Monday, September 03, 2007

Trading and the Psychology of Heroism

I have to admit, I found special pleasure reading Dr. Andrew Bernstein's essay on The Philosophical Foundations of Heroism. Andy and I became friendly in New York back in the early 1980s, when I was finishing my graduate education. We were students of Ayn Rand's Objectivism; you'll see that influence in his essay. Reading his article two decades later, I can see that he has lost none of his rhetorical verve; nor has he compromised his views.

What Dr. Bernstein recognizes is that heroism represents a profound psychological need. If you go back to my post on goal-setting research, you'll recall that goals facilitate self-regulation: they direct our efforts, enhance our motivation, and build our sense of mastery and self-efficacy.

But what goals do for us on a day-in/day-out basis, heroism accomplishes over the course of a lifetime. Our heroes provide the horizons by which we direct our life efforts; they supply the emotional fuel that comes from the realization that our deepest values can be attained. Perhaps most of all, our heroes confirm that life is worthwhile; that the struggles to achieve values so aptly described in the Bernstein essay can be won.

It is difficult to find heroes when much of the media is consumed with stories of celebrities in meltdown, lurid crimes, and "reality shows" that portray the less savory aspects of human relationships. I'm convinced that "American Idol" has vaulted to prominence, not just because of the talent of the contestants, but because of the drama it provides of a dream come true. It is a major reason we love sporting contests: each game is life-in-miniature, a tableau of the quest for success.

After reading the Bernstein essay, I made an identification that hadn't struck me previous: So many of the top traders and portfolio managers I work with have undergone a deeply emotional mentorship. They've been taught the business by a valued teacher/friend/mentor. That mentor has become their hero: at times in the marketplace when confusion reigns, they're able to look back on their training and ask, "What would my mentor do?"

Heroes are exemplars: they make concrete the principles by which we hope to live our lives. Perhaps one reason so many traders succumb to fear and greed during volatile market times is that they lack the internal compass--the vision of an exemplary path--provided by heroes. Without such a philosophical and psychological compass, we become as lost in life as in markets.


Blueprint for an Uncompromised Life

A Dozen Reflections on Life and Markets