When Results Get Too Personal

Trading, poker and golf obviously play an important role in your life. It’s how you spend a significant amount of your time, and is likely an area that genuinely interests you. 

But a common problem I see happens when traders, poker players and golfers become so overly-identified with measurable performance that their personal self-worth is defined by their PnL, bankroll, winnings, score, or handicap. 

When results or performance are so wrapped up in how you feel about yourself, or how you establish your personal confidence, you actually add more emotional chaos to these pursuits, snowballing small problems into bigger and more profound ones.

The idea of losing, struggling, or playing badly hits you so hard that, on some level, failure feels like life or death – you fear going bust or being permanently branded a failure. On the flip side, total euphoria can take over when you’re doing great, winning big, or making a lot of money – you become convinced that this is your new normal and you’ll crush it forever. 

Being overly identified with your results is not the only reason you have extreme reactions like this. High expectations, an illusion of control, and hoping and wishing can be the cause too. (To learn more about how to identify and correct those problems check out Chapter 7 of The Mental Game of Trading or Chapter 8 of The Mental Game of Poker.

If you suspect that you’re personally defined by your results, consider these questions to see if this is a problem for you:

  • Do you naturally relate whatever people are talking about to that part of your life?
  • Do you have a difficult time describing your core characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, in a way that isn’t related to poker, trading, or golf?
  • Do you have a difficult time being focused on other things, in general, but especially after big winning or losing days, or playing incredibly well or terribly?
  • Is your mood or emotional state outside of these performance environments heavily influenced by your results in them?
  • If you were never able to trade, play poker, or play golf, aside from potential financial implications, would you struggle to even know what to do with yourself?

The more questions you answered “yes” to, raises the likelihood that your personal confidence,  identity, and self-worth is dependent on your success/performance in trading, poker and golf. There’s too much on the line for you to be consistently stable and that ultimately interferes with your performance.

Now let’s take a look at how this may have naturally developed and help make this problem easier to understand.

 

We Learn Who We Are Through What We Do

I’m about to get more philosophical and big picture than I usually get in these blogs, but this is a perspective that has helped my clients over the years, so here we go.

While we are not born into this world knowing who we are, I do believe there is a sort of roadmap or coding, beyond just personality, that exists in each of us that we can only discover by colliding with the world. It’s through this “collision” that we gain feedback. You learn you like this, love that, hate the other thing. As we’re exposed to more and different aspects of the world, the more we uncover about ourselves and how we define ourselves evolves.

This can take a million different forms. Baseball is your favorite sport until someone introduces you to soccer. You are thrown into the middle of a crisis and discover how calm you can be in the middle of it, and how well you can lead others through it. You are asked to give a speech for the first time and realize you love public speaking. You lived a sheltered life and reluctantly travel internationally for the first time only to discover how much of a thrill you get from seeing different cultures. 

The world offers up opportunities and as you experience those opportunities, you learn more about yourself and shape and re-shape who you are and what you understand about yourself. Through our experiences as kids and, ultimately, as we mature into adulthood, this process continues and we get more clarity on our values, morals, what we want for ourselves, and what we want for the world.

Basically, you have to do a bunch of things in order to learn more about who you are. You have to be a human doing to understand yourself as a human being. It’s how we learn. Think about it – without “doing” something, how do you get feedback and learn? You’ll have nothing to evaluate and never understand who you are.

I know there are some philosophies out there that promote accepting who you are, without concern for what you do. I’m not criticizing those takes. I just think this is one of those ideas that works best together, like nature and nurture, art and science, goals and process, doing and being – they can all work together. 

How does this connect with being overly-identified with trading, poker or golf? Some of you, simply, haven’t consolidated the knowledge, or feedback, that you’ve acquired over the years. That causes a hole, or a gap, in your perception of yourself. This hole drives an intense focus on acquiring more money or bigger external results to make up for the confidence, validation, self-esteem, and self-worth that you’ve earned but haven’t internalized.

In other words, you’ve learned a lot about yourself over the years but haven’t taken time to put the pieces together and you seek external results to make up for it. The reality is that success or failure doesn’t materially change the core structure of your identity that much. There are elements that are always preserved and, ideally, enhanced, through both success and failure – resilience, new areas of strength, and a higher level of skills when excelling. 

Now some thoughts on how to put the pieces together.

 

Next Steps

In many ways, the next steps are similar to work I recommend for recovering perfectionists. You need to look at past experiences to define who you are regardless of success or failure. You need to identify your values and what you believe in and care about. You need to deepen your understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and uncover the traits that define you.

Who are you if you fail? Who are you if you’re wildly successful? Are those different answers? Should they be? What would your friends and the people who care about you say about you? 

Spend some time writing and reflecting to create a solid understanding of who you are. The goal is to get to the point where you can give a 30 second pitch, answering those questions without hesitation. 

This approach will reduce emotional volatility because, currently, when you fail, it can feel like you have lost part of yourself or that you are lost. Honestly, the same thing can happen when you are on a high from doing really well – it’s just harder to notice because the euphoria doesn’t make you feel lost.

When you have a true sense of stability on a personal level, it becomes harder for you to be shaken on any level. The experiences become additive. Obviously, you still don’t want to fail or have downswings. The goal is not to get to the point where you are meekly accepting struggles, failures, or losses. The point is to view them from an opportunistic standpoint and take advantage of them. But that’s hard to do when they pose such a large threat to your confidence.

How well you know and understand yourself, what you value and what you care about is not connected with achievement, money, acclaim, or success. Mind you, I’m not saying caring about success or money is bad – I’d love for all of you to make more money and to be more successful! But I am saying that you can have both. 

When your confidence is stronger and more stable, your emotions are less volatile and your performance is more consistent. Not to mention, you’ll be happier and more fulfilled. And that’s something money or results can’t buy.

 

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Written by Jared Tendler

June 10, 2024

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