In the last few months of 2014 I experienced some of the lowest lows and highest highs of my career (thankfully we finished on a good note). I’ll save the details for later, but all that drama got me thinking about emotions and how to deal with them.
In my late teens and early twenties I spent quite some time digging into eastern thought. At one point I meditated several hours each day, and would zig zag across the continent to study under different gurus, many who would spend at least some time on the idea that we should control, and not be controlled by our emotions. I was particularly enamored by and put into practice the idea of equanimity, that we can wear a half smile and experience a constant state of happiness throughout all of life’s extreme highs and lows.
When I got my first finance job as a derivatives trader in Seoul, I read Market Wizards to prepare for the role and found that many of the world’s most successful investors valued a similar emotional constancy as one of their strengths. But then I got into the office and found a very different set of values. All of my colleagues were successful college athletes who would high five or head butt each other after a good trading day. On a bad day we had a plethora of slammed fists, punched walls and even a few monitors thrown out the window.
And here I was, the hippy musician type who would wear the half smile regardless of whether I was making or losing money. At one point the head trader pulled me aside to encourage a bit more passion.
“Oh so you WANT me to show more emotion?”
“Yeah yeah… we feel like you don’t give a damn when your pnl swings.”
“Ohhhh… I seee. Ok let me try that out…”
The next time my positions went against me I dropped my fist on my desk in a move that could only be characterized as weak sauce, but my colleagues were encouraging and soon I was shouting and throwing monitors like the rest of them. Later when I joined Goldman to trade OTC and physical commodities products that require much more interpersonal interaction, I found this “skill” of expressing anger came in handy. Both internally and externally, dealing with extremely aggressive people who always test your limits requires some show of what is acceptable through "non verbal" cues.
My entire adult life I’ve viewed emotions through this lens of cognitive science, which treats humans as computing machines that can be reprogrammed. My goals changed from “extaconstancy” to expressing a wider range of emotions when the situation suited, but the idea was that I was programming my response given certain inputs.
Freud viewed people more like valves, so if something angered a person and she didn’t express it, it would build in a series of these events until she exploded. I dismissed this framework entirely until some recent episodes with my wife (where I exploded not her :) and a sermon from our pastor (who told us sometimes we just need to be honest when we’re upset with God) helped me to realize that there’s something to this as well.
So how DO we deal with our emotions? Well I’m still figuring it out, but I suspect it’s a blend of control/reprogramming and honestly expressing ourselves. I tried it out for the first time these last few months and it’s worked really well for me.
Happy New Year and many blessings in 2015!