Survivorman Comes To Wall Street
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”- Charles Darwin
In the 1985, Hollywood introduced us to Angus MacGyver, an engineering and applied science genius who could bring down a Russian T30 tank with the most prosaic of jury rigged household items – chewing gum, a paper clip and a ballpoint pen. Macgyver, hailed from a long line of resourceful improvisationists – all spawned by a Cold War preoccupation that one day in a few violent flashes of light and mushroom clouds, we would be cast back into a Stone Age where physical and intellectual prowess would replace financial and social prowess as linchpins to our survival.
America loved MacGyver. He was the ultimate scavenger. He did not need people. People needed him. In an era where ICBMs idled silent in underground silos, hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles, we became fascinated with people who possessed the skills necessary to survive if anyone dropped the big one. To subsist in a post apocalyptic world, man must learn to catch small animals with a snare, spear fish and move across an urban wasteland perhaps dressed only in a musk ox coat and buffalo moccasins. If you were really good, you might domesticate a wild dog and call him Lobo.
Fast forward to 2009. Armageddon has occurred in the form of a nuclear melt down bursting from an overheated reactor with rods fashioned from sub-prime debt, credit swaps, reckless leverage and unhealthy risk taking. Suddenly, everyone’s worst-case scenario is closer to their reality. We are in survival mode.
At night we turn on our TVs desperate to escape our new realities – hoping to vicariously live someone else’s life. Some turn to the empty carbohydrates of reality shows. Yet, others long for a hero. Since MacGyver had improvised his last solution in 1992, channel surfers are turning to another set of survivalists – ex SAS instructor Bear Grylls in “Man Versus Wild” and my favorite Canuck toughie, Les Stroud in Survivorman.
Canadian Stroud uses wits and ingenuity to survive a multitude of survival scenarios. He must endure psychological isolation, uncertainty and inadequate resources. His ability to control his fear and focus on what is required to confront extraordinary circumstances reassures armchair mountain men who want to believe that a person cannot be so tenderized by prosperity and materialism that he cannot rise to confront and overcome disaster.
Each episode finds Les making bivouacs out of debris found on deserted islands, eating roots in boreal forests, navigating inhospitable mangrove swamps, dodging dehydration in the arid African Kalahari and or enduring the open sea adrift in a leaky raft. Les films his own experience and survives, albeit uncomfortably, eating native plants, hunting local game, sleeping rough in every conceivable circumstance and occasionally taking drastic steps to survive such as drinking his own urine or consuming indigestible organic matter that the most ambitious contestant on Fear Factor would rebuff.
With the permanent contraction within the financial services community, the world is becoming even more Darwinian and it seems that for every position there are ravenous packs of feral workers fighting over a slave wage job in hopes of living to hunt another day. I got to thinking, could Les Stroud last a few weeks in the primordial boardrooms and post Armageddon landscapes of Wall Street?
Those already laid off are learning new survivor techniques – – distinguishing between the discretionary and the necessary, separating wants and needs, and appreciating the clear, unobstructed perspective that now fills a field of vision once obscured by country clubs, second homes and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, serial vacationing. Those that are still employed, understand the radical climate change in business and face their own weekly survival scenarios dealing with cutthroat last-man-standing politics, heavily leveraged balance sheets, back-lashing regulation and a self consciousness aversion to the general public opinion that anyone who works in finance or banking must be up to no good. I wonder what Les Stroud would do. Could Survivorman endure if he were confronted with the daily challenges of today’s recessionary economy?
I called David Brady, the show’s producer to discuss my idea. Mr Brady’s secretary said he was busy and would return my call. A few weeks later I called again. He was still in a meeting. ” That’s one hell of a long meeting,” I told her. ” Would she mind just taking a message. She agreed and attempted to outline my idea for a new season theme show: Survivorman Comes To Wall Street. “It would be the diametric opposite of “Survivor – Samoa” or “I am a Celebrity Get Me The Hell Out of Here”. We could launch the special shows on the anniversary of last year’s meltdown. We could then subject Les to the cruelest of corporate conditions and watch him squirm.” The phone was still connected so I kept talking. I could hear her scribbling furiously.
Week 1 – Les is hired as a mid-level manager at XYZ, Inc, a financial services firm’s insurance division. Although, the problems that brought the firm to its knees are all based in the firm’s Financial Products division, XYZ is days from bankruptcy and is taken over by the Feds. Les has just learned that a new EVP will be running his division and that he hates Canadians. The insurer is crawling with regulators. The stock is down 75% and rumors are rampant of a massive layoff. Employees are rapidly jumping ship. Les decides to refuse to leave his office to avoid a potential pink slip. At night, he hides from security guards and scavenges for meals, foraging on the most unlikely items in the office including week-old coffee that tastes like burnt popcorn. Les cleverly uses a coffee filter to strain toilet water when the water supply is cut-off by the authorities trying to get him to vacate the building. Can Les survive the week?
Week 2 – Les inherits a hedge fund in total free fall – redemption requests are flying in faster than spring swallows to San Juan Capistrano. The stock market is plummeting and Les’ investment bank is making margin calls on the loans his fund used to make heavily leveraged bets on a range of securities and credit swaps. Long time clients are bailing out faster than black ship rats as Les is hit with margin calls. The SEC has decided, post-Madoff scandal that they must find a poster child for reckless investment management and Les fits the profile. In a soon to be classic scene, Les sprinkles blackened eraser shards throughout the office and then calls the Health Department claiming that the building is infested with rodents. With the building abandoned, Les uses his Gucci belt and a nail file to start a fire that rages through the main office, destroying incriminating documents and the main server where all the back up emails are stored. Will Les avoid jail time ? Is it too little too late ?
Week 3 – Les becomes former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld’s personal bodyguard. Les must accompany Dick to his favorite health club and help him avoid getting punched by disgruntled ex-employees and angry activists. At one point, Les fashions jump ropes into trip wires as he cordons off Dick’s bench press area. He also advises Dick to carry a self cooling pouch of his own plasma. “You never know when you may be stabbed and in need of transfusion.” Les says to Fuld and the camera. “I’m usually the one that is drawing blood from other people,” chips in an animated Fuld. Can Dick and Les complete an entire circuit of machines without losing a quart of blood.
Week 4 – In this week’s episode, Survivorman is faced with the grim possibility of being made redundant – (the business equivalent of dying in the wilderness ). Les goes berserk and holds everyone in the lunchroom hostage with a sharpened punji stick. Les, recalling an old trick he used on Bushmen in the Kalahari, threatens to drink his own urine – a powerful gesture of male dominance. To Les’ bewilderment, his new boss – a twenty-something private equity, enfant terrible with no personal boundaries – scoffs and tells Les that he drank from a commode several times during fraternity rush at Yale. Les’s desperate act of defiance draws local media attention and unfortunately the SWAT police. Les finds an air duct and the game of cat and mouse begins with the local authorities. Can Les make it to Friday before getting fired? Will Les be able to keep his backdated stock options?
“Well?” I asked. ” Do you think he will like it?”
There was a pregnant pause and then an animated sigh. I could tell she was smiling. “Mr Brady may like this. He can show how the American workplace has become a virtual wilderness where only the strong can survive. Les can merchandise his survival ideas to corporate executives – Les Stroud’s Guide To Surviving a Bear Attack or A Bear Market.” Suddenly she was covering the phone and speaking to someone. I could hear their muffled exchange.
“You know Mr Turpin, perhaps we can get Les to climb a building or throw a chair through a window and fashion shoes out of his leather note pad? Mr Brady just got out of his meeting and wants to know if you think we can get Les to replace Ken Lewis at Bank of America for one week ? He thinks that would be one hell of a survivor episode. We need a job that really puts Les at risk.”
I thought for a minute.
“Why not put him in charge of healthcare reform. That should just about kill him. “