I was a day trader for many years, and it almost killed me.
I made money by making profits on my own money and also taking a percentage of the profits for the people I traded for. I traded up to $40 million or $50 million a day at my peak. I did this from 2001 to 2004.
I learned about day trading but I also learned a lot about myself and what I was good at, what I was horrible at, and what I was psychotic at. Things that had nothing to do with day trading.
Day trading is the best job in the world on the days you make money. You make a trade, then maybe 20 minutes later you are out of the trade with a profit, and for the rest of the day you think about how much money you made.
It’s the worst job in the world on a bad day. I would make a trade, it would go against me, and then I wanted my heart to stop so my blood would stop thumping so loudly.
I did it for years, though, because I was unemployable in every other way.
Here’s what I learned. All of these lessons I will certainly use today, many years after I stopped day trading.
A) You can’t predict the future. Everyone thinks they can. But they can’t.
This applies not just to trading but everything. You could be married for 10 years and the next thing you know you are divorced and you would not have predicted that.
You could be healthy all your life and drink your vegetables and exercise and reduce stress, and a year later you could be dead from cancer.
You’d have much less stress if you let go of trying to predict the future.
You can always seek to increase the odds in your favor. if I don’t jump off bridges, for instance, it’s more likely I’ll be alive a year from now. But certainly a path to unhappiness is thinking the future can be predicted and controlled.
B) Hope is not a strategy.
If you get to the point where you “hope” you don’t get ruined, then you did something wrong beforehand.
For instance, if you plan a wedding outside and you don’t have a backup plan in case it rains, then you probably mis-planned your wedding, unless you are getting married in a desert.
“Hoping” is not a bad thing. I hope that every day my life goes perfectly.
But if hoping is the only thing I’m relying on, then it means I didn’t really look at all the possible outcomes of something that was important to me.
C) Uncertainty is your best friend.
A hundred percent of opportunities in life are created because people are uncertain about almost everything in their lives.
We are constantly trying to close the enormous gap between the things we are certain about and the things we are uncertain about, and almost every invention, product, Internet service, book, whatever has been created to help us close that gap.
Sometimes this is hard. If your husband betrays and leaves you, you often feel like crawling on the floor and burning all the self-help books. They all lied.
It’s hard to feel “in the now” or to “positive think” when life feels like it’s over. I’ve tried. For me it’s too hard.
But at the very least you can say…”help me.” You can say it to your close friends. You can say it something inside of yourself.
“Help me” is the most powerful, and most forgotten, prayer.
D) Taking risks versus reducing risk.
Some people take too many risks and they go bankrupt. This happened to me. And sometimes people are too cautious and don’t take enough risks.
When I first started day trading, I was so afraid of risk that if I had a small profit, I’d end the trade. But then I would take big losses and that would wipe out all my profits.
The key is that you can take larger and larger risks if you work on better and better ways to deal with those risks.
For instance, I might be able to risk marrying someone if I know she is not a hard-core drug addict who regularly betrays the people she is close to.
I can risk driving without a license if I always stay below the speed limit (I know this is a stupid risk, but still). Once you have a method of reducing risks, it’s easier to make trades or decisions about anything.
Often I get emails, “I really want ONE job but they don’t seem to want me and now I’m miserable. How can I get that job?”
And you’re going to be unhappy. You can’t wish yourself a job.
When I was raising money to day trade, I probably contacted over 1,000 people. When I was starting an Internet business I started over a dozen Internet businesses and watched all of them fail but one. When I was trying to sell my Internet business I contacted over a dozen companies (although Google broke my heart – damn you Google!).
When I wanted to get married, I went on lots of dates. Claudia’s approach was even smarter – she wouldn’t waste time with dinners. She would only go to tea with guys. Within the first 20 seconds you know if you are attracted. So keep it to a tea.
F) Say “No.”
In day trading, if something is not working out, even if your heart wants it to work out, you have to say “No” and cut your losses.
If a business relationship is not working out, don’t put more energy and time into it.
There is a cognitive bias called “committment bias.” We think because we’ve already put time and energy (or money) into something that we have to stick with it. But this is just a mental bias. Say no to it.
You have to decide every moment if this is the situation you want to be in.
Just because you were in the situation a moment ago, or yesterday, or for 10 years, doesn’t mean the situation is right for you anymore.
Day trading pulls everything out of you. It sucks the soul out of your body, blends it up, and then explodes. It doesn’t turn into a nice smoothie. It explodes.
So you have to take care of yourself. If you don’t sleep enough, if you don’t eat well, exercise, be around positive people, be grateful for what you have, blah blah blah, you will lose all of your money and go bankrupt.
And obviously, this applies to everything else in life. Every day, what small thing can you do to become a slightly better you?
The reason we get so attracted to “safe” cubicle jobs is that the pain is more subtle and sneaks up on us. It’s not the blender-drama of day trading so the need for health on a daily basis doesn’t seem as important. But it is.
The only way to survive is to laugh. There’s that saying: “Man makes plans but God laughs.”
Well, you might as well be on the same side as God.
I) “This is crazy” means you’re crazy.
I’ve seen it a million times. Guy makes a trade. The market goes against him. He says “this is crazy” and puts more money into the trade. And then he loses all his money and goes crazy. I’ve had to talk people off the ledge or tell them to put the gun down.
The market is never crazy. The world is never crazy. And I will go so far as to say that your girlfriend who just lied to you about where she spent the night is not crazy.
I only care about you. And you’re effin’ crazy if you thought the world was going to line up any other way than the way it lined up.
Tough on you.
I know when I feel like, “ugh, this situation is insane” that the first place I need to look is at me.
I am insane.
J) It doesn’t matter if a trade (or a day, or a life) is good or bad.
Good and bad days happen. But life is about a billion little moments that add up to all the things around you. If you let one of those moments have too much control then you are bound to be mostly miserable.
I was mostly miserable during the period I was day trading. I let that aspect of my life take control. So I stopped focusing on being a good husband, a good father, a good friend, a good anything.
All of my other constituencies went to hell.
I would have nightmares. I would lose sleep. I would wake up many mornings and go to the church across the street so I could be by myself and pray. What would I pray? “Jesus, please make the markets go in my direction today.”
I’m Jewish. Nobody answered my prayers.
K) It’s never about the money.
Every day I get emails like, “Can you show me how to day trade?”
I know a thousand day traders and only two that won’t go bankrupt. So what makes anyone think they will have an edge? How many people listen to me?
Because people are sick of their lives, their relationships, their jobs, and all the lies that have been told to them ever since they learned how to walk.
They want freedom from the BS.
I get it.
Day trading is the dream. You can make enough money to not care. To do it from anywhere.
To be happy.
It won’t work. But people don’t want to believe it. Most people think they have that one special something that will make it work for them.
And it’s true – they do have that one special something. But you can’t get there by day trading first. You can skip right to the being happy part. You can skip right to being free.
But we never learned that. We were taught we had to do something first to earn freedom. We were taught that suffering was the currency to buy happiness.
Okay, go do it. Then cry about it. Then get scared. Then curse the craziness. Then cry more. None of that will make you happy.
Then read this blog post again. Not because it will make you happy. But because I like when people read my posts.
James Altucher is a former hedge fund manager, prominent angel investor and the bestselling author of Choose Yourself.