Daily Speculations

The Web Site of Victor Niederhoffer & Laurel Kenner

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8/20/04:
Why Do We Trade? By Dr. Brett Steenbarger

Why do we trade? To be sure, trading allows us independence, the opportunity to work for ourselves. Trading also offers the prospects of a lifestyle in which evenings and weekends need not be consumed by work. Some of us crave the competitive aspect of trading, doing fresh battle each day. Others approach trading as a puzzle to be solved, deriving a sense of intellectual achievement. Finally, there is income. A successful trader can make seven figures in a year—and many of the traders I work with are living proof of that.

So why do they trade? Once you have the money, all of trading's lifestyle advantages could easily be yours. Needs for competition and intellectual stimulation could be met in so many other ways. Why do traders remain traders long after they’ve won the game?

Perhaps we can illuminate this question by asking it of practitioners in other fields. Why do artists continue their craft long after they receive recognition for their paintings, novels, or films? Why do elite Special Forces troops stay in units that test their mettle even after they’ve earned their coveted badges? A gifted athlete such as Michael Jordan earned plenty of money and honors and, in fact, did retire on a couple of occasions—only to return to his game. Why?

There is something deep here that speaks to the nature of productive work. People retire from jobs and even careers, but they never abandon their callings. For some, work means something more than earning a living or achieving a lifestyle. Work is their path in life. It is the way they have chosen—or perhaps that has chosen them—for self-expression and self-development.

Suppose the pastor of a large, successful church wrote a book, made significant money, and promptly retired from the clergy and all religious life. What would that say? Surely, we would think, this person’s faith could not have been too heartfelt. But why should our productive work mean less to us than the clergy means to a devout pastor? Presumably, the religious life meets deep, important needs for the pastor. Is it really so different for the artist? The athlete? The trader?

The great professions are those that serve as personal playing fields. They are the arenas we choose to express and develop ourselves. In mastering a discipline, we cultivate self-mastery. In writing a poem or placing a large trade, we capture—in a single act—our vision of how we see the world at that moment. The great occupations are great precisely because they are such meaningful playing fields. Long after we’ve earned fame and fortune, the calling remains to be more than we are, to return to the arena and do battle with our limitations. The profound urge to extend the human grasp is common to all the great callings. To run faster, to capture more beauty, to predict ever better: in no small measure, our work is our pursuit of the godlike, however fleeting.

Maybe it is our different images of the godlike that animate our career choices. If my deepest view of godhood is that of a meek and all-forgiving Christ, perhaps I will be drawn to an occupation of service. If my deepest view is more akin to the ancient Greeks, whose gods sent heroes on quests, then my calling may be on a battlefield or a playing field. Either way, in work we find something divine within ourselves. Whether as scientists, monks, or traders, we strive for those moments when we are just a little closer to perfection, a little nearer to immortality. That is why we trade.