Books | Who used to be a millionaire?

A review of What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan.
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books) on

Jim Paul kindled his "love affair" with money at age nine, caddying at a Kentucky golf course for fifty cents an hour. His most profitable day, which would come much later in life, in 1983, Paul made $248,000 as a stockbroker trading futures on soybean oil.

"It was literally like you expect God to call up any minute and ask if it's okay to let the sun come up tomorrow morning," he writes.

Three months later, he had lost $1.6 million, his governorship at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and his cherished copper and mahogany desk, which was liquidated with the rest of his property.

What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars (Columbia University Press,$27.95) was originally published in 1994 (Infrared Press) and will be re-released Tuesday. Paul narrates his unapologetic, aw shucks, plucky "parable." Co-writer Brendan Moynihan, author of Financial Origami: How the Wall Street Market Broke, provides commentary and analysis.

The tone of the book alternates between Moynihan, whose style reminds me of the rhythmic, consistent smack of a bouncing basketball, and Paul, whose writing voice is more like the cartoonish jangle of a ping-pong ball tumbling down a stairwell. Even when recalling acts of stupidity or egoism, Paul is endearing. His favorite adjectives are "neat" and "super neat."

Though Paul was an apathetic student with hazy career goals, "I got the impression that I was better than the others," he writes. "I just had this knack for doing things the ‘wrong' way but still succeeding."

What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars pairs nicely with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which I reviewed for this column last month: "Men attribute success to themselves and women attribute it to other external factors," Sandberg writes. Indeed.

Fiscal reckoning steered Paul towards two maxims. The first: externalize professional losses to prevent emotionalism. The second: each investment mandates a written plan.

Paul writes:

Once you specify what price or under what circumstances you would no longer want the position, and specify how much money you are willing to lose, then, and only then, can you start thinking about whether to enter the market (127).

The book's re-release lacks historical revisions. (Steve Jobs will not be remembered best as the founder of the destitute computer company NeXT.) Still, this succinct book is startlingly relevant. Given the losses regularly incurred by today's banks, a $1.6 million blunder seems like nothing. Our national debt is $16 trillion.

At its core, What I Learned is about the psychology of grief, an emotion familiar to all. Paul died when he was in his late 50s. What happened?

The answer was almost as hard to read as it was to find, especially in light of recent events. Paul became a vice president at both Morgan Stanley and then Carr Futures, now part of the broker agency Newedge. His office was located on the 92nd floor of 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan. On September 11, 2001, a terrorist-flown plane crashed into floors 94 through 98Sixty-nine Carr Futures employees were killed, including Paul.

Jim Paul wrote a book about what he thought would be the most compelling event of his life. In hindsight, the loss of a job and a desk are negligible.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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