In order to sustain life on earth as we know it, it’s becoming obvious that we are going to have to make some big and ultimately positive changes in how we live.
Jared Bibler is the author of ICELAND’S SECRET: The Untold Story Of The World’s Biggest Con. He is a graduate of MIT, where he studied engineering. He is also a CFA charterholder with nearly 20 years of broad experience in the global financial markets. Jared started his career in Boston and New York, where he worked as a consultant to a Wall Street giant. Following that, he moved to Iceland where he supported the Icelandic pension funds’ foreign investments. Unhappy with this environment, he resigned from his job at a leading Icelandic bank days before the 2008 Icelandic financial crisis. He was subsequently hired to head a special investigation team at the Icelandic markets regulator.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path does not really feel like something that I chose, more something I stumbled through! I studied mechanical engineering, but my first job out of school as an engineer — I was designing manufacturing processes — was really disappointing. So I ended up jumping into software at the height of the dot-com boom, then working for five years building parts of the back office for one of the biggest banks on Wall Street. I got tired of that, so I moved to Iceland, where I ended up managing professional investor money for one of the big banks. I left that job on a Friday and the following Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday saw the three banks of the country collapse like dominoes. The economy was ruined, and the only paying job I could find was as an investigator, working for the Icelandic government, into what had caused the collapse. That collapse changed my life — and as well the course of my career. You can dig into this story in much more detail in Iceland’s Secret.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The story that the book is built around — a deep investigation of some of the biggest financial crimes globally — was in itself very disruptive. This is a closed world, and one where lots of shady things can happen every day with impunity. Digging deep and using forensic tools to investigate breaches of the law is actually (and very unfortunately) quite disruptive in the world of high finance. It’s rare that a bank completely collapses and investigators are then able to sift through the wreckage. What we found sometimes made our hair stand on end. I don’t think the average person understands that or understands the stakes here, so it is very important for me to get that message out.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was eighteen, I had a summer job helping out some electricians in my native Massachusetts. Those were long, hot, dusty days that began at 7:00 am and ended whenever we were done. One day we were helping retrofit an old wooden house into probably eleven illegal apartments — the owner of the building was also that town’s building inspector, so no worries there — and I was drilling holes to run wire into a tiny kitchen he was building into the eaves of the attic, so that an electric stovetop could be placed inches from the wooden ceiling. Suddenly, I could see daylight: my drill bit had gone right through the top of the wall and came out the roof, making a huge hole. I felt terrible. I confessed the crime to my coworker, an electrician in his 20s working the next room over. “I drilled a hole through the roof, Mark,” I said. “No you didn’t, kid,” he said and motioned for me to be quiet.
Within minutes the roofers discovered the hole and were stomping their boots and yelling down at us through the open window of the attic. Mark stuck his whole torso out the window and hurled a stream of invective back that probably hasn’t been topped to this day. How terrible did a roofer have to be to drill a hole in his own roof and then blame an electrician for that? That kind of thing. And that was the end of that.
I think the lesson was: have the loudest voice and you won’t be challenged. Unfortunately, that’s usually often true in the world of business and finance. It’s how a lot of bad ideas go unchallenged. I’d like to see this culture change, and I think maybe it is.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
One of my best mentors was my Master’s thesis advisor, Professor David Trumper. Whenever I’d say anything even a little bit vague to describe my research, he’d stroke his beard and gently repeat what I’d said back to me, verbatim, with a quizzical look in his eyes. These moments could bring on a lot of panic! He helped me to learn the value of being precise in my language — which really helped me down the road in all manner of roles.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
It’s funny to me to hear that description. In the staid world of banking and finance, I don’t think anyone would perceive “disruptive” as a positive adjective. This is because the perception of stability and solidity is very necessary in a world where uncertainty can bring ruin. But as 2008 showed us, big chunks of the global financial system were just a few days or even hours away from collapse. Since then, governments and regulators have taken steps to try to prevent a repeat. Despite this, the largest institutions have only grown in size and I fear we have come back to where we were, or maybe to a scarier place than back then.
I think that in 2021 the complex towers of global finance have outgrown their usefulness, and it’s time for a disruption in the form of a massive simplification to a system that serves both us and the planet well.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
In the past couple of years, I have been working in the area of sustainable finance. In order to sustain life on earth as we know it, it’s becoming obvious that we are going to have to make some big and ultimately positive changes in how we live. The political and economic systems of our societies are now changing slowly to reflect this new reality. There is a lot to be done here to effect a smooth transformation, including in the areas of government policy, central bank and economic policy, and technology. A big threat here is the practice of “greenwashing” — advertising solutions that appear to be environmentally beneficial but are in actuality merely a new paint job on old and dirty ideas. I think the best place for a shakeup currently is in this area.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
The book that inspired me most, both while I was conducting the investigations in Iceland and then later when I was writing my own book, was The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. I found the inside story of the collapse of Enron in 2001 to be an absolute page-turning read and it really pushed me to do a great job in my own work. It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.
I also really enjoy literature, and recently I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and looking forward to a re-read of some Haruki Murakami classics like 1Q84.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Many quotes and ideas from Thich Nhat Hanh have been helpful to me over the course of the past years. One I like today is, “My actions are my only true belongings.” I like the idea that our words and are actions are what we create in the world, and what we leave behind us when we are no longer here.
The wisdom of this great teacher has been very helpful to me through some difficult periods in my life, and I would really recommend any of his books or talks.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I wrote Iceland’s Secret because I wanted readers to see by example what could happen if we continue to let our financial systems run amok — that we all have an interest in a clean, transparent, and truly stable financial system. And I want to inspire, also: to show how we also have the power to effect change to create such a system in the places where we live.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!