The Illusion of Control

By Charlie Bathgate Psychology

By Charlie Bathgate

We all want a sense of control.

Control over our finances. Control over our emotions. Control over our lives so that we can be with the people that make us happy, avoid the ones that don’t, and create the experiences we want to have.

That longing for control is one of the most appealing aspects of trading. It’s so tempting to craft a beautiful story of our future built around a consistent income stream (or even explosive wealth), being your own boss, and having the freedom to do what you want, when you want.

And in some ways, there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard true desperation in the voice on the other end of the phone asking questions about the Master Course or The Steamroom. There are those of us out there whose feelings about their professional lives go beyond dissatisfaction; they feel like their job is breaking them. Harming them. Robbing them of the only precious time we have on this planet by forcing them to do things that don’t align with their passions and sense of purpose.

So, let’s make it clear: there’s nothing wrong with seeking to take elements of your life under your control by placing faith in yourself and pursuing a career in trading.

However, there’s a paradox inherent in this desire for control. And it’s that we can’t really control anything.

Those that come to the market seeking a sense of control end up eternally frustrated, and usually broke. That desire has to be replaced with a different word and mentality: acceptance.

For traders, that comes in two forms:

1. Acceptance of the market.

This one would seem self-evident, but it’s worth restating a million times over: you will not find a sense of control in the market. It is a living, breathing, constantly changing force that baffles the most brilliant quantitative geniuses and intuitive virtuosos alike. It has literally driven people mad by luring them into thinking that they have it figured out and “under control”, only to have it sweep that sense of permanence and command right out from underneath them.

Traders try to control the market in millions of different ways. Finding patterns, structuring trades that can’t lose, and finding signals that “always” work. And yes, there absolutely are things that you can do to tip the odds in your favor. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing here!
But the best way to discover, evaluate, execute, and optimize those strategies is not through a grasping, clenched mentality of control. Rather, it’s through acceptance that whatever edge you’ve found may work for years or it may disappear tomorrow.

That acceptance of impermanence and lack of control means that when things inevitably change, you’re not brought to your knees. You haven’t lost the sense of control you needed so badly, because you didn’t have it in the first place. You’re way past getting caught up in the fear that any control you had is now gone. While everyone else is freaking out and scrambling to regain their sense of control, you’re re-evaluating and adjusting with a clear perspective and a curiosity that fuels creativity.

That difference is enabled by your acceptance of the nature of the markets.

2. Acceptance of yourself.

No amount of work on yourself – success, workouts, or medications – will give you complete control over your own thoughts and emotions.

It’s a common misperception that seasoned meditators only feel peace and happiness. The truth is, they feel the entire spectrum of emotions that we all do. They’ve just developed an acceptance of the fluidity of their thoughts and emotions. Instead of being strapped into the roller coaster ride of the mind’s daily swings, they stand on the side and observe it. That doesn’t mean they’re not also feeling challenging emotions, they just identify with those emotions the way most people instinctively do.

It’s so easy for us to get sucked into chasing pleasurable mental states. We experience one, and then we try to reverse engineer it to recreate it again. For traders, that path to recreating those emotional experiences is often based around successful trades. “If I could just hit this number in my account or this amount of monthly trading profits, I’ll be good.”

I’m sorry to tell you, that’s just not how it works. I know because I’ve seen it happen many, many times. I’ve worked with and met dozens of phenomenally successful traders. And their satisfaction with their life, self-esteem, and happiness is 100% independent of their success as traders.

Some of these trading badasses are complete basket cases. They’ve made their lives about the pursuit of money, probably because something in their life experience and upbringing conditioned them to believe that if they have enough of it they’ll plug a hole in themselves or cover up a deficiency they believe they have.

Others are well-adjusted, genuinely happy, fantastic individuals. Trading for them has given them confidence that they can apply themselves, work hard, and achieve a result. But they don’t limit their sense of selves to that. They’re just like any other person you probably know that “gets it”; they’ve found a way to connect to others and positively impact their lives. They’ve come to spiritual and psychological realizations that give them a sense of meaning outside of their professional successes and failures.

More importantly, they’ve arrived at an acceptance of the uncontrollable nature of their own lives. They know that the world is going to throw crazy shit at them at every turn, and they know that profitable trading can’t protect them from that. They’ve accepted that no matter how much money they have, their minds are not always going to be the happiest of places, and they know not to fight that through the pursuit of more profits. They just accept it.

While I believe it makes many of them better traders, that’s not the point. As I said above, plenty of amazing traders haven’t given up their desire for control. But the ones that have… they’re simply much happier people.

At the end of the day, that’s the entire point, isn’t it?

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About the Author

Charlie Bathgate


Charlie Bathgate is the man behind the scenes making sure everything runs smoothly. He’s also the resident psychology fanatic. He graduated from Duke University in 2009 with degrees in English and Business.

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