Athletes and Trading

There is an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in the latest New Yorker about Harvard and other Ivy League schools admission process. Aside from the astonishing anti-Semitism of the institutions — it was that bad only a few decades ago? — one of the more interesting observations Gladwell makes is the rise of the Ivy League athlete, and the frequency with which they end up on Wall Street:

"Apparently, athletes are far more likely to go into the high-paying financial-services sector, where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup. In what can only be described as a textbook example of burying the lead, Bowen and Shulman (The Game of Life) write:

"One of these characteristics can be thought of as drive—a strong desire to succeed and unswerving determination to reach a goal, whether it be winning the next game or closing a sale. Similarly, athletes tend to be more energetic than the average person, which translates into an ability to work hard over long periods of time—to meet, for example, the workload demands placed on young people by an investment bank in the throes of analyzing a transaction. In addition, athletes are more likely than others to be highly competitive, gregarious and confident of their ability to work well in groups (on teams)."

Shulman and Bowen would like to argue that the attitudes of selective colleges toward athletes are a perversion of the ideals of American élite education, but that’s because they misrepresent the actual ideals of American élite education. The Ivy League is perfectly happy to accept, among others, the kind of student who makes a lot of money after graduation. As the old saying goes, the definition of a well-rounded Yale graduate is someone who can roll all the way from New Haven to Wall Street.


Gladwell accidentally hits upon a truism of life on Wall Street. You may not be aware of this, but there are an enormous number of former college athletes on Trading Desks throughout the Street.

The thought process seems to be that athletes are more competitive people by nature, and are willing to be harder working, be more disciplined, and when necessary, more cut throat than non-athletes.

There may be something to the thesis — some trading skills can be learned, but there is an enormous amount of frustrating randomness. Successful traders need to have a healthy competitive streak to keep coming back, despite losses and setbacks. I suspect it may be somewhat similar to some of the randomness in sports; it certainly helps to have a good team, but a bounce that goes your way (or as the White Sox learned recently, an Ump’s call) can be just as important.

Traders and athletes both need a burning desire to win, but must have the ability to bounce back from a loss.



GETTING IN: The social logic of Ivy League admissions
Issue of 2005-10-10
Posted 2005-10-03

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. Damian commented on Oct 14

    It wasn’t a great movie, but it did have a wonderful quote that I think applies to trading and sports:

    “We have an expression in prize fighting: “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.” Well my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.”

    – Charles Remington (as played by Michael Douglas), “The Ghost and the Darkness”

  2. Danielle commented on Oct 14

    I have issues with that assessment. I haven’t done a thesis on this but my life experience tells me that it’s more a factor of these personality traits:

    1. Excess and/or lack of balance in life
    2. Thirst for greatness, public recognition and money
    3. Having the physical attributes that Wall Street thinks is needed to be successful.

    Thinking of Wall Street as the summum is an insult to hard working citizens who make the wheels of the economy turn. Wall Street might grease the engine but it didn’t create it.

  3. dave s commented on Oct 14

    In the late 70s and early 80s I was a member of First Parish Unitarian in Cambridge and one of our members, then in his 80s, had worked in Harvard admissions in the 20s and 30s. He told me that they started requiring photos with the applications to weed out Jews who might have adopted apparently-Gentile names, and that the phrase in the office was ‘they can change the Moses, but they can’t change the noses’.
    Yes, it was that bad.

  4. NN commented on Feb 14

    Ivy League is the American caste system. The right family gets in you into the right college, the right college gets you the right job, and thus the cycle of life continues. There are a few that beat the odds in every story, but far more that, not fail, but are never even given the opportunity.

Read this next.

Posted Under