Thursday, May 27, 2010

Can a trader’s life be meaningful?

[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.


  1. Brenda,

    My two cents on the matter: in my view, what matters to people is being competent at something, being acknowledged for it by their peers and having something tangible to show for it.

    Doing something that you love is great, but it's funny how people tend to love things they're good at.

    Doing something that is valuable for society is, no doubt, wonderful, but moving beyond activities that could be considered worthless [say baseball - don't mess with basketball ;D ], what about activities that are actually hurtful to society? Don't *successful* drug dealers find their life meaningful? What about terrorists (yes, particularly including suicide terrorists)?

    Passion and meaning are great, but in my view most people also need something they can touch. That is why some successful people who already have the recognition of their peers buy things they don't really need not care for and why some intellectuals whose work output is 100% real yet ethereal tend to gravitate to manual hobbies (vegetable garden anyone?). See also Shop class as soulcraft.

    So every time some e-fellow trader complains about the lack of value or meaning in trading I tend to think that a) they're not being very successful; b) their in-laws are giving them hell; or c) they're not putting the money they made to any good use. (I'd say it's 80% a; 10% b; 10% c).

    Your own personal take?

    Best and meaningful trading,


  2. Very interesting. Too harsh on the trader I'd say =P. Nevertheless, it's difficult to vouch for an objective meaning in life when people have such vastly different predispositions.

    A relative perspective might make more sense: Meaning in life is discovering one's talents, developing those talents, then using those talents to benefit others. The financial ecosystem, through the process of natural selection and adaptation to produce one talented trader who can single-handedly allocate capital more efficiently than ten mediocre traders, makes a trader's life very meaningful indeed.

    The BEST tools successful people have used to achieve meaning are commonly found to be: reframing, appreciating the positive, and seeing how the future unfolds from the present. And with it, leads to five important qualities: persistence, conviction that one's actions matter, tolerance for uncertainty, and irrepresible resilience.

    Does the above qualities not seem familiar to a successful trader? Doesn't that suggest traders are doing something right here?

    But ultimately, reality is what we make it. =)

  3. Personally I’m always annoyed when philosophy cozies up to pop culture, I assume in an attempt to make it more “meaningful.” Worse, in my opinion, is that this particular book was the fruit of a lecture series at Princeton, not exactly the Oprah of the philosophical community.

    Traditional value theory normally gets hung up trying to prove that values are “real” things, that the good life is not just in the eye of the beholder but is somehow objectively good. Wolf starts off in that direction with a simple dualism—that meaning in life requires a subjective and an objective component. But soon enough everything collapses back into the subjective as the distinction morphs into the individual vs. the community. (I hate to think where a community standard of meaningfulness could take us.)

    The author has a devil of a time bringing people she probably wouldn’t like under the “meaningful” tent. Because the objective component should be truly worthy, the first instinct is to exclude all those endeavors that aren’t socially acceptable dinner party conversation in academe. And trading would probably rank close to terrorism. Unless, of course, the conversation was taking place at a “development” (fund-raising) dinner party, in which case highly successful trading would be lionized.

    These are just some snarly comments that are unworthy of a philosopher but might be acceptable coming from a trader.


  4. We live in a "capitalist, free market" society where the price of capital is essentially discovered through reflexive dynamic choices among issuers, investors, and intermediaries. It is the most effective and efficient system. I spent five years in the travelling back-and-forth Ukraine where the contrapositive definition was perfected in that the system failed due to capital being allocated as a cost-free byproduct of a political choice (Soros).

  5. Brenda, this is well related to this post. Let us know what you think.

  6. Perhaps I missed something in the reading, Brenda, but I remain confused. Is your topic:
    a) Is a trader's product (profits) meaningful, if the quest creates nothing tangible?
    b) Is a trader's life meaningful?

    I want to say b, but believe you mean a.

    I have struggled with 'a' for more than 20 years now. The fruit of my labors enriches no one but me, which I believe fails the appropriate stress tests. I have sought to generate meaning via helping other investors but the lack of a tangible product (as euphemism and reality) remains. Moving money around just to create more money...? Hmm.

    And if you mean 'b'... well, every person's life can have meaning when the metric is his or her contributions to the community (family, friends, church, etc) Otherwise, you might as well be Howard Hughes, gathering your increasing piles of money but live alone and secluded like a hermit. Oh, and grow really long fingernails.

    Thank you for another excellent post.

  7. David,

    My post reflects a confusion inherent in the book, and I admit I did nothing to clarify it. In raising the question I tilted toward your first formulation because, for all we know, Mother Theresa could have traded an hour or two a day and “done good” the rest of the time and still to Wolf’s mind be a paradigm of a meaningful life. The question, I guess, is whether her trading would have added to the value of her life, detracted from it, or just have counted as a necessary “break” akin to reading a good mystery.

    I think we can rule out the third possibility except in the case of those warped souls who view trading as entertainment. So we’re left with the first two options. Since I’m not enthralled with Wolf’s formulation of meaningfulness and since, quite frankly, I don’t care enough about the question to spend countless hours pondering it, I can’t advance the discussion in a “meaningful” way. I would suggest, however, that we might be closer to a solution pondering what it means to advance a discussion than whether one’s activities have objective worth.