Lessons From Con-Men

by jloh

I started working for money at 18. That age marked the beginning of one of the darkest, yet most educational, periods of my life.

Working in bars and entertainment outlets while going through college, I met men of all ages, all backgrounds, and with all sorts of intentions.

There were the distraught husbands in bad marriages that they don’t want to fix. The cheating husbands that came in at 7pm for dinner with their wives, left at 9pm, and came back again at 11pm with their mistresses.

The pushers who will try to sell you anything and everything for that one elusive high. The corporate yuppies who wanted to just drink down a bad day at work and forget for a couple of hours, that they have to get back to that same bleak existence the next morning.

The jocks who just jostled the whole night at the foosball tables. The freeloaders that come in with their rich friends, polishing off bottle after bottle but slinking away to the loo when the bill folder arrives. The smooth shooters hanging at the pool tables, chugging their beers, chalking their cues and playing for “winners’ stay” all night long.

The players who dress like they walked out of a GQ cover, dropping the same cheesy pick-up lines that for some bizarre reason, works every time – or maybe it’s just the really nice cars the valet brings them that seals the deal with pretty young things night after night.

The young boys that just graduated into this seemingly exciting and mysterious adult world, acting macho and downing alcohol by the bottle – swiping for the bill with their daddy’s supplementary credit cards.

The expat trying to kill another lonely night away from their homeland far away. And the VIPs with their bulky bodyguards, sitting alone, sipping wine, smoking a cigar and watching the crowd.

I met them all. Some, became my friends – and followed me from joint to joint as I changed jobs. And some, once they got to the point where they realized I am not susceptible to their romantic advances (being in a relationship that whole period) – turned me into a drinking buddy/ confidante instead.

While some, offered me job opportunities in their companies or businesses. And one day, fed up with the dead-end vicious cycle of the relentlessly mind-numbing entertainment circuit, I took up one of the offers from a VIP that prospected me for 6 months to work in his trading firm. Always, he is in a 3-piece-suit, something that is decidedly hard to do in the mucky tropical Malaysian weather; with a bodyguard shadowing him, and a driver dropping him off at the bar by 5pm every other day.

He took to having conversations with me, and soon started to pursue me to work for him. He owned a trading firm and was relentless in his approach. And one day I agreed – deciding to walk away forever from the entertainment scene to pursue my financial dreams working with this man.

The first day of work at his luxurious office in downtown KL, he gave me an office with a wrap-around window view. He taught me the trade – how to read graphs, charts, indices, market trends. He showed me how to lead prospects themselves to close the deal for me. And soon I brought in enough revenue for him that he made me the head of department, managing a group of men at least 2 decades older than me – who’ll have to report to me monthly.

I was still only 22 then and dying to own the world. I was fearless, impressionable, gullible, and ambitious. I started out broke and so was driven to work really hard, and on such bad terms with my family then that I haven’t had a proper conversation with my dad in 2 years. I wanted to do it all, to prove that I had what it takes to succeed in a world dominated by men, and I thought I could do it alone. I was arrogant. I was blinded by the money I was making and jaded by the company I was keeping.

And as I learned from this chapter of my young life – all that, made for a very dangerous combination. And one day, the time bomb of inexperience exploded.

In less than a year I worked there, the outfit was shut down by the authorities. I walked straight into it reporting to work one morning, finding out from my PA that the Directors were all not contactable, turning around to see the enforcement agents from the Securities Department crashing in and confiscating everything in sight. I spent the whole day being interrogated. All my clients’ money got frozen with the company’s bank account. Only after 7 years was the case finally closed – when they found one of the Directors and put him in jail. When I received that letter in the mail, I broke down and cried.

That was one of the most unnerving experiences in my life. I was so traumatized. I started questioning my own lack of judgment. And for the next 5 years, I spiraled into a life of mediocrity – afraid, so afraid of my ambitions to be wealthy – wanting only to be in a safe job with a legit company. Trying to reinstate my own self-worth. It didn’t matter that I took a massive pay-cut. I didn’t want any of it. To me at that moment, money was evil. Men were evil. I was racked with guilt. I spent years trying to rebuild relationships with the people who trusted me but got hurt in this incident.

But now, I’ve forgiven myself and that man too. I look back now and I realize that it was an extremely valuable experience – especially in the arena of learning about myself and human psychology. That chapter has closed for me, but the lessons I’ve learned from that period – would serve me for the rest of my life:

1. Do not be impressed easily – look for the substance, not just the form in all you encounter
3-piece Armani suits, nice, flashy sports cars, VIP reservations at all the best joints in town, fine dining, cash splashing, drivers and bodyguards, dinners and gifts, posh offices and beautiful homes; I love these things – but this experience taught me to see the difference between the authentic and the sincere. It’s not the stuff, it’s who’s showing you all these stuff – and why. Heed your instincts, they won’t lead you wrong.

2. A fool and his money will always be parted
I don’t need to deliberate on this, but I have had first-hand training on how to cajole money out of someone by having him/ her suggest it too. Seeing this in action is fascinating and scary at the same time, and I had issues beating myself up for learning and using these tactics while I was working there. But now I see that everyone is responsible for their own decisions, and mine is to operate with the highest level of integrity, while being aware of all these tactics in the market. Greed is the biggest factor why someone ends up being conned. Be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true, do your own due diligence, and seek third-party counsel before making decisions in areas you are unfamiliar with.

3. There is no such thing as a short-cut to success
Ah. The delusion of all gamblers and con-men, wanting to get a better deal from the world. Being only willing to pay $1, yet expecting $100 return; work an hour but be paid for 10. There is no such thing. Taking short-cuts cost a price dearer than gold – your character, and self-respect. And it gets you nowhere worthwhile for very long.

4. Be in possession of your own mind
You know all the jazz about NLP, mind influence, etc? Well, take full responsibility for your own decisions and thoughts, and you’ll never have to worry about someone influencing you to do something that is detrimental to you. Everyone and everything in your daily life IS trying to influence you, you can’t avoid it. So don’t be a passive about this – own your thoughts! It’s 100% your call, all the time.

5. Stand for what you believe in
So shit happens. My con-men Directors disappears, I’m next-in-command, and the shit’s hitting the fan. And yeah, I was still 22 – but by then I was feeling 52. So what? Deal with all the mess you find yourself in in a manner that you won’t regret. Stand up to it, and fight for what you believe in. Own up if you made a mistake – face up to those you indirectly wronged. I learned that it’s not your gender or age that determines whether you’re strong or not – it’s your values and the courage to stand for what is right when it’s the toughest to do so. It’s about whether you’ll walk the right path, even if you have to walk it alone. And that’s a choice and it’s always worth it to take the higher path.

6. Learn from every experience
This was probably the only way I could pick myself up, move on & make different choices that can move my life forward. This philosophy is now indelibly ingrained onto my soul because of painful experiences like these. And truly, for that, I am grateful.

Sometimes, like tonight, I wonder what became of these men. I hope they are well and have found their peace. I still believe in the inherent goodness of people, probably more now than I ever did before, even after experiences like this.

It is a beautiful thing that the human condition is so varied, textured, and rich with both positive and negative experiences – offering us the opportunity to make different choices, in the pursuit of defining who we really are.

So, if you’re in a position where you felt that someone did wrong by you, or you felt that you did wrong by someone – find the graciousness in your heart to forgive, but forget not the lesson it has wrapped within.

Without fail, our biggest trials are truly our biggest gifts, just choose to see them as such and you’ll see that it is true. And whether it accelerates your personal growth or stunt it, that is your call – therein lies the magic of each of our lives.