Monday, July 14, 2014

Lombardo, Better Than Perfect

Perfectionism as it is usually understood can be a terrible curse, especially for a trader. It leads a person to act out of fear rather than passion—and sometimes not to act at all (why bother? I’ll botch it anyway). The perfectionist has both an “incessant drive to control the future” and “the unsatisfying feeling that, no matter how hard [he tries, he] will always come up short.” (p. 7)

In Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love (Seal Press, forthcoming September 23) Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist and author of the national bestseller A Happy You, tackles the problems perfectionists create for themselves and suggests ways to overcome them.

For the most part Lombardo’s solutions involve reframing attitudes and motivations. Take the fear/passion dichotomy. “When you are fueled by fear, you focus on what you don’t want. Your goal is to do everything in your power to reduce the possibility of an undesired outcome. … Just by switching your perspective from one of fear to one of passion—working toward a desired outcome instead of avoiding an unwanted result—you can begin to feel more motivated, engaged, positive, and hopeful.” (p. 50)

Perfectionists are inclined to compare themselves to others and to judge themselves negatively. Of course, it’s not only perfectionists who do this; they are simply more intensely competitive. As Lombardo says, “Perfectionists don’t just want to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ they want to kick the Joneses’ butts!” (p. 185) Well, that sounds more like trader talk; maybe a dose of perfectionism is actually a good thing, at least professionally. Lombardo admits that “many champion athletes, prominent scientists, and celebrities demonstrate perfectionist traits.” (p. 6)

I have the feeling that there are in fact a lot of perfectionists in the trading world—not basket case, paralyzed perfectionists but highly driven, competitive perfectionists. Consider the following excerpt, which in its broadest strokes is a reasonable trading strategy, at least if the tradeoff is favorable. “Comparisons affect not only how we feel but also what we do to try to feel better. People will actually give up something positive in order to have someone else receive less. In one experiment, for example, participants were given the opportunity to get rid of other participants’ money—though if they did they had to give up some of their own money, too. The result? More people chose to have others lose money, resulting in the depletion of their own funds.” (p. 187)

Lombardo’s world has limitless possibilities—limitless potential for money, health, prosperity, and abundance. By contrast, “perfectionists have a scarcity perspective: me vs. them.” (p. 186) In some markets perfectionists have it right; they’re playing a zero sum game.

I started Lombardo’s book believing that perfectionism (and, I admit, I have it in spades) is on balance a negative that should somehow be transcended. But by the end I was feeling pretty good about myself (although Lombardo might conclude that I’m in denial). Some perfectionist traits may get in the way of optimal performance, but others propel people to extraordinary heights.

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