Easy Money: Stanzas on the Street

Creative employees at financial institutions aren't merely working against type -- they've just found a different sort of muse.
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When

Kate Jennings

started working on Wall Street more than six years ago, many of her friends were shocked. The world of wing-tip shoes and cookie-cutter suits didn't seem a welcome environment for the poet and writer who edited the first anthology of Australian women's poetry and identifies herself as left wing. In Jennings' circles, this kind of thing just wasn't done.

But faced with the need to trade the vagaries of writing poetry and freelancing for a "grown-up income," she took an executive speechwriting job at

Merrill Lynch

, stocking up on suits, pantyhose and high heels like a kid buying a wardrobe for boarding school. "I thought I would have to stitch name labels in my clothes," Jennings says.

Now a senior writer at

J.P. Morgan

, where her duties include helping senior executives with speeches, she praises her good luck in finding mentors to take a chance on her unconventional background and untrammeled love of adjective and metaphor. The job has made her more disciplined when it comes to working on her poetry and fiction.

"It's taught me not to

procrastinate a lot," she says. "Time becomes more precious." What may be more surprising is how precious people like Kate Jennings can be to Wall Street.

"I can't imagine an organization that shouldn't have creative people in it," says Lester Tobias, an organizational psychologist and managing partner at

Nordli Wilson Associates

in Westborough, Mass. "They have the patience to constantly keep asking the tough questions when people who are less creative stop asking them," he says.

While the relationship between white-shoe conservatism and barefoot aestheticism is typically adversarial at best, that doesn't mean the two don't coexist.

"Even within a company that tends to have a more conventional culture, there are always people who have a creative spark," Tobias says (although they may be wrapped in gray flannel).

Once a week, Timothy Gilles leaves the offices at Merrill Lynch, where he works as director of communications and marketing for the corporate and institutional client group, and heads uptown to Carnegie Hall. For three hours he practices with members of the

New York Choral Society

. "One of the things I love about it is that you walk into the rehearsal room at 7, and until 10, the outside world is somewhere else," he says. (Almost: He still leaves his pager on.) "You're absorbed in something that's enormously satisfying emotionally and physically."

"It's a big change of pace from 10 hours at work," Gilles adds. "It's different from problem-solving in a work situation." He credits singing with reducing his stress, though he emphasizes he's a communications and public relations guy first, a singer second.

Four or five times a year, the chorus performs at such venues as

Alice Tully Hall

and

Avery Fisher Hall

, and such pieces as "Carmina Burana" and

Verdi's

"Requiem."

"The concerts themselves are just extraordinary," Gilles says. "You ride that high for a few days or even weeks."

Eb Gaines, owner and partner at hedge fund-of-funds

TG Advisors

and an electric-blues guitar player, agrees.

"When you get a jam going, it's one of the greatest feelings in the world," he says, second only to "twirling around on top of a bull." (Gaines spent more than 20 years on the rodeo circuit, four of those years full time.)

Gaines plays guitar about an hour and a half a night and is now talking with a drummer and hanging out at downtown clubs such as

Fez and

Arlene Grocery, hoping to form a new band this fall.

"I spend my days playing the market and my nights playing guitar," he says. A right-brain/left-brain combination like Gaines' is fairly common, Tobias says. Creative people typically relish intellectual challenges in whatever arena they find themselves.

Imagine Salvador Dali telling ad sales to scrap its presentation in favor of something a little more outre, or a supervisor trying to make diva Kathleen Battle punch a time clock.

Yet creative people, because of their quixotic and unconventional qualities, are frequently unpopular around the water cooler. Imagine

Salvador Dali telling ad sales to scrap its presentation in favor of something a little more outre, or a supervisor trying to make diva

Kathleen Battle punch a time clock. Unorthodox thinkers' very presence can be threatening to the status quo.

If you were to draw a schematic for different personality types, as psychologist John Holland has, you'd see the clearly drawn differences. His RIASEC model is named for the six personality types it describes: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. His model (see graphic) shows that the A (for artistic) and C (for conventional) personalities are directly opposite of each other. Robert Hogan, a professor of psychology at the

University of Tulsa

and head of consulting firm

Hogan Assessment Systems

, has studied Holland's model, and he says basically that means, "They hate each other." (Hogan also says the model has "overwhelming empirical support," contrasting it to pop psych movements of the moment such as emotional intelligence.)

"If I say 'It's blue' and you say 'It's smooth,' I'm going to think you must be crazy," says Tobias of Nordli Wilson. "The creative person is, to a more conventional person, screwing with reality. And the conventional world sees the emotionally expressive acts of a creative person as acting out, or rebellion."

The real role of leadership, Hogan says, is to keep the C and A types (and other types in the model) from killing each other. This may require a less rigid management style, with fewer rules and processes. But just as seeing the occasional independent film doesn't qualify a

Schwarzenegger

fan as an art-house expert, a company that prides itself on (buzzword alert) "thinking outside the box" doesn't necessarily take advantage of its in-house resources for offbeat thinking -- especially when it comes to winning that big account or remedying the backlog in accounting.

"It's one thing to enjoy the arts when you're not invested in the outcome -- it's fun to sing along with a tune that's being played in a novel way," says Tobias. "But truly seeing a business strategy problem in a novel way can be scary."

For her part, Jennings brings her own approach to a more staid environment.

"I have a fairly eclectic way of thinking," she says. "And I use clear language -- I try to be jargon-free." In turn, she says her years on the Street have given new depth and scope to her poetry and fiction, which most recently include the well-reviewed novel

Snake

.

"I profoundly believe people should be involved in the world," says Jennings, elaborating on her philosophy in an email. "The scope of most creative writing these days is fairly narrow," but historically, many great writers worked, she says.

Trollope was a post- office administrator,

Kafka worked in insurance. "Nowadays, novelists hardly ever venture beyond teaching creative writing, so all they can write about is the family and their love lives -- their navels."

Jennings' next novel deals with the world of work and Wall Street. With most other creative writing about New York City, she writes in the email, "We get the nightclub end of things, but not everyday life. We don't get what it's like to get on the subway and go to work in a skyscraper. There are almost no books about work, even though that's where people spend most of their time."

"It could be because people think work's so boring," she says. "But I don't think so."

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