Seven years ago, I wrote an article called “Trading and Christmas Presents” that I think speaks to a key part of human nature that affects our trading and our everyday lives.
Since then, I have taught this basic concept in dozens of seminars and have dubbed it “The Christmas Present Syndrome.”
Because the subject is seasonally relevant and universally applicable, I’m going to share a large portion of the insights from my original article. Then I’ll add some relevant thoughts on traders’ universal obsession and distraction with the latest “shiny objects.” I hope you find these observations useful!
Excerpts from the Original Trading and Christmas Presents Article
We love to expect, and when expectation is either disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting. —Samuel Johnson
I learned some valuable lessons all over again this Christmas season. And whether you celebrate Jesus’ birthday with vigor (like the Barton family) or follow some other tradition during this season, you’ll be familiar with the psychology of gift getting.
During the Christmas message at our church, Pastor Bo (his real name) truly uncovered the mystery of gift getting for me. And almost simultaneously, his insights revealed the essence of one of the biggest trading problems that I believe traders face. But more on that later; for now, let’s focus on the gifts.
Everyone loves getting presents. (Sure, we all know some old curmudgeon who has become a jaded gift-getter—Dickens didn’t invent Scrooge out of thin air.) But deep down there’s a part of us that is still a little kid just drooling about getting a gift. Pastor Bo (I’m serious. That’s his real name.) unlocked the secret to the delight presents give us. He said that when we get a gift—the wrapped kind—it is pregnant with possibility. It could be ANYTHING. It puts us in that greatest of all mental states: HOPE. As Samuel Johnson said in the opening quote, “We love to expect.” While that present is still mysterious and wrapped we are full of hope—the hope that it’s just what we want; the hope that it will thrill us; the hope that unexpected joy (or greatly anticipated joy) is just around the corner.
And then we open the package. The thing that only an instant ago was filled with unlimited possibility turns into a finite reality. ANYTHING becomes something. HOPE becomes certainty. Expecting becomes knowing. The finest glass slipper, the most spectacular magic wand, or what was once our heart’s desire can’t help but degrade into a disappointment in that brutal transition. I have seen this in my children. I have witnessed it in adults. And I have felt it in my very soul. Perhaps Christmas is much less about gift getting and much more about an annual rekindling of hope. For me, it’s about a hope that lies in a manger. For you, it may be a hope for renewed ties with family and friends.
So what do we do with the recurring theme where our exciting “ANYTHINGS” keep getting turned into mundane “somethings” every time we take off the wrapping paper? Van has helped me understand that I am responsible for what I feel when I open up the present. I choose joy over disappointment and contentment rather than instant gratification.
Have you ever taken the proverbial wrapping paper off of a trading idea? That which seemed so exciting and full of possibility a little earlier suddenly becomes disappointing and fraught with shortcomings. This same dissolution of hope that we see in our gift getting forms one of the key psychological barriers for many traders.
Shiny Trading Objects
The Christmas Present Syndrome and our obsession with the newest or most recent discovery (a.k.a. a Shiny Object) are closely related. Technology geeks are notorious for their attraction to the latest shiny techno toy and I think traders and investors suffer a similar malady when it comes to any newly discovered indicator or system.
The attraction to something new and shiny can even override our ability to concentrate on important tasks. We are like the talking golden retriever named Dug in the excellent Pixar movie Up. Dug, and indeed all of the dogs in the movie, are obsessed with squirrels. Whenever they think they might see one, they drop anything they were doing, no matter how important, and concentrate on the possibility of seeing/chasing a squirrel.
It matters not if the newly discovered tool is unproven. The fact that it is new and untainted by any scrutiny or deeper understanding is exactly the reason why it is so shiny and fascinating. Like an unwrapped Christmas present, it is full of possibility, full of the hope that it is a better tool than the one we are using now. And like the dog Dug, we stop whatever we’re doing and chase the shiny object.
The more I have worked with seasoned traders, the more I’m convinced that longevity in this business is all about following a few basic fundamentals: Van’s Top Tasks of Trading, discipline in following your strategy, and having patience and persistence to stick with a process/strategy/system that has an edge in the markets. Mastering these fundamentals generates longevity in a trader’s career—not chasing new ideas.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a cynic about exploring new trading ideas and tools. More than most, I myself enjoy digging into a new indicator or strategy. And exploring new ideas has many benefits including the opportunity to expand our trading knowledge and tool kit. This is a good and necessary part of trading as the markets change and you need to grow and evolve your trading knowledge over time as well.
My experience working with a multitude of both inexperienced and seasoned traders, however, tells me that few have the problem of sticking too long with a particular system or favorite indicator. Rather, the bigger and more common pattern is that once most traders pull the wrapping paper off of some new trading idea and find the first blemish, they prefer to start the hunt for the next shiny object. You can imagine how repeating this process may create wide ranging awareness but it does not help someone build deep knowledge (expertise) in any area.
For most traders, understanding at a very deep level handful of indicators and strategies will serve them much better than gaining superficial knowledge of many, many tools. Consider that my Christmas gift to you if you needed to hear that advice from someone who has worked with many highly successful career traders.