The market is both carrot & stick

Over the past year of my trading life I have identified several interwoven cycles of learning. The most obvious being that knowledge and practice combine into your overall understanding. Knowledge alone (book learning) does not equate to understanding – you also need to practice in the market. The two combined give you what we generally call experience. Experience seems to be the thing that makes the difference. Someone who has experience tends to do better over someone who has no experience, in any field. If you were having brain surgery, would you rather have a surgeon doing it who has experience or no previous experience? Yeah, enough said.

So over time, our understanding increases (our experience). But you may also notice that your ability to act on what you know seems to lag far behind, and this can be incredibly frustrating and puzzling. Don’t you wonder at it, every time you make the same stupid mistake over and over? Whats going on here?

The fact is that we have two brains (more actually, but lets stick to two for now) – an intellectual brain and an emotional brain. In the East, there is a common analogy of rider and horse. The horse (emotional brain) is stupid and only knows such things as fear, hunger, punishment and reward. The horse understands the difference between a carrot and a stick, but not much else. The rider struggles to make the horse go where he wants to go.

This is our problem in trading. Our emotional brain (the horse) understands fear and greed, and unfortunately these fight or flight level of instincts are stronger (and faster) than our intellectual brain; they have to be. If a mugger jumps out of the bushes you don’t have time to decide if its a mugger or your friend playing a trick on you, you just run.

In the market however, this mechanism is the cause of all our woes. The market provides both a carrot and a stick. A sudden break out (carrot) lures us into buying long, and then suddenly reverses and stops us out (stick). We are lead all over the charts in a random walk, one minute its carrot, the next minute its stick; we are the dumb money.

Who then is the smart money? Surely based on the above it is simply those individuals who can actually control the horse and act according to a trading plan. There is no conspiracy by the major institutions to steal your money from you – you simply hand it over to them or other traders (and they happen to be willing to take it). In the case of the smart money, the rider is in charge, but in the case of the dumb money the horse goes where ever his instincts take him, and the rider simply hangs on (until he falls off that is).

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