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Positive Psychology: Assessing Personal and Professional Performance

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Applied psychology has historically focused on the treatment of emotional/behavioral disorders and the remediation of conflicts and life problems.  This focus has been enshrined in the reimbursement system, as insurance entities require Diagnostic and Statistical Manual codings of illnesses to justify reimbursement. 

In spite of this “medically necessary” emphasis, a parallel industry has sprung up around self-help, coaching, and work with normal populations.  Much of this work stresses the enhancement of positives rather than the elimination of negatives.  Until recently, very little research guided this positive branch of applied psychology.  With the pioneering work of Seligman, positive psychology—the study of optimal functioning and well-being—has become a legitimate research focus in academic psychology.  A health-based classification system has gained traction and a wealth of resources, including validated psychological tests, are now available.

So what does this positive psychology mean for our personal and professional development?  One major implication is that we grow by understanding and expanding our strengths, not simply by correcting our shortcomings.  Another implication is that we are most likely to expand our productivity, well-being, and creativity if we are in social environments that support our strengths.  Much of the work that I do with portfolio managers and traders is help turn strengths into best practices and best practices into robust, replicable processes.

Below is a simple three-question self-assessment from the perspective of positive psychology that might encourage you to take a different perspective on your personal and professional development:

1)    What, specifically, are the talents, skills, and strengths that will fuel your continued success? - A very successful business needs a distinctive competitive advantage.  What is yours?  What do you have that others don't that will make you succeed where others fall short?  What are you superlatively good at, and how is that concretely and consistently expressed in your work?  In your life?  How much time do you spend reverse-engineering your successes and applying the lessons learned via deliberate practice?

2)  Where in your life, specifically and consistently, are you making super efforts?  - We don't grow by staying in our comfort zones.  Growth, whether in the gym or in life, requires a conscious, directed push outside our comfort zones so that we exercise fresh competencies.  A vitally important performance principle is “use it or lose it”:  if we don’t exercise a strength, eventually it weakens.  What are the super efforts you're making here and now to be more tomorrow than you are today?  How much of your life is lived in a routine state and how much in a state of challenge?

3)  Who brings out the best in you? - It is human nature to adapt to our environment.  If we're in an enriched social environment, we rise to the occasion; we absorb positive role modeling.  Challenging and stimulating personal and work environments inspire us to rise to ever higher levels.  Everything we do and everyone we spend time with is a mirror, reflecting images of us that we internalize with time.  What is the quality of your mirrors?  What experience of yourself do you take away from your work?  Your friendships?  Your romantic relationships?

The old version of psychology suggested that the time to see a “shrink” is when you’re having a problem.  The new, positive psychology is not about shrinking, but expanding.  It’s when we’re operating at our best that we’re most likely to find the best practices that can guide our future development.

-Brett Steenbarger is a clinical psychologist and performance coach for hedge funds and other trading firms.  He is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY and author of the TraderFeed blog and an online column for Forbes.  Brett’s recent book, Trading Psychology 2.0, is an application of positive psychology to performance in financial markets.  His latest projects are rescuing homeless cats in Appalachia and using high frequency transaction data to gauge buying and selling flows in U.S. equity markets.  

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