Most people do not understand what I did at work. When asked what I did for a living, I usually replied, “I work in energy trading.” The person who asked the questions would usually stare back at me with a blank expression on his or her face. I would then say that I worked for Shell Oil. Then the light bulb suddenly shone, and the person would reply, “Oh, you work for an oil company.” The conversation would normally shift to another topic where we would find common ground.
Most people assume that employees of large, international energy companies (Shell, Exxon, Chevron, BP, Total, etc.) drill for oil (upstream) or work in a refinery/chemical plant (downstream). Most energy employees do indeed work in either upstream or downstream jobs deploying their technical, financial, or operational skills. My initial assignments after university were in reservoir engineering doing upstream technical projects. My job was to evaluate the properties of the underground hydrocarbon reservoirs and economically maximize their extraction. I worked alone in an office doing complex calculations, then presented my analytical work for review, approval, and implementation.
I switched to energy trading after completing my MBA. My technical knowledge was still useful. However, energy trading drew more on my newly acquired financial and risk-taking skills. The role of energy trading is to transport and manage energy (crude oil, refined products, natural gas, and electricity) from its source to the ultimate customer/destination. For example, the energy trader buys crude oil from the producing field or export port, then transports it to a refinery. The energy trader pays for the transportation and delivers it to the optimal refinery to manufacture refined products. Along the route, the energy trader may perform many transactions, such as hedging the underlying commodity price or changing the delivery location. The goal is to buy low and sell high, something easier said than done. When all transactions are completed, the financial summation of all transactions is the energy trading profit or loss.
My mother used to tell me: “I see that crude oil prices are going up. You must be making more money.” I would remind her that the absolute price of oil has little to do with energy trading’s financial profits and losses. Energy trading is about optionality and has little to do with absolute prices (less than 5% of trading profits). The underlying commodity (crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, etc.) price is financially hedged which neutralizes most of the price risk. Optionality is where most of the financial profits arise. Energy traders take on risk and leverage optionality for financial gain.
Just as most people did not understand what energy traders do for a living, it is also true for spouses. The recent death of Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing in Friends, highlighted how many family members do not understand their loved one’s work. Chandler worked in an office, but it was a mystery as to his profession. Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, once guessed: “Something to do with numbers.” Even his future wife, Monica, didn’t know what Chandler did in his office. It was a running joke among the Friends cast.
Although most of my family had little understanding of energy trading, my wife understood my job. We worked for the same company. Her last position was in Shell Trading, although it was not working as a trader. She did interact with traders and performed trading financial analysis. Her understanding of energy trading greatly assisted me, both professionally and emotionally. She was able to inform me of poor trading behaviors, such as arrogance, that were counterproductive. She relayed to me how non-trading employees viewed trading. She pointed out important upstream and downstream financial measurements that greatly impacted their businesses, something that trading did not always regard as meaningful. Through her eyes, I was able to peer past my selfish trading boundaries into the larger corporate goals.
But more importantly, my wife gave me emotional support. I could download my frustrations and not only be heard but be understood. If I had a bad financial day, she saw the bigger picture and told me that I had overcome past financial losses. If my manager pounded me on an issue, she counseled me to learn from it and become a better person. Getting bitter only hurts the one who is bitter. When someone gave me a coaching point, she laughed and said they may have a point. Instead of thinking poorly of the person who gave me the coaching, I worked to change my behavior after hearing her advice.
Marriage is not always blissful romance like a Hallmark movie. It is two individuals coming together as one through love. During the workday, my wife and I were individuals. On our drives or walks between home and office, I was so fortunate to have a spouse who was able to understand, appreciate, and critique my employment. My wife was (and still is) an excellent listener. She was patient by allowing me to vent or rejoice about my workday. She was not boastful about her work nor envious of my work. By the time we arrived home from the office after debriefing, we could concentrate on our commonality, like fixing dinner, family, or weekend activities.
The Apostle Paul is often quoted during wedding ceremonies. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul wrote about love, yet never used the word ‘marriage.’ In verses 4–7 Paul wrote: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It is always good to read chapter 13 as a reminder that marriage is a blessing when we give to our loved one rather than take. It starts with listening and understanding. Love is selfless action, not selfish inaction. Paul rightly ends chapter 13 with verse 13: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” This Christmas season, let us remember to love our spouse selflessly.