Thursday, February 28, 2019

Taking the Risk of Accountability

SMB recently published top trading tweets from their prop desk.  There are good ideas there, but one jumped out at me.  It encouraged traders to post their report cards daily, not just their P/L.  Sharing P/L each day can be humbling, but sharing your report card is something different.  The report card includes everything we've done well and also the mistakes we've made.  If we've traded poorly from a process vantage point, it will show up dramatically on the report card, even if P/L is relatively flat.  Sharing our process grades makes us extra-accountable.  It's taking a risk.

It's very interesting:  one thing I've found predictive of a trader's success is the amount of detail they share with me in meetings.  Some traders are really upset about not doing well and provide exhaustive detail to track down what they might be doing wrong.  They have very specific goals and very detailed ways of tracking their progress on those.  They come to meetings with me with prepared questions and topics to discuss.  Very often, they have materials to share with me prepared as well.

Other traders breeze in and don't have a specific agenda.  They talk about what's going right and wrong in a very general sense, but there is no particular urgency in their presentation.  Their goals are broad; they are not tracked on a systematic basis.  Many times, they will use time with me to complain about market conditions, not to truly discuss their trading.

Bottom line is that some traders take real psychological risks when they meet with mentors or coaches.  The kimono is wide open.  Other traders stay comfortable.  They take few risks; they avoid uncomfortable realities.

If you can't take risk when you meet with team members, how will you effectively take risk when market conditions line up?

Comfort is the enemy of change.  The big risk is staying stuck in the status quo.

Further Reading:


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Primary and Secondary Problems in Trading

In this post, we'll explore a very important concept:  the difference between primary and secondary psychological challenges and why that difference makes an important difference in our trading.

A good place to start would be anxiety.  Suppose we experience panic symptoms where, out of the clear blue, we suddenly feel very high levels of anxiety.  Panic can be very scary for people because the anxiety seemingly makes no sense.  We can be resting in bed or walking on a street and suddenly experience overwhelming feelings of dread and fear.

Panic disorder would be considered a primary problem in our example.  It's treatable with cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication in a relatively short period of time.

Let's say, however, that we become so afraid of our panic symptoms that we stop doing normal activities.  The last time we had a meltdown was in a shopping mall, so now we'll avoid groups of people or public places.  Maybe the panic attacks have been when I've been alone, so now I try to avoid situations where I'm by myself.  Or maybe I feel as though I'm going crazy--there's something wrong with me--so I lose confidence in developing relationships and begin to feel lonely and depressed.

All of these are examples of secondary problems.  The fear of open places (agoraphobia) or the depressed feelings are the result of how I respond to the primary problem.  How I think and react to my problem can create entirely new problems.  That can make our situations seem quite complicated.

As Shakespeare's quote suggests, how we think about things creates our reality.  If we respond negatively to a primary problem, the odds are good we'll create a new, secondary problem.

Let's take an example from the trading world:

A young man I worked with was losing money in trading, largely by trading too often, sizing individual trades too large, and taking trades when not much was going on in the market.  As his losses mounted, he became frustrated and discouraged and stopped putting as much time and effort into his preparation.  His frustration spilled over to his relationship with his girlfriend and they were now talking about splitting up.  Nothing seemed to be going right in his life.  He was feeling pretty down when I met with him.  In fact, he had met with a trading mentor/coach, who encouraged him to calm himself, trade more patiently, and stick to his trading plans, but none of that seemed to help.

It turns out that the young trader's primary problem was attention deficit disorder (ADD).  The very thing that attracted him to markets--the stimulation and risk-taking--was the thing that got in the way of his staying focused in his trading.  The lack of focus led to impulsive trades and eventual losses, which then created secondary problems in his relationship and in his mood.

The trader addressed the primary problem through medication and with biofeedback exercises that train the mind for focus and this enabled him to trade in a disciplined manner.  He began to make money, felt better about his situation, and addressed the problems with his girlfriend by helping her understand what had been going on for him.  We worked on alternate ways of dealing with frustration, including ways of constructively engaging the relationship during times when trading didn't go well.  Had we not addressed the primary problem, however, no amount of "trading psychology" advice or techniques would have helped him.

Very often, what look like primary problems in trading--such as loss of discipline--are in fact secondary consequences of other, less recognized difficulties.  How we think about the actual primary problems creates the negativity and frustration that leads to the secondary overtrading, FOMO, etc.  The challenge facing us is to identify the problem underneath our poor trading.  

I recently suggested that a major primary problem affecting traders is using trading to meet psychological needs for which trading was never designed.  If we come to markets with self-esteem concerns; unmet needs for recognition; an inner sense of failure from previous efforts at achievement; or a lack of excitement and purpose in life, those primary problems will burden our attempts at trading with an open mind.  "It is amazing how much easier it is to tackle trading challenges, " I wrote, "when trading is not burdened with needs it was never meant to fill."

Take it to the bank:  people who trade out of unmet needs need to trade.

That is a common primary problem, and one that deserves priority.

Further Reading:


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Using Your Body To Program Your Mind

One of the most common questions I get from traders is how to tune out thoughts and feelings that can sway our decision making.  Some of the common steps traders take to keep away fear, greed, and frustration include focusing exercises (including meditation) before the start of the trading day and taking breaks during the trading day to clear one's head.  What is interesting, however, is that, despite these steps, many traders continue to struggle with impulsive, reactive trading.

What is going on?

First, let's establish why this is important.  As the quote above suggests, when we quiet our minds, we gain access to our intuitive knowing.  There is nothing mystical about this.  Our pattern recognition represents a non-verbal level of knowing.  We engage in that form of information processing every time we drive a car or read a person in a conversation.  If we are busy talking to ourselves--engaging in inner chatter about missing trades, needing to trade bigger, losing money, etc--we by definition are not in our non-verbal processing mode.  We cover over our intuitive processing with our endless self-talk.  Quieting our minds provides us with access to what we know but don't necessarily know that we know.

So let's say we practice relaxation techniques prior to trading and teach ourselves to focus our attention and calm ourselves.  That way, when we become stressed and go into fight-or-flight mode, we can return to our exercises and regain our composure.

Sounds good, but it doesn't work that way.

The problem is that the state we are in when we are doing our exercises is miles apart from the state we're in when we're experiencing our fear and frustration.  We can't prepare for the heat of battle off the battlefield.  The skills simply don't transfer.  That is why behavioral therapists try to recreate stressful situations through imagery and gradual exposure while engaging in the self-control exercises.  We need to program our minds for when our bodies are going haywire. Otherwise, we perform the exercises fine prior to trading and during our breaks and then fall back into reactive processing when the fight/flight mode is upon us.

A technique that behavioral psychologists have found helpful is known as interoceptive exposure.  What this means is that we simulate the physiological state that is associated with the stress and then learn effective coping methods.  For example, someone with a panic disorder might go round and round in circles making themselves dizzy and lightheaded.  This simulates some of the physical sensations of panic.  In that state, the person practices their coping techniques, so that they can stay calm and centered despite those sensations.  When panicky feelings actually hit, they now are prepared for them and don't become stressed by their own anxiety.

It turns out that many of our problems are not due to initial stress and anxiety reactions, but to our getting stressed out about our stress!  This is known as secondary anxiety.  Through interoceptive exposure, we literally program our minds to stay focused and relaxed during those initial periods of stress.  Then, sure enough, the stress passes without causing us distress.

So how does this relate to trading?

I've recently begun a creative exercise that has been greatly helpful not only in trading but across a number of challenging life situations.  Each morning I do an aerobic workout on my treadmill.  The idea is to keep myself in an elevated, target heart rate zone for a certain period of time.  My Fitbit tracks my progress on that.

The unique part of the exercise is that, while I am working out on the treadmill, I practice my deep, regular breathing and focused imagery.  In other words, I get myself "in the zone" by quieting my mind while I'm sustaining an elevated heartrate.  Through daily practice, I've become quite good at entering that flow state during my time on the treadmill.  A side benefit is that the workout seems to go much quicker, and I more quickly find my second wind.  Once in the flow, I don't really feel fatigue.

The greatest benefit, however, is that the daily repetition literally trains and programs my mind to stay focused and calm--i.e., stay in the zone--while my body is aroused.  That fight or flight state begins with elevated heartrate and a speeding up of physiological functions.  By training ourselves to stay relaxed through the initial arousal, we can make that fight/flight state completely non-threatening.  There is no snowballing into secondary anxiety/stress.  Now, when a stressful event occurs in the market, I very naturally slow my breathing and enter the focused rhythm from the treadmill.  

This turns interoceptive exposure into a peak performance tool.

Most of the problems of trading psychology are state-dependent.  They are triggered by particular states of mind and body.  By training ourselves to engage in our best information processing while we are in the states that trigger us, we gain a level of control over ourselves and our trading that simply is not possible with casual self-help techniques.

Who knew?  Your aerobic workouts could become your best trading psychology workouts!

Further Reading:


Monday, February 18, 2019

The Fallacy Behind Conventional Trading Psychology

We hear it all the time:  trading is mostly a mental game, all you need to do is tame your emotions once you have a winning trading method, etc. etc.

Total and complete bullsh*t.

Yes, of course, if markets were stable and deterministic, then we could just figure out what works and all that would be left is sticking with that.

But markets are not stable.  They change in their patterns, their volatilities and volume, their trends, their correlations within a day and across days.  What works in one environment does not in others.  

And markets are not deterministic.  What drives markets today could be different tomorrow if we get a significant geopolitical event or central bank action.  

The entire reason markets are so difficult to trade--and it's so challenging to make money from them--is that the game is always changing.  We adapt to one regime and make money only to face a different regime and lose that profitability.  That can be frustrating.  That can be bewildering.  That can be discouraging.  But it's the changing markets--and the changes they create for our trading--that stimulate the emotional reactions.  It's not emotions preventing us from making money from fixed, ever-successful trading methods.

Consider an analogy.  Let's say our blood sugar levels rose and fell greatly throughout the day, making us sleepy and lethargic when we were hyperglycemic and shaky and unable to concentrate when we were hypoglycemic.  The swings in our energy and focus throughout the day interfere with our work productivity and we fall behind in our goals.  That becomes frustrating and we start to fear that we'll lose our job.  Then along comes a business guru who tells us if we just master our frustration and fear, we'll be more productive and reach our goals.  He even teaches us some positive thinking and relaxation exercises.

You would consider such a guru to be a complete moron.  You could work on your frustration and fear all day every day and, as long as your blood sugar levels are changing wildly, your work efforts and productivity will be variable.  The emotional fallout is the result of the changing situation, not the cause.  So it is with markets.  If you could stabilize your body's state, perhaps with medication that controls your blood sugar levels, the emotional problems recede--because you've addressed their cause.  Similarly, if you have methods to adapt to market changes, a great deal of emotionality in trading is circumvented.

But of course it's more comfortable for traders to say they need to work on their discipline than to acknowledge that what had worked a month ago now yields entirely random outcomes.  And would-be gurus and coaches?  It's difficult for them to know about changing environments if they lack the tools for measuring blood sugar or market regimes.


Think of it this way:

If markets were stable and discipline could sustain profitability, then backtested trading systems would forever remain profitable.  There would be no need for discretionary traders whatsoever.  

Above is a quick screenshot from my laptop of the recent ES market.  Every data point represents the ES price after the index has made 500 price changes.  The blue line and right Y axis represents ES price.  The red line and left Y axis represent price change over the last 20 periods, where price change is measured in standard deviation units.

When the market slows down, we have fewer data points.  When the market is less volatile, the standard deviation units represent less movement.  The chart is one way to standardize price action--make it more stable--given shifting activity and volatility.  Thus standardized, we can ask intelligent questions about trend, the presence/non-presence of stable cycles, etc.  Those questions can help us frame trading strategies in the midst of market changes.

When we do so--perhaps by relying on a repeating cycle to enter/exit trades in the direction of the overall trend--we have a clearer idea of what we're doing and why we're doing it.  That anchors our understanding and our trading decisions and, thus anchored, lo and behold:  trading becomes less emotionally fraught.

Further Reading:


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Taking The Ego Out Of Trading

The central hypothesis of the book that I am writing on trading and spirituality is that the major emotional challenges of trading are due, not to intractable psychological problems, but to the intrusion of our egos into decision-making processes.  

What we attach our egos to controls us.

If trades and trading are our only activities filled with purpose, we will overtrade.  If we judge our success and failure by profits and losses, our moods will rise and fall with market conditions.

It sounds so great:  the "passion" for trading.  Too often, however, that belies an ego-attachment to trading.

So how do we take the ego out of trading?

By tapping into the soul.

Meaningful relationships tap into the soul.  Worthy causes and challenges speak to the soul.  Appreciation of the world--from art and music to travel--nourishes the soul.  Our religious beliefs awaken the soul.  Playing an important role in the lives of others, developing our potential in various life areas, learning and creating new things--all take us out of our narrow egos and connect us with larger meanings and purposes.

We take trades we shouldn't and avoid the ones we should because we're using the ego of trading to fill soul needs.  If we work on our trading to the point of neglecting the rest of our lives, we are like bodybuilders who obsessively develop their upper bodies while their middle sections go flabby and their legs are like twigs.

A great first step in taking the ego out of trading is evaluating our trading by process criteria, not by profits and losses alone.  If we focus on placing good trades, our trading can build mindfulness, intentionality, and resilience.  

At the end of the day, however, trading cannot sustain us always, in all ways.  We need not just the pleasures, victories, and gratifications of the ego, but also the energy, connectedness, and fulfillment of the soul.  It is amazing how much easier it is to tackle trading challenges when trading is not burdened with needs it was never meant to fill.

The question is not simply whether we live a successful life or an unsuccessful one.  The question is whether we live a full life or an empty one.

Further Reading:


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Tough Advice For Aspiring Traders

Recently, I have received an unusually large number of emails and messages from new traders who have been encountering problems--and losses--in their trading.  The majority have opened up their own accounts and are trying to learn on their own and eventually make a living from their trading.

Of course, they find out that it is not so easy to make a living from trading--just as it's not easy to make a living from any performance activity, from acting to sports.  But to hope to learn completely on your own and somehow rise to elite levels of performance?  How often does that occur in any performance domain?  Show me a successful performer and I'll show you one who has undergone years of training, practice, and mentoring.  No one goes from their backyard basketball court to the NBA.  No one tries acting at home and makes the casting calls on Broadway.

No one.

But those selling services to traders won't say this.  Educators will pretend that their books and classes can make traders successful.  (Would anyone possibly believe that books and online courses on acting would take someone to Hollywood?  To the NBA?).  Coaches will pretend that, if you just use their techniques and gain mental mastery, you'll find profitability.  (Really?  Will emotional control and self awareness win you chess championships or help you find success as a baseball pitcher?)  

I receive requests for coaching every week from individual, retail traders.  In the 15 years I've been doing this full-time, how many of those requests have I taken on?



The only way I work with aspiring traders is if they are enrolled in full-time programs of mentoring, either on a hedge fund desk or a training program at an investment bank, graduate program of finance/financial engineering, or proprietary trading firm.  Because anything else would not be practicing performance psychology.  It would be selling hope.

If you're an aspiring trader, hope and passion and desire are not business plans.  They do not substitute for talent, skill, and experience.  If you think you have the talent and drive, my advice is to find yourself the best training possible and do what medical students, Olympic athletes, and performing artists do:  learn from successful practitioners in a daily, structured curriculum.  

It may not be what you want to hear, but that advice will save you a lot of money, time, and heartache.  And, more importantly, it will free you up to do what you're truly meant to do in this world.

Further Reading:


Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Improving Performance With Relentless Score Keeping

In this new year, I'm working with Mike Bellafiore and a group of newer traders to hasten their learning curves.  An important part of that process is the keeping of monthly statistics on trading results.  These stats, compiled in TraderVue, allow a trader to break down performance into many categories.  For example, a trader can view profitability as a function of the setups/strategies traded; as a function of time of day; as a function of position sizing; etc.  At a single glance, mentors can see if a trader has improved their win percentage on trades; if risk management has been sound; and much more.  That creates a very high level of visibility and accountability.  It also provides a rational basis for setting goals and plans from month to month.

Perhaps the most eye-opening result from the ongoing score-keeping is that it highlights strengths and problems in trading that both trader and mentor may not have been aware of in real time.  For example, one trader showed a pattern of losing money following early morning losses, with the frequency of trading increasing as the losing day progressed.  This did not occur every day, but it happened sufficiently often as to hurt monthly profitability.  Seeing this pattern clearly in real time allows mentors, coaches, and traders to create a plan to take breaks following opening losses and readjust, both psychologically and in trading.

I recently began work with a Fitbit, which spits out real time information on everything from heart rate and number of steps taken to quantity and quality of sleep.  The app allows for easy goal setting, so that the wearer always has targets to hit to improve wellness.  As with the trading stats, some of the results took me entirely by surprise.  For instance, there was much more variability in my active exercise from day to day than I expected.  By adding just one component to my daily workouts, I have been able to derive significantly greater aerobic benefit.

The most subtle benefit of the relentless score keeping, however, is that the stats themselves have a psychological impact that is carried over from one period to another.  Seeing improvement in the numbers builds confidence and a sense of control.  Achieving poor numbers can arouse the competitive instinct to make improvements, focusing on doing things the right way.

If a sports team proclaimed their desire for a championship but never reviewed game film and performance and coaches never looked at where the team was most and least successful, we would question the true commitment of the team--and we would question their odds of achieving a championship.  Similarly, when traders pronounce their passion for trading but never bother to systematically keep score on what they are doing right and wrong, can we truly say that we would invest *our* money with those traders?

It is when we make ourselves fully accountable that we become our fullest successes.

Further Reading:


Sunday, February 03, 2019

Three Ways of Turning Your Trading Psychology Around

Looking back on recent conversations with traders, here are a few ways of turning your trading psychology around by finding the light in the darkness:

1)  Using losing trades as learning experiences - The best losing trades are ones that should have worked, but didn't pan out this time.  Very often, that tells you something about the market that you can incorporate into your next trade.  The losing trade is not a loss if it leads to a larger winner.  And it's not a total loss if it leads to good learning about your trading.

2)  Using people's negativity as a positive challenge - Others may doubt us or not care about us and that can be hurtful.  It can also provide the motivation to double down on our efforts and refuse to buy into their negativity.  We don't have to become bitter when we can focus on becoming better.

3)  Pulling out your winning trades and learning from them - It's human nature to focus on what we've done wrong.  But if you're relatively flat in your performance over time, it means you've probably done some things well and others not so well.  Often, it's the winning trades that can teach you what works in the current market and how you best manage positions and risk.

The research in psychology tells us that maintaining a positive mindset is good for creativity, it's good for productivity, and it's good for our mental and physical health.  The latest Forbes article contains more ideas about how we can turn negative emotions into positive well-being.