Mid-life crisis of Meaning or Competence?

I’ve had my share of mid-life crises. As far as I can tell, the only real benefit of having multiple mid-life’s is theoretical. Each new mid-life pushes the mean of my expected longevity to the right. Beyond that, in my experience, each mid-life crisis feels like a regression to a childish meme.

My first mid-life came in the form of a search for meaning around the time of the birth of our first child. I had been working from my home in Brisbane as a proprietary trader for Macquarie Bank for over a year and I was struggling to generate any meaningful investment returns. The previous year at BT, I had made profits like a bandit as I was particularly good at trading the sentiment swings echoing from the walls of the trading room.  At Macquarie, it was my first stint as a prop trader outside of a dealing room environment, so I needed to make some adjustments to my trading style. I could no longer rely on the visceral sentiment signals that I picked up from traders around me, so I needed to find my edge from another source.

Only I didn’t. Enter my first mid-life.

At this point, the logical course of action was to engage in some reflection on what was working and what wasn’t and then adjust accordingly. My approach however was to cling to my past performance as proof that my strategy was valid and instead of modifying my behaviour, I began to question whether trading aligned with my core values. In other words, instead of questioning my competence and dealing with reality, I projected my suppressed feelings of unworthiness onto a search for meaning and purpose.

Confusing a lack of competence with a lack of meaning.

Grappling with existential dilemma’s was a sport for me in my late 20’s. It wasn’t a leap at the time to ask myself why I’d chosen to be a trader and whether I should do something more meaningful with my life. It was certainly easier than risking a crack in the edifice of my fragile identity as a competent trader. So instead of moving back into the Macquarie Bank dealing room and spending time sharpening my trading tools, I resigned. Unwilling confront reality, I built a narrative around meaning and purpose that enabled me to exist in an unsatisfying professional denial until my incompetence caught up with me.

As it turns out, denial is just a psychological pain killer. It enabled me to dampen my professional anxiety for a while, but ultimately didn’t change the path toward my most probable future; financial pain and irrelevance.

When I hear people today searching for meaning in their lives, it’s without judgement that I have them explore their current competence. It’s not always competence that’s at issue, but it’s surprisingly often.

So what would I do differently if I had my first mid-life again?

I would seek to know my current reality like my life depended on it, leaving no room for denial. To do this, I would need to admit that my singular perspective is not sufficient. I would gather external perspectives through requesting rigorous and regular feedback, in regard to my beliefs, processes and behaviour. I would need to learn humility so that I may savour this feedback, despite its often-bitter taste.

And with my newfound humility I would accept my reality and take positive actions, one at a time, towards gently improved outcomes. This is a process of self-awareness and unfortunately it doesn’t happen overnight.

Building self-awareness is mission critical for investment professionals. Self-awareness is not found through self-reflection alone, it is also found through understanding how you occur to others (Eurich, 2017). Consistency across numerous external data-points is more likely to reflect reality than your own isolated bias prone perspective. Building a process for receiving regular feedback from your peers can help you to stay in touch with reality and not get lost in denial.

References

Eurich, T. (2017). Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World. London: Macmillan.

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