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The Perils of Perfectionism in Trading
By Price Headley | Published  11/4/2005 | Currency , Futures , Options , Stocks | Unrated
The Perils of Perfectionism in Trading

The desire to be perfect cost me plenty of money in the early days of my trading career. Why? Because a perfectionist cannot take a loss, so small losses can easily turn into bigger losses for the trader who is not able to admit being wrong. Plus the trader will try to book a profit too soon to feel like a winner. Read on below for methods to tame perfectionist tendencies in trading.

Perfectionists share a belief that perfection is required in order to be accepted by others. The reality is that acceptance cannot be gained through performance or other external factors like money or social approval.  Instead, self-acceptance is at the root of happiness.  The biggest obstacle to overcome that I have faced is fear of failure.  If you have a perfectionist mentality when trading, you are really setting yourself up for failure, because it is a given that you will experience losses along the way in trading.  You have to think of trading as a probability game You can't be a perfectionist and expect to be a great trader. Your losses (that you hope will return to breakeven) will kill you. If you cannot take a loss when it is small because of the need to be perfect, then the loss will oftentimes grow to a much larger loss, causing further pain for the perfectionist trader. 

The objective should be excellence in trading, not perfection.  In addition, you should strive for excellence over a sustained period, as opposed to judging that each trade must be excellent.  In trading, the great ones make their share of mistakes, but they are able to keep the impact of those mistakes small, while getting the most out of their best ideas.  In order to change long established behavior patterns and personality characteristics, it may be necessary to enlist the support and services of a qualified professional. Long established habits, beliefs and traits never change overnight, but acceptance of a problem is a first step.

Here are a few tips consistent with attempting to become less perfectionistic:

  1. Begin to appreciate the process as well as the outcome - set more achievable goals
  2. Realize that you are worthy no matter whether you win or lose on a given day
  3. Focus on achievement less and on enjoyment more - you may even be surprised with more favorable outcomes
  4. Don't be so critical of your errors - just learn from them

Set one goal and make it process oriented - forget about the outcome. If you achieve that goal to improve your trading via that goal, you win no matter the outcome.  Perfectionists often seek to control uncontrollable factors in a trade (like waiting for all the risk to be out and everything to look perfect, the quality of the fill on the exit especially, hoping or "willing" a better outcome by doubling down on a loser, and many more). When a trader focuses on these uncontrollables, he is more likely to tighten up and not be able to pull the trigger to exit a losing trade or miss out on a new winner that has moved "too far." 

Based on these perfectionist tendencies, I recommend the following entry strategy for perfectionists. Enter half a position as soon as you see an opportunity that generates at least 3 times the reward for the risk at the current market price, then place the remaining half at your desired "perfect" entry price.  For exits, always place market orders, as the tendency for the perfectionist is to try to get a better exit price with a limit, and then keep missing the exit on the way down.

Here's how this strategy can work as an example: Buy just half of a $10,000 position in a stock as your initial order. If the stock goes down in price, don't buy any more of the stock. If it goes down to your stop price, sell the stock to take your loss.  However, if the stock moves up in price from your initial buy point, and it is performing relatively well, you might add another $3,000 to your original $5,000 buy. You would have $8,000 of your $10,000 total position in the stock already committed. If the stock moves up another few percent, you can finish your $10,000 position by buying another $2,000. In this way you average up, not down. You only want to add money if your prior buys are working.

Price Headley is the founder and chief analyst of BigTrends.com.