We had a chance to hear Denise Shull on an episode of Futures Radio Show and were fascinated by her story and her job working with traders. So we decided to get with her one-on-one.
As a decision coach and performance architect, Denise leverages her training in psychological science to solve the challenges of mental mistakes, confidence crises and slumps in Olympic athletes and Wall Street traders. Denise is known for her uncanny effectiveness in coaching, training and assessing for the X factor of human performance under pressure.
Denise is the founder of The ReThink Group. Their mission is to solve the unsolvable mental blocks found in traders, investors, pro athletes and entertainers through a unique application of the neuroscience of perception and judgment and techniques borrowed from modern psychoanalysis.
Follow Denise on Twitter at @DeniseKShull.
How did you get involved in trading, and what path took you to where you are now?
Denise: I always say some volleyball players at Chicago’s East Bank Club got me into trading, and that’s true–it’s just there is a little more to the story. In 1992, I began dating a floor trader. At the time, I literally knew nothing about trading. My dad had been a buy-and-hold investor. He didn’t even know how to sell a share of stock.
“ZAP,” my friend, after knowing me for a year or so–and calling me Mister cause he thought I wasn’t such a girly girl–started telling me I should buy a weather futures seat, which sounded moderately insane. I mean, what the heck is a weather futures seat?
A couple of years later, as I was finishing my Master’s at The University of Chicago, ZAP told me he was “going upstairs” and and asked would I like to come. I thought “going upstairs where?” He explained it was going to trade on terminals because you could get real-time quotes on networks, and would I like to come and keep track of trades. If I did, he and his friends would teach me to trade. I had applied for some PhD programs, but wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be a psychologist or researcher and had to finish writing my thesis, so I thought, “why not?”
Fast forward a few months and I was indeed trading my own account. Bob Kanter ran Electronic Trading Group, and one day, he says, “Denise, you have some of the best instincts I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t think a woman could trade.” Thankfully, I really liked Bob, but nevertheless, I took the opportunity to go to Schonfeld because they were trading momentum, and ETG was more of a scalping shop. I was even lucky enough to sit next to the now legendary Dmitry Balyasny for a few months! Then Eddy Franco of Bright Trading offers me a job to help him run a day trading desk in NYC and I move. I actually end up at two other shops—Sharpe Capital and W.J. Bonfanti, a $2 broker—but we don’t have enough words for those stories.
All along, I poured over Market Wizards, Mark Douglas, Ari Kiev and Alexander Elder. I even hired Mark and Ari briefly to help me with my desks. Yet I had this nagging sense that something was missing, and in 2003, I inadvertently found the answer. The Mid-Manhattan Institute of Psychoanalysis, where I was casually studying for my PhD, asked to republish my master’s thesis, and in order to not sound like an idiot, I rewrote it with updated science. And lo and behold, Antonio Damasio had shown that emotion was a necessary ingredient of decisions. If there is no emotion, there is no decision. WOW! In other words, every time “take the emotion out” is uttered–it’s an impossible instruction.
I happened to tell a friend– Chris Terry, who I didn’t know worked with Linda Bradford Raschke–and he said, “You have to write an article.” I did, and the truth of the message resonated, and the approach took on a life of its own.
Who is your greatest influence for getting into and learning about mental coaching skills and how that applies to traders?
Denise: Honestly, Deborah Greene Bershatsky PhD, who was running the psychoanalytic institute. I figured if her tactics to address mental distortions could help dissociated personalities, they could help traders. After that, I did all of my own work–because everyone else was about discipline and no emotion. I think the power came from me looking at the true trading experience and analyzing the actual emotion and decision-making research.
Can you talk about your association with Wendy Rhoades of “Billions”?
Denise: Andrew Ross Sorkin interviewed me about my book on CNBC’s Squawk Box in 2012, so I can only assume that in the brainstorming, when they were discussing the fact that SAC had a performance coach, my name came up. In August of 2015, he asked me to help Maggie Siff, the actress who plays Dr. Wendy Rhoades, and she in turn asked me to help the other two creators. I gave them a bunch of war stories to illustrate the true emotional challenge of trading and market decisions made for other reasons, such as feeling guilt.
At the time, the marketing department also wanted me to do some promo, but honestly I was concerned about the whole dominatrix thing. David has asked me if Maggie could continue to work with me, and while I tried to be open-minded, I was very much of two minds. I was also preoccupied with the Bloomberg Trader Brain Exercise based on my research. After the show began to air though, everyone kept telling me how much Wendy sounded like me, so I finally fessed up to what had happened
Mindset is critical for traders. Can you share a tip on how traders can attain and maintain a mental edge while trading?
Denise: Learn to identify what you are feeling and why you are feeling it. Delve into what’s frustrating and creating fear, and untangle it from your personal fractals–your lifelong repetitive expectations and explanation.
Then choose which sense, feeling or emotion you do or don’t want to act on. Ask yourself, “If I take this action, how will I feel as it starts to develop?”
Becoming emotionally sophisticated, knowing how to differentiate your feelings and be granular in your language about them is an edge in and of itself. There is something special about the connection between language and feelings–it’s an edge to exploit.
What are the similarities between competitive athletics and trading?
Denise: They are really quite different. It’s a mistake to apply typical sports psychology ideas to trading. You can’t make anything happen, the game goes on forever, it’s never really clear if you have won or lost. All of these facts make borrowing ideas of mental toughness a very dangerous strategy for trading.