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What Lessons Can We Learn From Losing Our Life's Savings?

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What Lessons Can We Learn From Losing Our Life's Savings?

What Lessons Can We Learn From Losing Our Life's Savings?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, Ideas about Crisis and Response, and the times when you have to decide whether a crisis will define you or not.

Can you introduce yourself, please?

MATT WEINSTEIN: Yeah. I'm Matt Weinstein, founder and emperor of Playfair, which is a team building organization.

RAZ: I'm not going to ask about emperor, but that's a great title.

WEINSTEIN: (Laughter). Well, you know what? That way I'm never outranked at any meetings.

RAZ: No, never.

In 2008, Matt Weinstein found himself in one of the most remote places on earth when crisis struck.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WEINSTEIN: I went on vacation in Antarctica on the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian icebreaker, and it was an incredible voyage - gorgeous icebergs like floating works of art and just spectacular, spectacular scenery. And about halfway through the trip, I got a page to go up to the bridge for a satellite phone call. And I thought I knew what this was about. Before I left on the trip, I had been working with a speakers' bureau on a series of dates, and they were supposed to call me if they needed my final approval on the deal. So I went kind of running up towards the bridge up this steep flight of stairs 'cause I knew these satellite phone calls were $10 a minute. And at the same time, I'm thinking to myself, this is, kind of, cool, doing business in Antarctica. But when I pick up the phone, it's not the speakers' bureau. It was in fact my wife, Janine (ph), and she said a few words to me that just totally turned my world upside down. She said to me, Bernie Madoff's been arrested. His entire fund is a complete scam. And what she didn't have to say, but which both of us knew very well in that moment, was we had just lost our entire life savings.

RAZ: What do you remember thinking when you - when that came through the phone? Were you just numb?

WEINSTEIN: Oh, yeah. I was really numb. I was just sick to my stomach. I - first of all, I had a huge amount of shame. You know, it was all-encompassing. I could not - I couldn't go to sleep without thinking about it. It was just overwhelming, overwhelming. And the worst was being in such isolation.

RAZ: Wow. And this is someone you really trusted, right?

WEINSTEIN: Yeah, exactly. You know, he was the former chairman of the NASDAQ, you know, in the '90s and early 2000s, when everyone was getting these huge, huge returns. Madoff wasn't paying these huge returns. It was just a pretty steady 8 percent to 12 percent, I mean, which is still pretty great, but it wasn't, like, the 20 percent and 30 percent that some people were making, you know, in the boom years. And Madoff was kind of synonymous with bank. You'd say, like, I'm going to take some money out of Madoff, I'm going to put some money back into Madoff. And we knew people who had been with him for so long. And, you know, one of my friends once said, if you jump up and down for 30 years and every time you go up you come down, you believe in gravity, that's how much we believed in Madoff.

RAZ: Wow.

WEINSTEIN: And it just felt like the safest, safest thing to do.

RAZ: But of course, it was far from the safest thing to do. Bernie Madoff's firm was a complete scam. He took in money but stopped investing it in the market. And when he got caught, tens of thousands of people who had trusted Madoff to invest their money lost it all.

WEINSTEIN: I didn't even realize the scope of this thing, you know? I mean, Madoff, I knew him, a couple of our friends knew about him, but most people never heard of him. So when I saw it was on the national news, I just was stunned.

RAZ: Were there people in the community of investors who were - who lost everything that were not able to handle it? Who just were just broken, just completely broken?

WEINSTEIN: Oh, many, many, many. Reading things online was something that I stopped doing after a while because there was such violent, horrible comments that people wrote online when there was ever anything about Madoff, you know, that these are rich people that deserved it, I'm starting a pool about the first person to kill themselves because of this. I mean, it was just horrible, horrible stuff. People, you know, having to take their mothers out of the nursing home because they couldn't afford it anymore, 94-year-old guy working as a box-boy in the supermarket. There were still people who were very, very bitter. But you can't spend your whole life focusing on that person. You have to focus on what's going on in your own life and how you go from here and, you know, stop blaming yourself and stop blaming him.

RAZ: It's hard. I mean, it's really - I mean, it's really hard to deal with any kind of crisis by just saying I'm going to get through this, I'm going to think about this differently. It's not easy. It's really hard.

WEINSTEIN: Of course it's really hard. And it's especially hard in isolation.

RAZ: And it was only really by breaking through that isolation, by connecting with other people, that Matt was able to start the process of recovery. Not too long after Madoff's Ponzi scheme was exposed, a bunch of people who lost their savings in the scam got together one night for dinner.

WEINSTEIN: And one person said, OK, let's just go around, and if you had to have done one thing different, what would you do differently? And the first three people that spoke all said, I would not change a thing. My heart is so open. I feel so connected to other people. I feel so connected to myself. I feel so present and so alive right now, no amount of money could bring me to this place. And I was just stunned. I was still in a lot of anger. I was in a lot of shame. I was frightened about what would happen in the future and, you know, what it helped me realize was, yeah, there's not just one way to look at this thing. I don't have to be a perpetual victim because these people aren't. It's really not what happens. It's how you internalize it.

RAZ: We will all experience a crisis in our lives.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: But we're not all prepared for it. Can you prepare for it?

WEINSTEIN: Well, first of all, you can know that it's going to happen, that we don't all live these charmed lives where nothing bad ever happens. And, you know, there's this beautiful philosophy called basic trust, and what it says is you believe that whatever happens in your life is exactly what needs to happen to make you the person you need to become. It means whatever happens to you, you can grow from it, you can learn from it, you can get stronger from it. And if you kind of take this idea that I'm going to grow through adversity - and not just through adversity, but of, certainly, what's going to happen to me is I'm not going to be the same a couple years from now as I am now. And most people, the way they make the biggest changes is through having life push back at them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WEINSTEIN: So stress is an everyday fact of life. Everybody has it right in their face right now. But dealing with stress is not something that's unique to our generation. People have been thinking about it for a long, long time. And one of the people who's been a real solace to me during this time is Epictetus, the stoic philosopher who lived nearly 2,000 years ago, who said, people are not disturbed by things but by the view they take of them. In other words, it's not what happens to you that's important. It's how you react to it. Pain and suffering doesn't come from what happens to us. Pain and suffering comes from the stories we tell ourselves about the consequences, about the future, about what's going to happen as a result of what happened. Or, in another famous Epictetus quote, we cannot choose our external circumstances but we can always choose how we respond to them. We can always choose how we react. And yes, Janine and I knew that Bernie Madoff had stolen our money, but it was up to us to make sure he didn't steal the rest of our lives.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Matt Weinstein is the founder of the team building company called Playfair. You can hear his entire talk at ted.com.

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