Sanjay Valvani, a 44 year old married father of two daughters, killed himself this week. Valvani was a partner at a hedge fund, and had been accused of insider trading. Prosecutors were seeking a prison sentence up to 65 years.
This story rocked me. I’m married and have two young boys. I take my career seriously. But I can’t imagine a scenario where my work situation would get so out of control that I’d be accused of crimes, threatened with prison, and as a result, consider suicide.
For some reason, this comment really drove home the image of Valvani as just a regular guy for me:
“He wasn’t just some kind of hardened investment guy,” said David Pyott, former chief executive officer of Allergan Plc. “He was out-going, had charisma. That is why I was even more shocked by all of this.”
What happened? I don’t know the details. All I know is he was accused of trading with inside information, specifically information about upcoming drug approvals from the FDA. Supposedly he made $32 million from those trades.
Because of that, and his subsequent decision to take his own life, his family will have a lifetime of heartache and regret. It’s unimaginably tragic.
Valvani’s suicide follows a recent feature published by the New York Post about the rash of banker suicides beginning in 2013. That article raises the specter that some of these suicides may not actually be suicides. Regardless, we’re talking about real human beings, with real families, losing their lives because of what happens at their day jobs.
These aren’t police offers or firefighters. These aren’t soldiers. These are financial professionals. People who pore over spreadsheets and read The Wall Street Journal. That’s it. They’re not anywhere close to a line of fire. But they’re losing their lives nonetheless.
The huge sums of money have something to do with it. People will compromise their integrity, or potentially put their will to live at risk, for the sake of millions of dollars. Of course they don’t realize the price they’re paying at the time. It’s a slippery slope. Regardless, something as simple as money, even for already super wealthy people, can quickly lead to death.
I hope you’re like me, with a job that you can’t imagine would cause you to sacrifice your own life or freedom. What job could possibly be worth leaving your wife and kids without a husband and father? There’s no job, no amount of money, that could even move me to entertain that thought.
And I’d imagine Sanjay Valvani thought the exact same way. He couldn’t have realized he was walking down a path that would drive him to suicide. That’s the real danger of losing your perspective at work. The prices you pay are small initially, but they compound over time. Allow those costs to accumulate, and your life could be at risk.
There’s a reason I’m focusing on losing perspective in this post, and not on losing integrity. I hear too many stories of seemingly good people doing bad things to believe that these people simply lack integrity. I think that a lot of people, if they view their self-worth strictly through a professional lens, would wander down some pretty dark paths.
That’s why perspective matters. We can all claim to have strong moral fibers. And I’m sure we’re right. It’s equally important to reinforce those fibers with a strong dose of perspective, so that we can put temptation in its proper context. Making $32 million sure sounds nice. But if it comes at the risk of a 65 year prison sentence or, worse, your life…is it even worth thinking twice about?
Perspective can help you navigate around the gray area that marks the beginning of the slippery slope. I’d imagine Valvani started with innocent conversations. Then, those conversations became murky. Eventually, there was no gray area left. Things had crossed the line.
To this point, I’ve described the extreme scenario, where losing perspective costs you your integrity, then a whole lot more. The much less extreme case is where your lack of perspective makes you unapproachable or unsympathetic. You’re so wrapped up in your job that other people don’t even see you as a real human being. You’re a walking, talking box on the org chart.
As with any behavior, there’s a continuum. On one extreme, you couldn’t care less about your job. On the other extreme, your job matters so much to you that you’d sacrifice anything to succeed. There’s a wide, healthy middle between those extremes. How can you manage to find and inhabit that middle area?
To avoid the carefree extreme, you have to develop a sense of ownership around your job. There has to be a part of it that truly matters to you, an identifiable way that you’re helping your colleagues and/or your customers.
To avoid the all-consuming extreme, you have to retain your sense of self. You have to remember who you were before you had this job. You have to keep in mind who you will be once you leave this job. You have a whole life in front of you. What seems critically important in the moment can appear nearly trivial when viewed across years or decades.
Perspective matters. It’s great to be committed to your job. It’s great to take pride in your work. What’s not great is when you let your job consume you so completely that you sacrifice your integrity, and maybe even your life. Life is too long, with too many people counting on you, to pay such a large price for so little return.