We pulled up the blinds of our office window on the 23rd floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange building as an FA18 fighter jet burned past.
All air traffic was halted. The Chicago skyline was silent except for the jets loaded with live missiles and the haze wallowing over the South Side.
We could see the pilot’s head through the cockpit canopy.
An hour earlier we arrived for work. I had moved from trading on the floor of the exchange to our office. We had the news on all day, starting at 5am.
CNN showed smoke pouring out of a hole in the tower.
The second plane hit.
We’ve all seen this 1,000, perhaps 10,000 times.
But it was different for me.
On the floor of the CBOE our pit was responsible for making markets – offering retailers and street traders prices so they could buy and sell options with us.*
Several times each day we were on the phone with traders and brokers working from the towers in New York.
We talked to Cantor Fitz every day.
They were mostly professional conversations, but during slow times there was small talk. How’s your wife? Where’s your daughter going to college? Dirty jokes were shared. Pranks were played. “We have to get drinks when you come to New York” they said.
The drinks were never gotten.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone I saw jumping from the towers on TV were the guys on the phone.
But when we saw the fighter jet blast by, a switch flipped and I knew it wasn’t an accident.
The El** in Chicago was packed with people and the one guy with a portable jogging radio (pre-twitter and smartphone) relayed the reports to our train car while everyone else was silent.
“Oh my god the second tower fell”
“The Pentagon is still burning”
“There may be other explosions”
People were crying. Cell phones weren’t working.
We were trapped in the train car alone with each other. Strangers were hugging. It’s the only time in life that I’ve been with a group of complete strangers and we looked each other in the eyes with pure empathy. Everyone cared.
It was 15 minutes on the Brown Line to Armitage in Lincoln Park, it may as well have been 15 hours.
My best friend Rich, his friend Brad and I went to Mongolian Barbecue and drank beer.
We talked about the people we knew in NY, and what was important to us.
Some of the guys in NY were lucky – missed a train, got a late breakfast, had the flu – and lived.
But we were alive, too.
I was 23 and had been trading almost 4 years. I felt old. I was stressed out all the time. I was driving up to 10 hours on weekends to get away from concrete and corn field.
I was afraid. I wasn’t happy, but uncertainty seemed scarier.
I also realized I wasn’t in control. A bomb could go off, a plane could crash, a train could derail, a zillion other things could kill me that day. I’m surprised more people don’t die by all the things that could kill us.
I told the firm partners I was moving to Oregon where there were mountains, rivers and oceans. Changing my life took me 10,000 strides closer to happiness.
I realized 5 things on September 11, 2001 but took 10 years to understand:
1. We all care – Everyone cares but we don’t extend empathy to strangers very often because we’re all fighting our daily battles. Extending empathy to a stranger once every day makes me realize there are bigger things at play than me.
2. My world is made up and I’m in control – Everything in my world is a result of my own mind and my own decisions; fear can be fought with ideas and ingenuity. Ask “how can I do this” and write down ideas. This will empower you and build your own reality the way you want it to be. Everything is an experiment.
3. I’m not in control – We can’t control others, so any day could be your last. I try to make sure the people I love know I love them, and I try not to kill anyone.
4. Happiness is a choice – Losing things can make you realize what you had and what you have left over. When I feel poor or constricted I count the bounty: there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road, food in every market and every little diner across the country. Thousands of new businesses started every day. Count the bounty.
5. Have faith – Believe in something. Believing is the first step to finding purpose in life.
At the end of the day we tend to think we’re here alone, but then something horrific happens and we realize we’re here together.
But we’re alive and we can pass the torch of those in the past by being better than we were yesterday.
To my friends and acquaintances and the families of Cantor Fitz, my thoughts are with you.
* We made the market for UAL – United Airlines – and 10 other underlying stocks.
** The El is Chicago’s subway system. It’s short for Elevated Rail.