal.  People actually return your calls, and your wait time on the phone is shortened.  I hope to earn that kind of treatment again.

The internship was good.  But I regret it in a way too, because I turned down a job at a Mongolian company to do so.  It would have been a much livelier/cooler above paragraph if I had taken that job, right?  They wanted me to help them plan a residential development made up of yurts.  But I had this insecurity about working at a ‘name brand’, which led me to GE.  In retrospect I should have gone to Mongolia.  This is all too painful to think about so I’ll stop.  Suffice it to say I learned my lesson.  Go for the fun, people.

After that I went to Hong Kong for study abroad.  I was doing both tax work and the consulting work at this time too, and flew over to Korea to work on the second iteration of a Universal Studios theme park with Lotte, who had acquired the rights.  In between our classes we took trips to the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the mainland.  We mostly just traveled, and did a few boat trips.  We called them junk trips but they were chartered yachts that we moored in the outlying islands to play on the beach.

Most importantly though, I met my wife in Hong Kong, at a place called Daddy O’s.  It was halfway west to Sheung Wan from Central, and served hot wings whose spiciness was illustrated by color.  The spiciest wings were of a red that bordered on bruise-purple, and had a skull and crossbones next to it.  We picked this one.  My tongue turned numb after the first one, and my left leg went numb after the second.  After the third my limbs were throbbing, and my brain notched up into intense survival mode.  I was crying and snot was falling out of my face, and at that moment she walked in.  I remember only that she smelled good, because I couldn’t see her face.  After I had recovered in the sole bathroom (to the resentment of the people in line behind me), I came out and I was literally on fire that entire night.  My brain had been kicked up a notch because it thought I was dying, so I was so witty and conversational and charming.  At least, that’s how I remember it.  At the end of the night she left in a taxi without saying bye but I still knew I would see her again.

I was right.  I followed her to Taiwan at the end of the year and met her mom, and I kind of knew it then already that we would go the distance.  I finished up my semester and came back to Hong Kong.  I set up the Pro Forma Advisors Asia office and worked out of a cubicle in World Wide House, Central.  I was still doing the tax work at this time, and had refined my program so that it now took less than 5 minutes to prepare one case.  We traveled a lot, for pleasure, to places like Japan and Thailand and Sri Lanka and Dubai, where I finally saw the mind-blowing, monumental developments I had only studied on paper.  I traveled for work too.  One time I went to Beijing and walked around Happy Valley Beijing.  After I got back to the hotel room, I read that the AQI (air quality) had been 750, out of a scale where 300+ is hazardous.  No wonder I had been able to stare directly at the sun at around 2 pm.  I felt the effects only later in Hong Kong, where I woke up two nights in a row in a hacking, intense coughing fit.  A message to Universal Studios: do you understand the depth of the problem?  I really don’t know how you’re going to build a park there, just saying.  Another time in Bangkok I thought I was late for a meeting so I hopped on the back of a motorbike in a full suit, with a suitcase slung over my shoulder.  It is a thing of mine that I do not like to be late.  I kept making the driver go faster, and we narrowly missed a few cars, passed a car-on-motorbike accident, and did all kinds of highly illegal maneuvers to get there.  When I got there, they told me I was 3 hours early.  I said I am never late for a meeting.  Then I left and came back.

We moved back to the States last year, 2013.  I’m wrapping up my tax business.  By now I’ve made the interface web-based and I’ve have trained an army of analysts to do it, so I supervise.  And we rolled the tax clientele into a brokerage.  Two months in, and we’re seeing prices at cap rates lower than during the heights of the 2005-2006 years in some geographies.  I don’t know what to make of it, we just closed a deal last week at a 3.5% cap.  I’m still doing consulting.  Remember, dreams are free and abundant, so when your job is to make sense of dreams, it will always be a stable business.  Although last year I went to Bangkok again right when the demonstrations were in their infancy.  We drove by the capital buildings and saw the rice farmers camped out.  It was pouring rain, and I saw the people huddled under tents pouring out the water, which was flooding in.  A few months later the place exploded.  The project shut down.

I went to China a lot last year.  My personal sentiment is that they are at where Korea was in 2007, in a theme park bubble.  Hopefully they will have a quicker learning curve.  Fingers crossed there.  But I’m still figuring things out.  I’ve only realized that I have absolutely no ability to gauge the depth of a market or its long-term prospects.  I thought the theme park consulting business would be dead 5 years ago, during 2008.  I’ve come to the realization that things like this don’t just die, they change.  We need to constantly change too.

I’m no longer the scared, lonely, depressed kid I was 10 years ago.  I’ve gained the ability to think more critically and see above the noise.  I’ve learned how important it is to delegate if you want to perform higher-value work.  I’ve learned the importance of selling, but selling does not come naturally and I will need to work on it.  I’ve become more forward looking.  No more staring at the ceiling regretting every decision I’ve made.  I’ve given up on perfectionism on many things (not all).  It might be because I’m more impatient, so I push things through at the Pareto 80% level, the sufficing level.  I think I have developed a more systems-thinking worldview and understand a little bit more about how these systems work.  And by extension, the ability to see through hare-brained, money-making schemes that will not work.  Also, the ability to gauge how long something will actually take, and more patience overall.  Or is it more…lassitude and laziness?

What I’m losing is the patience to do the grunt work, and perhaps my overall tendency for completeness.  As the world gets more familiar, I’m losing more and more of those moments when things moved me to absolute tears.  I’m losing energy, small drop by drop.  As the things I attend to, and delegate, grow in size and number, I’m losing the time and focus for single-minded dedication to a task.  I’m losing the tendency to jump into things.

More cautiousness is involved.  I remember last week I stood at the edge of the water watching the waves come in for about twenty minutes, instead of just paddling in.  The past me would have just started going.  This is metaphorical but also applies to any new idea I have.  Sometimes, still, I get this blinding, mentally crippling rapid heartbeat, bordering on a mild panic attack, when I realize all the things I still want to do and the time and energy it will take to accomplish them, and I compare it against the time I think I have left.  I’m anxious and still ambitious.

Live boldly and with exuberance, everyone.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays