FTX’s In-House Performance Coach Is Just as Surprised as You Are

In the week since the onetime billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried became the business world’s biggest villain, many of his friends, associates and investors have gone quiet, either out of embarrassment or on the advice of their lawyers.

So I was surprised on Monday, when a psychiatrist named George K. Lerner called me.

Dr. Lerner has worked since last year as FTX’s in-house coach, a role that has given him a close view of the firm’s inner workings. He lives in the Bahamas, where FTX has its headquarters, and spent most of his time before the firm’s collapse advising its employees on issues including stress management and career planning. (In-house performance coaches aren’t uncommon among big trading firms; fans of the show “Billions” will recall that the fictional hedge fund Axe Capital had one.)

He has also been Mr. Bankman-Fried’s therapist, according to a glowing profile published in September by Sequoia Capital, a big investor in FTX. (The profile, which has since been taken down, said Dr. Lerner seemed like an “excellent shrink.”) I wrote him an email, not expecting one back; he called, and we talked for roughly half an hour.

One of the most tantalizing subplots of the FTX drama is how Mr. Bankman-Fried, once hailed as a model of do-gooder altruism, managed to fool so many people who believed they knew him. Some of his friends have cut ties since the collapse, including the members of the FTX Future Fund, a philanthropic group he started, who resigned en masse last week. William MacAskill, a longtime mentor of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s, said in a Twitter thread that he felt “sadness and self-hatred for falling for this deception.”

Dr. Lerner said he got to know Mr. Bankman-Fried years ago while working as a psychiatrist in San Francisco; he declined to say more about their relationship at that time, citing confidentiality requirements. (He also spoke to Vice by email.) He moved to the Bahamas in June, he said, and began offering his coaching services to FTX employees 32 hours a week, while keeping a small private practice on the side.

Mr. Bankman-Fried did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Bankman-Fried, who was a major Democratic donor and a patron of the effective altruism movement before his fall from grace, has a lot to answer for. Many questions remain about how FTX’s handling of billions of dollars in customer funds left investors empty-handed when the firm collapsed. In bankruptcy filings this week, FTX said it could owe money to more than a million people and organizations. His businesses are being investigated by multiple regulatory and law enforcement agencies, and his personal fortune, once estimated at $16 billion, has vanished. On Twitter, people are calling him the “millennial Madoff,” comparing him to one of the world’s most notorious fraudsters. (He has not yet been charged with any crimes.)

Dr. Lerner — who is not bound by doctor-patient confidentiality in his capacity as a coach at FTX, as he is in his role as psychiatrist — said he was shocked by the suggestion that Mr. Bankman-Fried was a criminal mastermind.

The Aftermath of FTX’s Downfall

The sudden collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange has left the crypto industry stunned.

  • Crackdown Begins: Regulators are moving to freeze parts of FTX’s business, while other divisions file for insolvency or prepare to halt operations. Here’s what’s next for the company.
  • Investors Under Scrutiny: Venture capital firms and investment funds showered nearly $2 billion on FTX with few strings attached. Now, they are facing questions, too.
  • ‘Effective Altruism’: The fall of FTX dealt a significant blow to the philanthropy movement that is deeply tied to the company’s founder, Sam Bankman-Fried.
  • Sports Sponsorships: From the naming rights for an N.B.A. arena to patches on M.L.B. umpires’ uniforms, FTX’s collapse puts sponsorship deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars in doubt.

“I just can’t see him doing that, honestly,” Dr. Lerner said. “I mean, I guess maybe I would have to sit down with him and understand why. But I have difficulties making that jump.”

Dr. Lerner, who still had a working FTX email address as of Tuesday, said he was unsure if he still had a job following the firm’s bankruptcy.

Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder and chief executive of FTX.Credit…Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Over the past week, Dr. Lerner has had a front-row seat to the implosion of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s empire. First, the dramatic collapse of FTX, which followed what was the equivalent of a bank run set off by a rival crypto exchange. Then, the revelations about a multibillion-dollar shortfall on FTX’s balance sheet, which reportedly stemmed from money it funneled to Alameda Research, a crypto hedge fund that was closely tied to FTX, and a mysterious hack that left more than $500 million missing from FTX’s coffers. And now, the many, many furious FTX customers, regulators and law enforcement officials who are demanding to know what happened, and where all the money went.

Dr. Lerner declined to say whether he had talked to Mr. Bankman-Fried since the bankruptcy. He has been focused on helping FTX’s employees come to grips with what happened, he said.

“I’ve been kind of hand-holding, making sure that people get safely back home,” he said.

In recent days, much has been made of FTX’s unusual corporate culture. The company, which had about 300 employees, was run mainly by 20-somethings, some of whom shared Mr. Bankman-Fried’s interest in effective altruism. Some FTX employees lived together in a palatial group house. Several are, or used to be, in romantic relationships with one another, including Mr. Bankman-Fried, who had dated Alameda Research’s chief executive, Caroline Ellison.

Details about the romantic pairings reported by CoinDesk last week led some gossips on Twitter to dub FTX a “polycule,” a term for a web of non-monogamous relationships.

But Dr. Lerner rejected that idea, saying the company’s culture was far from orgiastic.

“It’s a pretty tame place,” Dr. Lerner said. “The higher-ups, they mostly played chess and board games. There was no partying. They were undersexed, if anything.”

Dr. Lerner, 46, described FTX as a company filled with hard-working and cerebral young people who believed deeply in the company’s mission. Many had moved to the Bahamas from big cities in the United States and Asia, he said. Few employees went out at night or made local friends; mostly, he said, they spent long days and nights at the office.

“They were working way too much,” he said. “It would have been healthier if they did have more healthy dating relationships.”

Over the spring and summer, as the crypto market melted down and FTX stepped in to rescue several troubled crypto firms, Dr. Lerner said, the atmosphere at FTX’s headquarters grew more tense. He attributed the increased stress to the fact that many employees had their own crypto investments that were losing value, and that they were concerned about the firm’s financial health.

Around the same time, FTX began using customer funds to repay loans taken out by Alameda Research, according to a meeting between Ms. Ellison and Alameda employees that was reported by The New York Times and other news organizations. It’s still unclear exactly how big these loans were, or who inside FTX knew about them at the time.

Dr. Lerner saidhe saw no indication that anything was going wrong at the firm, or that Mr. Bankman-Fried was more harried than usual.

“The kind of stuff we talked about was mostly like: Are the employees happy? How do we keep them happy? What is the most effective, efficient way for the organization to be organized?” he said. “I never dealt with the product, and he never talked to me about the product.”

In his time at FTX, Dr. Lerner got to know many of the firm’s employees. They struck him as impressively frugal, he said — even Mr. Bankman-Friedman, who preferred buying groceries and cooking his own meals to eating expensive dinners out.

“You’ve seen how he dresses,” Dr. Lerner said, referring to Mr. Bankman-Fried’s shambolic wardrobe. “They really didn’t spend much money.”

Since FTX’s collapse, rumors have spread on Twitter that many FTX employees took prescription stimulants, including Adderall, to enhance their productivity and work longer hours.

But Dr. Lerner disputed that characterization. He said that some FTX employees may have been given prescription medications to treat A.D.H.D., but that the “rate of A.D.H.D. in the company was in line with most tech companies.” He said that he wrote some prescriptions to FTX employees, but only those he treated as part of his personal practice.

He did say that Mr. Bankman-Fried, who has talked publicly about experimenting with focus-enhancing drugs, had some nervous habits, including rapidly tapping his feet, and that he often played video games as a form of stress relief. Dr. Lerner even bought Mr. Bankman-Fried some fidget toys, he said, including the fidget spinner that became his trademark.

These days, of course, there aren’t enough fidget spinners in the world for Mr. Bankman-Fried. His empire is in ruins, and he may be charged with serious financial crimes.

But while the rest of the world rages at Mr. Bankman-Fried, and wonders how much the people around him knew, Dr. Lerner said he felt for the FTX employees who were going down with the ship.

“You know, those people really felt like it was a family,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s so devastating for all of us for this to be over.”

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