Mastering Trading Psychology

Why Traders Fail to Learn to Trade Effectively                              When They Are Focused on Winning or Not Losing


The Confessions of a Hard Working Trader

     I’m about to pull out what little hair I have left.  I keep running into the same brick wall over and again.  I’ve been trading 5 years and I win consistently when "play money" is on the table.  But the moment I move from paper money to real money and really risk my capital, things just go haywire. And I don’t know why.

     I’m well trained.  I know how to trade my plan, but I don’t do it.  I know that I should be patient, but still, five years later, I jump into trades I know I shouldn’t get in.  I know risk management so I try to keep my losses small, because that is how you manage risk in trading, but instead I add to my losses – and hope things will turn around – but they don’t.  And I even catch myself as I make stupid decisions (in the moment) – but I do it anyway.  I’m like one of those characters in your book.  It’s like you wrote about me.

     I've "been there and done that" with trader psychology.  I’ve spent good money on programs that promised that I’d become a disciplined trader – but I haven’t.   I’ve been promised that I would learn techniques that would keep my emotions from railroading my perfectly good rational mind into becoming a runaway freight train. But here I am 5 years later still sabotaging my trading.  It’s almost like I don’t really want to win, deep down.

     I can go from one to three weeks without losing and then get mad and give it all back plus a lot more. This is the sabotaging pattern that I keep repeating.  How do you figure that out and can you overcome it?

     I love trading, but I need to come to overcome these destructive patterns.  I don’t have an unlimited source of capital.  So if I can’t get past this hump, I need to face the music and move on. 

John Doe

Waking Up in Free Fall

     Have you ever felt this way?  I get numerous emails all the time, just like this one.  So if you have ever felt at the end of your rope in trading, don’t feel alone. (Not that this is a consolation to your situation.)  This guy is trying hard.  (And, I imagine, so are you.)  He is smart and working hard. He knows HOW to trade.  No doubt he has experienced a pretty reasonable degree of success in his career or business before he came to trading.  But, like many drawn to trading, he was not satisfied with running a business or dealing with the corporate world anymore and wanted more personal and financial freedom.  Then he discovered trading as a means to his dreams of independent living.

     After being shown the blue-sky side of trading and being sucked into its enchantment, he is convinced he could learn how to trade successfully and make those dreams come true.  No one tells him about the psychological side of trading - or that he is going to come face to face with sides of himself of which he was blissfully unaware.  (And if he had been warned, he would not have listened anyway.)  Now he has chosen trading as a career, while thinking that trading is simply a way to make money so he can enjoy life.

     He invests money in methodology training and learns how to trade in simulation. As proof of his increasing skills, he is able to take his sim account to impressive paper profits.   And now he is ready for live trading.  He is confident in his methodology and knows that he is capable of making money in the markets. His past skills that brought him success are ready to be employed in his new career.  He is ready and begins trading.  For the vast majority of traders this moment (moving from simulated trading to live trading) is like falling off a cliff.  It is a long way down and the landing is brutal.  Suddenly undiscovered emotions become involved in his decision-making that whipsaw his "mind that knows HOW to trade" into a mind that cannot seem to make a rational decision in the newly pressurized environment of risking his own capital.

     Often, traders who have experienced confidence and discipline in past careers find themselves suddenly over-trading and impulse-trading.  Once confident people, who were accustomed to making things happen by being “large and in-charge”, they are now paralyzed with fear – both at entry points and at exit points.  And the more they try to “man up” to the problem and push through it, the bigger the problem gets.

     How can a guy with proven confident and disciplined personality traits (that brought success in a past profession), use those very same traits in trading - with such poor results?

Career Development and the Notion of Work:                                                                               Urgency to Act vs. Patient Observation

     A set of attitudes has to be developed for a successful career in trading that is different from a career in a profession or business.  No one comes to a career in trading with the traits necessary for instant success in trading, although they are certainly led to believe this by their trading trainers.  These attitudes and assumptions have to be developed right alongside the knowledge of how to trade.  But this is not taught.  The left brain of the trader, where logic is king, is taught.  But the right brain, where emotion is king, is ignored.

     The flawed assumption that many people bring to trading is that the traits that brought them success in their careers and business will also generalize into developing a successful performance in trading. And they assume that the very confidence and discipline that drove them to prior successes will work in trading also.  But they will not. In fact, far from it.  These past traits, so essential to their prior success, will become the primary obstacle to the very success that they seek.

     The kind of confident discipline necessary for trading success is very different from the confident discipline found in business.  In business success there is an urgent discipline that is ready to take action and conquer goals by sheer will power.  When this attitude is brought into trading and applied to the mind that actually trades, disaster is not far behind – or at least slow descent into pain.  There is a bias toward urgency to act, to get into trades, because this is the work of trading.  (You’ve got to be in trades to make money, right?)  The moment that urgency enters the trading mind, the trader is no longer in the state of mind necessary for successful trading.

     Read that last sentence again. This is very counter-intuitive to the experience of a trader's past successes, so he will continue with even more urgency because he now must make trading "happen" as a career (and make up for prior losses).  The formula of a focused work ethic bringing career success worked in the past, so the trader simply tries harder to make success happen in trading.  And the pattern continues until the trader stops to re-evaluate what mental and emotional traits are really needed for success in trading.

     When traders are successful, they practice a patient discipline where they calmly lie in wait (ambush really) until the market comes to them – and then they strike.  How different this is from our vignette at the beginning of this article!  His trading is based on urgency while successful trading is based on patience.  The notion of work is different between the two.  Rather than work with urgency to action to achieve a goal, work takes on new meaning to the evolving trader.  The new paradigm becomes patient observation, allowing the conditions to come to you.  The trader is no longer chasing the trade (an urgency mentality), but is waiting for the trade to come to him so he can strike. This is the successful mind built for trading.

     Less becomes more.  Now, the career development of the trader has taken a quantum leap.  Freed from a historical notion of action that brought success in another time and place, the trader now has the newer organization of mind that allows him to manage his emotions, his mind, and his methodology for a successful career in trading.

     Neither one is better or worse than the other – only different.  It simply means that success in business and success in trading require different forms of discipline for success.  Without the development of patient discipline, a trader will continue to crash and burn.  And it all has to do with the way the trader perceives work.

Work as the Coordination of Effective Action

     I invite you to examine the assumptions of work habits you bring to trading.  Really start noticing whether you drift mindlessly into an “urgency to trade” mentality – because that mindset produced success in another time before trading.  Does working mean doing and pushing forward to you?  Or is there room for a deconstruction of the beliefs you have about work?  If you can accept that work is really about the coordination of effective action, then you can examine the effectiveness of your beliefs by examining your trading account.  The effectiveness of your beliefs about work being projected onto the markets is demonstrated in black and white right there, in your trading account.  It is the final judge about the effectiveness of the mind you bring to the performance of your trading.

     Then, as you become more mindful of whether your notions of work are effective for trading, start to recognize patient observation as the key to effective work in trading.  And realize that success in one domain does not generalize mindlessly into another domain, such as trading. 

     If this is your career, you are going to need to develop the mind that trades right alongside the knowledge base of knowing how to trade.  It takes both.  Developing the mind you bring to the performance of trading is not an option to a successful career in trading – it is a necessity.  And it is going to have to be re-invented for you to be effective in trading.

Articles on Trader Psychology by Rande Howell, Trader Psychologist