I recently had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with two friends: an investment banker and a business consultant. In other words: I recently had the opportunity to waste an hour of my life discussing credit card rewards and airline miles.
For those of you who aren't quite sure exactly what I mean, allow me to explain what goes on at a modern investment bank here in the year 2014:
Proportion of time spent actually investment banking: 18 percent
Proportion of time spent perusing credit card company websites with your colleagues, trying to decide which one gives you the most reward points when you purchase $107 socks from Brooks Brothers: 82 percent
Now, I know what you're thinking here, and that is: Wait a second, Doug! I saw "Wolf of Wall Street," so I know exactly what goes on at an investment bank! Namely, they throw money in the air while doing lines of cocaine off a fax machine! But this type of behavior has been dramatically curtailed by strict SEC regulations stating that, effective several years ago, all investment banker cocaine must be snorted from the center console in a leased BMW convertible.
So what you have, in your typical investment bank, is a bunch of recent college graduates with finance degrees, running around every day from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. creating Power Point presentations with charts that have names like: Monetary Transcendental Perpendicular Finance Portfolio, Q4 2014 vs. Q4 2013. Unfortunately, all this work leaves them with no time to actually spend the exorbitant sums of money they earn, so instead they pass their days engaging in heated conversations about the intricacies of credit card reward programs.
Consulting firms are in roughly the same situation. Here's what you think a consultant does: a strapping, 6-foot 3-inch muscular consultant in a perfectly tailored Italian suit gets off a plane in Tokyo. He's instantly whisked to a busy downtown commercial center, where a private elevator takes him to the top of a tall office tower. "What do I do?" says an embattled CEO to the handsome, athletic consultant. "You should stop using pension funds to pay for prostitutes," the consultant replies. And then the consultant jets off to Mallorca, where he spends the next month partying with women named Svetlana.
Here's what a consultant actually does: a 24-year-old recent college graduate with absolutely no actual business experience – we'll call him Mike, because they're always named Mike – is hired by a consulting company with a bizarre yet reassuring name, such as FenceJohnson. Eager for his first job in the glass-building'd world of New York, or Chicago, or London, Mike discovers that he instead is assigned to streamline business operations at McJimmy's Chicken Corporation, located in Tickfaw, Mississippi. (Town motto: "World's Largest Selection of Calvin Peeing Decals!")
So Mike goes to Tickfaw, and he visits the McJimmy's factory, where he discovers Maude, a 64-year-old grandmother to 17 "grandbabies," as Maude puts it, who has been doing the company's books "since back when that handsome devil Ronnie Reagan was in the White House." Maude uses Excel, but only to place numbers in a column. Then she adds up each one by hand, using a large-print calculator. "I don't trust them computer programs," Maude says. "Shucks! Messed up. Gotta go back and start over."
So Mike goes back to his hotel, the Best Western Tickfaw, and begins regretting every single decision he's ever made, starting with coming out of his mother's womb. "I should've just stayed in there!" he says to himself. "I had everything I needed!" But then he remembers something: after just four more trips to Tickfaw, he'll have enough airline miles for Gold Status. This places him far ahead of his non-consultant friends, who must make do with Silver Status, or Bronze Status, or whatever comes below Bronze Status, where you have to wait around to board until everyone else has already entered the plane, including children, pets, standby passengers, terrorists, Maude and her grandbabies, the guy who delivers the in-flight magazine, etc. And this makes Mike very happy, because he now has a raison d'etre: he can get free flights. He can get upgrades. He can enter the glamorous world of airport lounges. He has a rewards program to enjoy.
Of course, credit card rewards aren't limited to investment bankers, and airline miles aren't limited to consultants. Both groups love themselves a nice rewards program. So when you get anyone from these two groups together, this is virtually all they talk about.
So anyway, I'm at lunch with this consultant and this investment banker. One is a brilliant young man who aced his SATs and went to a well-regarded private university, somewhere like Duke, where he led the debate society, and tutored at-risk children, and helped build houses for the poor, and earned a 3.8 grade point average. And the other is just as brilliant, and he went to a college that's just as prestigious, somewhere like Georgetown, where he ran the economics club, and edited the business school magazine, and volunteered to do taxes for poor people. So you get these two intelligent, clever, visionary young minds together, and what do they sit there discussing? That's right: the best lounge food at the Tampa airport.
So as you might imagine, my lunch was kind of boring, and I spent a lot of time sitting there, thinking about other topics. For instance: if Maude doesn't trust computer programs, why the hell does she use a calculator?
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.