Wall Street traders aren’t known for being touchy-feely. Still, says Denise Shull, AM’95, “there’s a reason why trading desks have the reputation of phones getting smashed. It’s hardly like they’re unemotional.”
As a Wall Street performance coach, Shull has been helping traders untangle what she describes as the “spaghetti bowl” of their emotions since 2004. It’s a niche industry—there are only about a dozen other people in Shull’s line of work—that combines sports psychology, psychoanalysis, and mindfulness-based practices to help hotshot traders succeed in the markets. Some performance coaches are employed full time at hedge funds and financial firms; others, like Shull, work with a variety of companies and individuals.
Fans of Showtime’s Billions might recognize the job description. Shull was one of the inspirations for the character of Wendy Rhoades, played by Maggie Siff, an in-house performance coach at the fictional hedge fund Axe Capital. (Shull also served as a consultant for the show.)
Many of Shull’s clients seek her help because they find themselves repeating the same mistakes. “Like that old Britney Spears song, ‘Oops, I Did it Again,’” Shull says. “That’s how traders and portfolio managers find themselves in my office.” In her book, Market Mind Games: A Radical Psychology of Investing, Trading, and Risk (McGraw Hill, 2012), she describes one client who struggled with the impulse to bail out of his trades too soon, “before it blows up in my face.” Another was prone to impulsive decisions she knew were foolish every time she found herself on a winning streak.
“It’s clear to me that I was meant to be doing this,” Shull says. As a student in UChicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), she focused on biopsychology, a field that unites neuroscience research with psychoanalytic insights about unconscious desires and urges. But rather than getting a PhD, which she briefly considered, Shull followed the advice of several friends who worked at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and thought she’d do well in the industry. She spent the next decade as a trader and trading desk manager.
Still, a desire to understand the mind’s mysteries tugged at her. So alongside her day job, Shull enrolled in the Mid-Manhattan Institute of Psychoanalysis as a hobby and revised her thesis for publication in the Annals of Modern Psychoanalysis. When her contacts in the financial industry discovered her unusual combination of expertise, Shull began getting offers to lecture and work with traders one-on-one.
By 2010 coaching had become a full-time job and had given Shull enough material for her book. In the past year, she’s begun to expand her clientele to include athletes as well as traders.
Shull scoffs at some of the advice traditionally given to struggling traders—make a plan, follow the plan, be disciplined, leave your feelings out of it. Sure, she says, plans and discipline are great, but “trade with no emotion? It’s not doable.”
In fact, she points out, psychological studies suggest that emotion is central to all decision making. “Our emotions are meant to help us,” she says. Feelings are “signals that have information in them. If you just try to overpower them, what typically happens is that the signal gets louder or stronger or diverted into something else.”
Shull thinks it’s crucial that traders learn to acknowledge their feelings, not resist them. Although they might not realize it, traders are in a long-term relationship with the “ultimate authority figure”—the market—and it’s as complex as any personal relationship. “How are they playing out their self-image … with this partner of the market?” she asks.
In her sessions, Shull helps clients identify unconscious patterns of feeling and behavior that date back to childhood and inform their choices as adults. Excessive caution may stem from a desire to please perfectionistic parents, and risky behavior from a hunger to rebel. Over time, identifying and resisting these patterns becomes more and more natural and automatic.
It’s helped her too. As a trader, “I was always very, very good at getting out of a losing position—cut your loss, get out before it gets worse,” Shull says. On one particularly volatile day several years ago, as she found herself facing what looked like a huge loss, she was tempted to do just that. But Shull reminded herself that sudden drops in the market nearly always rebound, and that her impulse to take the loss was “my over-responsible, follow-the-rules, good-girl personality” at work. She practiced what she preaches to clients and hung on to her position a little longer. “And I actually made money.”