[A prefatory meta-note: I personally have issues with what I’m writing here, but I know that many traders struggle to justify their chosen career path. So here, for those of you who suffer pangs of angst, is a philosopher’s (not my) take on your (and my) life.]
Susan Wolf, author of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2010), would, I suspect, struggle in passing judgment on a trader’s life. She sets forth two criteria for meaningfulness. First, a person must love something and, second, it must be worthy of love. “Essentially, the idea is that a person’s life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some thing or things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged, or . . . if she loves something—as opposed to being bored by or alienated from most or all that she does. Even a person who is so engaged, however, will not live a meaningful life if the objects or activities with which she is so occupied are worthless. A person who loves smoking pot all day long, or doing endless crossword puzzles, [or worse, as the author adds in a personal confession later in the text, doing Sudokus] and has the luxury of being able to indulge in this without restraint does not thereby make her life meaningful.” (p. 9) The things and activities we care about must link us to our world in a positive way.
As paradigms of a meaningful life, we might nominate Gandhi, Einstein, or Cézanne. They all actively engaged in projects of worth. Sisyphus is usually portrayed as the exemplar of a meaningless existence.
What kinds of things give meaning to life? The activities that engage us must have a value that “is in part independent of one’s own attitude to it.” (p. 37) But who’s to say which projects are independently valuable? Wolf answers, “No one in particular.” And yet “whether a life is meaningful has specifically to do with whether one’s life can be said to be worthwhile from an external point of view. A meaningful life is one that would not be considered pointless or gratuitous, even from an impartial perspective.” (p. 42)
I fear that the trader is quickly starting to look more and more like Sisyphus. But, wait, there’s hope! Wolf, struggling with the question of objective value and trying to distance herself from a narrow academic perspective, suggests that “almost anything to which a significant number of people have shown themselves to be deeply attached over a significant length of time, has or relates to some positive value.” (p. 128) Trading certainly has a long tradition and has attracted a sizable community.
Perhaps in that respect trading can be compared to basketball. Wolf writes: “Presumably, there is nothing especially valuable about a group of people running around, trying to throw a ball into a hoop, while another group runs around trying to stop them. Nor does the adoption of extra rules, constraining the moves that are permitted, lift their running around into the category of practices that in themselves the participants have reason to be proud of from a detached perspective. Even if basketball, removed or abstracted from its now established place in our culture, is not an objectively valuable activity in itself, it provides an opportunity for much that is of value. It provides an opportunity for the cultivation and exercise of skill and virtue, for the building of relationships, and for the communion that comes from enthusiasm for and immersion in a shared activity.” (p. 129)
In brief, according to Wolf we can freely admit that in and of itself scalping ticks in the e-mini S&P is a pretty worthless activity. (Of course, worthless does not mean profitless.) But, done with passion and ever-increasing skill, it can nevertheless be the lynchpin of a meaningful life.