By Guest Author James Adams

As evidenced by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and European debt debacles, the pervasive sense of economic malaise that began more than three years ago isn’t fading anytime soon.  The apparent ineffectiveness of stimulus packages and a zero interest rate policy have left Americans understandably skeptical of their government’s ability to return their living standards to pre-recession levels.  Stagnant economic conditions have generated at least one positive development, however: spurring a long-overdue interest in financial education.

After my layoff from a money management firm in early 2009, I decided that I needed an extended hiatus from financial services.  Two years spent apologizing to banks, pension funds, and insurance companies for imploding mortgage securities that my firm had purchased for them had drained my zeal for the profession.  As my growing sense of guilt for my small role in the financial crisis deterred me from pursuing unemployment benefits, I decided to instead work at McDonald’s.  There was just one problem: despite repeated application efforts, they wouldn’t hire me.  Eventually, I was hired as a Waffle House server and assigned to work on the weekend graveyard shift.

No sooner did I land at the diner than I found myself under the tutelage of Edward, one of the restaurant’s only two “master grill operators.”  The mustachioed veteran barely showed thirty-five of his nearly fifty years of age.  An otherwise average build was accentuated by broad shoulders and sinewy forearms.  In addition to cooking, Edward provided trenchant (and usually ribald) commentary on all customer and employee activity.  Beyond entertaining the wait staff with colorful innuendos and euphemisms, he imparted a few career lessons I’ll never forget.

During many of my early days at the store, I found myself frequently apologizing to Edward for my incompetence.  My career in finance, I explained, had depended on my ability to think abstractly.  While developing that talent had once helped me to thrive in the bond market, it hadn’t prepared me for the realities of restaurant life.

“If you’re so good at abstract thinkin’,” he said, “Did you see the big crash coming?”

“I expected a slowdown, but not necessarily a crash,” I responded.

“Is that a yes or a no?”

“No, I guess not, Edward.”

He directed me to follow him to a booth that had recently been vacated.

“Can you see all these syrup stains?” he asked, pointing to the table.

“Yes.”

“Outstanding. Even though you can’t find anything else in the store, you’re still more valuable in here than you were at your last job. Now grab a wet towel and get to it.”

I wiped down the table, trying to recall an occasion in high school or college when I had seen the Socratic Method employed so brilliantly.

For as much time as he spent upbraiding me, Edward appeared to genuinely enjoy guiding my transformation (however gradual) from hapless financier to server extraordinaire.  Several months after taking me under his wing, he was boasting of my newly-acquired skill set to two customers at the counter.  After cataloguing my abilities, Edward segued into an economics lecture.  “There’s always work to be done, somewhere,” he said, gesturing towards me.  “The only question is what kind of job it is, where the job is, and if you’re willing to accept the wage.  As long as you’re willing to adapt yourself to different kinds of work, then there really ain’t no such thing as a recession,” he posited.

I began writing Waffle Street: The Confession and Rehabilitation of a Financier with the thought that readers jaded by the financial crisis would enjoy a fish-out-of-water narrative chronicling a financier’s attempt to work at an “honest job” for a change.  And indeed, serving customers after last call provided one humorous story after another.  Given the venue and my assigned shift, I anticipated as much.  What I didn’t expect, however, was the number of lessons about money and banking that Edward and my customers would teach me.

Seen through the lens of 3 a.m. table waiting anecdotes, economics is far from a “dismal science”.  In Waffle Street, readers receive a one-of-a-kind education in the world of money.  More importantly, they get a lot of laughs at a financier’s expense along their journey of discovery.

James Adams began his career with Protective Life Insurance Co. and Jefferson-Pilot Financial, serving as a corporate bond analyst at both companies.  Subsequently, he was a vice president at a $30 billion money management firm.  Although he earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation and an MBA in Finance, most of the author’s financial knowledge has been gleaned from his recent foray into foodservice and the writings of forgotten 19th-century economists.  He prefers his eggs over easy and his hashbrowns “all the way.”

Excerpts and video trailer available at www.wafflestreetbook.com.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” declared the longtime news anchor Howard Beale in the 1975 film classic Network. In the picture, people everywhere toss open their windows and repeat the catchphrase with a barbaric yap. They rush to the streets in maddening throng to air their grievances.  Not one voice. Not one goal. Rather, a hodgepodge of misfit wishes that would make a list to Santa Claus appear bureaucratic and restrained. Sadly, Howard Beale, symbolic spokesman for the hoi polloi, comes to realize that the system co-opts both social and economic power to its own advantage. In the end, all the drama was really about getting better television ratings. The movie is a parable about how all of our screaming really changes very little and in the act we often lose our voice.

Life imitating art, we are here in earnest now, taking our generative energy, the power of the people, to the streets…and parks. Is this another of our great awakenings? If so, let’s get the preachers and players to work at this revival for surely there are conversions to be had. Or is this more like a political convention? Then let us nominate our champions to take our cause to the powers that be. Or is this more about freeing ourselves from oppression? Then let us stop the work like coal miners or stop buying the grapes or riding the buses.

We are all trying to make sense of the Great Upheaval – Loss of jobs, dignity and our deepest beliefs. We may even characterize these events as if they were driven by Newton’s Law of Motion – For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every Tea Partier there is a Wall Street Protester – ideological Bloods and Crips – the neglected ends of the bell curve. The assumption is that we are rebalancing of accounts a-kilter. But what if we are looking at this the wrong way? Maybe this isn’t anything like what we’ve seen before – something all together different and new– something emotional – not a rational crusade with an intended conquest but rather a great catharsis.

Consider that these events, both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, may actually be acts of absolution. Anthropologists call these inversion rituals where the drunken revelry of Mardi Gras precedes the abstinence of Lent and the theatrics of Halloween usher in the devotional piety of All Saints Day. In cultures all over the world there are ceremonies where the poor and powerless get to be king of the hill for one brief shining moment – but not here. Maybe that’s what Woodstock really was – not about the war or the Man or even the music – but really a celebration of peace and love. Simply a ritual to express a deeply held feeling we had – together.

We are as a people at least as passionate as we are rational. We optimistically seek a utopia where we can be our best possible Self – inventive, magnanimous and compassionate. But like all pilgrims each generation seeks a new promised land without a map. Therein lies the Howard Beale problem – mistaking an intense personal longing for a movement – a solution – a destination. Standing tall in the parks will not create jobs, win a national election or even change the direction of the Spirit of the Age. We know it. They know it. But maybe it’s really about being valued – about being a somebody – about having a voice that is heard. Maybe if we listen they won’t have to yell so loud.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.