A remarkable study, Endogenous Steroids and Financial Risk-Taking on a London Trading Floor, has implications for folks in other professions, including ours. According to the study, stock traders build testosterone on days when they are successful. Apparently, the additional hormones can cause higher levels of confidence and risk-taking, while too much of it can include feelings of omnipotence and even carelessness. Conversely, a trader who has experienced successive losses will have higher levels of the downer cortisol, leading to risk aversion and sloppy choices.
“Traders apparently don’t know they are being manipulated by their hormone fluctuations,” says John Coates, co-author of the study. The uppers, he finds, tend to happen in market bubbles, while cortisol prevails during downturns. Managers are advised to whip erratic traders off the floor and devise various means to soothe them. The study says little about the hormones of lady traders, presumably because there are not many of them, but it does recommend hiring women as they are less likely to fluctuate.
Very interesting. I always wondered why, on the odd times when I do something rather good, I’m immediately hyped up and do yet another. Hormones, eh? Sometimes I get into a veritable orgy of good art and become some sort of painting athlete.
On the other hand, when I do lousy work, my confidence suffers and my prowess wilts. The work gets worse and worse. I leave the studio in shame.
Questions arise: Would it be best to always maintain a positive but modest balance of testosterone by doing neither too good nor too bad? Or should one take advantage of the bonanzas and jump on them when they occur? How does one avoid getting cortisol in the artistic veins? Does clothing affect things either way?
We are all familiar with those wonderful days of hot marathons where quality seems to stay high. The idea of “winning streak,” like “scoring,” pervades most cultures. Good breeds good. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we feel the need to be particularly careful with the first of a series — to make sure standards are high at the beginning. Even higher levels may follow as the testosterone kicks in.
PS: “We found that a trader’s morning testosterone level predicts his day’s profitability. We also found that a trader’s cortisol rises with both the variance of his trading results and the volatility of the market. Our study suggested that higher testosterone may contribute to economic return. Further, testosterone and cortisol are known to have cognitive and behavioral effects, so if the acutely elevated steroids we observed were to persist or increase as volatility rises, they may shift risk preferences and even affect a trader’s ability to engage in rational choice.” (John Coates)
Esoterica: Are there positive creative juices that run through our bodies? Or is it, as Emerson suggested, simply a matter of building self-trust? Pablo Picasso, no stranger to the concepts of marathon and libido-driven confidence, thought creative success was based on the simple surrender to the ultimate seduction of work itself.
Downers fuel growth
by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada
Why would you want to limit cortisol and elevate testosterone? Can you imagine the glut on world markets if testosterone-driven artists produced only masterpieces? We would be replicating Henry Ford’s production line. I am the sum total of my successes and my failures — change the balance and I am no longer an artist, but a producer of product. The significant point, IMHO, is that I do not grow from my testosterone successes, but from my cortisol downers. Nature gave me a certain level of natural ability and a cocktail of hormones — it’s up to me to cultivate the former and sip cautiously of the latter.
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by Phyllis McCraw, West Milford, NJ, USA
I was insulted and of course entirely left out of this discussion. As a female, I have good and bad days. I do not attribute it to my sexual qualities.
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Down time for equilibrium
by Lois Jung, Hutchinson, KS, USA
One cannot live on testosterone only. One always needs a down time to sanely collect the rest of life around oneself, to get some equilibrium in all of life. Not easy. But over my more than a few years I have observed the testosterone driven ones — they don’t last. Our bodies crash. Just enjoy the down time for even something different, and maybe, just maybe, out of it comes the inspiration for the next hot period. Our testosterone-driven age must get down time, just to remain productive.
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Project Triumph 750
by Tom Mellor, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I read your article on testosterone with interest and agree it does help you go on to better things. I find I need to be focused and pay attention to the detail at the start of a project and everything seems to fall into place. The old Triumph 750 did 182.450MPH!! I am still wound up and starting to build next year’s bike 200MPH?
Quantity creates momentum
by Andrew Bray, Toronto, ON, Canada
I have certainly experienced this same phenomenon. I say jump on those hot streaks, which feel like they are there to stay but which never last. If you are cold, lower your expectations, take the pressure off. For me the thing to watch is quantity. Quantity gives the creative process momentum so that you aren’t even aware that there is a process. When you are cold, the only way to keep the quantity up is to stop trying to create a masterpiece. Have fun, play, don’t worry, just keep working and keep things fluid. Soon a great idea will appear and heat things up again.
Ride the waves
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
When people visit my studio, they are often struck by the range of size, subject matter, and brushwork. I say, most artists wait to be “in the mood,” and I paint according to the mood I’m in. So there are days when all I can manage to do is sit under a dim lamp painting miniatures from photographs I took years ago. There are days when I seem to be brain dead, but full of body energy, and that’s how the large gestural pieces happen. And lately, having some serious laurels to rest on, I’ve given myself permission to really sink my artistic teeth into very challenging work. Might be hormones. Or a healthy balance in the check book. Maybe energy rises and falls for unknowable reasons, and all we artists need to do is ride the waves.
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
You have to have “self-trust” to fully engage. As I see it there is a certain equanimity to being in a high state, a state where doubt is dust and courage is only the natural inclination to soar. This equanimity can be cultivated and sustained through steady practice. Steady practices offer perceptual clarity and an open line to creative connectivity. They can also divert a challenging mood into a good laugh through awareness of the temporal nature of each moment and shift the glum to a lighter state. Perhaps altering from the dominance of cortisol to the flow of testosterone. As a woman I am sure we have our own hormones that do the same thing and offer similar challenges and rewards to work with. I am not a stranger to the emotions of success and failure. They are the two sides of one coin. So keep flipping!
Excitement feeds persistence
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
>The reasons for the flow of human adrenalin are surely as varied as we are! But to get straight to the point, it is the excitement of the work when it comes together that feeds persistence and leads us to the next canvas. Nothing is as exciting as success… whether it is selling a work or being positively reviewed or experiencing the flow of an idea. I don’t believe there is one reason alone, but a combination that is individual to each of us. Surely, little successes build trust in our abilities. Absolutely, being recognized for our work gets the heart pumping. Best of all are the times when we are open to our own flowing genius as we create. It is personal, cannot be shared and yet, you know exactly what I mean which is the miracle … and why we keep doing what we do!
“…when the dreamweaver sees it is time to be through, she whispers a dream known only to you …” from What Color is Your Dream? by Kittie Nesius Beletic
Abbreviated downer time
by Cheryl Lobenberg, Sacramento, CA, USA
You better believe it! When I’m on, I’m on a definite high and bangin’ on all four cylinders. There are times, however, when a painting heads south and morphs into a steaming pile of sh–t. Fortunately, when I am doing my painting in acrylic, I can put it aside, and come back at another time after I’ve marshaled up my testosterone level and turned that pile into pure creative gold! I do a lot of commissioned and commercial illustration art, so my “downer” time must be abbreviated to meet deadlines. Through the many years of my profession, I have learned to abbreviate downer time and produce a steady stream of art. Guess what? I keep up a steady pace of work and growth. Now that’s a testosterone boost for sure!
Surrender to the process
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
Theoretically the testosterone gestalt should work really well. However, I have found that there are times when something altogether different happens. Occasionally when I am feeling so crappy and discouraged, I can hardly start a painting. One thing or another has overwhelmed my brain’s hard drive. So I literally force myself into the studio, and force myself to start a new canvas. I am all the time thinking it will be a waste or a throw away, but, I think, better that than nothing at all — at least I might learn some small thing. To my utter surprise, when I am feeling absolutely strung out… somehow a terrific piece seems to be born. It is fascinating that all kinds of moods can result in really good works… not just during the highs or “on a roll” moods. Surrender to the process. And it will envelop you.
Both trader and artist
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
As a former foreign currency trader for a major international bank (one that still exists, BTW) for 9 years after being eventually ‘downsized’ and, as a result, changing my career to fine artist in 1988, I have a foot on both sides of the fence here.
Testosterone might indeed play a part and, as you and your readers no doubt already know, women produce testosterone too, just in smaller doses. I’ve experienced those wild highs of successful trades – and successful strings of paintings, and the subsequent (and probably necessary) spells of turning out pure crap (and/or losing money on bad trades). Fortunately, the ratio has managed to favor the former. We used to say if a trader made money 51% of the time, that was OK. As a Chinese brush and ink painter, where the first brush stroke is the final one with no touch-ups, I frequently throw out 10 paintings and keep 1 or 2.
But I believe there is something else at work here: discipline. I was a very successful FX trader while my predecessors failed. Everyone thought I was a ‘wunderkind,’ but I can only say I was (1) lucky (2) disciplined. There is also an intuitive part that affects both trading and art, a unique link that (at least for me) explained why I managed to do reasonably well in two apparently disparate fields.
Subcategories of discipline could be passion and dedication — all requisites for success in any field. Turning out work that is ‘not too good and not too bad’ is, by extension, unremarkable, mediocre. While those pieces are inevitable too, they are the ones I tend to shove into a portfolio and eventually get chopped up into “one of a kind greeting cards” or pieces I study to try to figure out what I might have done differently to make them special.
Clothing affects work
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
You ask, “Does clothing affect things either way?” Years ago someone gave me an old Yves Saint Lauren sweater. When I realised it was finally too old to wear in public I started to paint in it. The quality was still there and subliminally made me feel like a winner. The irony of getting paint on expensive clothes somehow corresponds to my sense of contrast and odd juxtapositions in my work. I continued to get designer hand-me-downs and enjoy painting in style.
Solitude and meditation
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have a theory on why solitude often becomes unbearable after 2-3 days, and it’s based on what I learned 38 years ago when I became a teacher of transcendental meditation, or TM. TM produces a state of deep rest in the mind and body and that allows deep-rooted stresses in the physiology to be dissolved. As they dissolve, the activity produced by this process can create a mental restlessness that parallels the activity of the body, which can come in form of thoughts or feelings. This inward and outward process of meditation is similar to the process of sleep, where deep sleep comes first and provides the deep rest, then is followed by a more active dream state which involves different brain waves, rapid eye-movements and sometimes physical movements of the body. This restlessness is a normal part of the process of healing that takes place during a night’s sleep.
When we suddenly change our environment to a very calm, unpolluted, silent one without the usual “noise” and distractions of phones, televisions, computers and the constant demands of other people and work, it’s like plunging ourselves into a meditative state, the nervous system gets a prolonged rest and then it starts to release built-up stresses in the system. The consequent irritability that often results is just a sign that the body is taking advantage of the deep rest and the reduction in sensory stimulus to purify itself, but until one adjusts to the change, it can be quite disconcerting. If we persevere, usually after a few days we settle into the quieter lifestyle and begin to really enjoy it. If we leave, when we return home we may realize after the fact that we feel better for the quiet spell, and often a return visit is more satisfying because one makes allowances for an initial period of adjustment. Working through the restlessness helps, because it gives a focus to the restless energy, and prepares us for another spell of restfulness. If we are lucky we can attain a state of restful alertness, where the body is completely relaxed and the mind is fully awake in a state of blissful super-awareness. This is a state many artists describe when they are fully engaged in their art yet painting effortlessly and almost as if someone else is painting through them. Solitude, like meditation, can be a step towards attaining that state of effortless creativity.
Artists living on hope
by Carole Pigott, Santa Fe, NM, USA
You are wonderful, a voice crying out in the night. I am presently working on a series in an area that has no real understanding of the creative side of creating, only the promotional and ego-driven side. I have been using your quotes to defend my ideas against a wall of misunderstandings. I pass these on to the younger artists who are looking for any hope that there is a way other than what they are mired in. Since most artists live on hope, your letters feed them. Thank you for taking your stands, thank you for clear, creative, and professional advice that blends both right and left brains.
Richard Pranke at work
Richard Pranke, Montreal, QC, Canada
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Pixie Glore of Andalucia, Spain who wrote, “I would rather have the extreme highs along with the great work, while it lasts, rather than the steady and mundane. I’ll survive the lows with work ethic hormone. I’m sure wearing purple and pink helps.”
And also Sylvia Boulware who wrote, “I always thought that painting was mostly a function of the BRAIN….. not hormones. Personally, when I’m excited about what my brushstrokes are doing, I feel uplifted and when I don’t, and feel stuck. I put my brushes down and go for a walk or get away to the gym for a workout-cure! That works for me most of the time.”
And also Ron Grauer of Ben Lomond, CA, USA who wrote, “I’ve been getting testosterone shots now for over 2 years — my wife gives me one every ten days. I’m gonna be 81 in November and, other than getting a little winded sooner than I used to, everything else is working pretty good. My work is gettin’ better all the time – me, my wife and my galleries’ opinions. Incidentally, I had a bone marrow transplant 12 years ago for leukemia and I understand that gives your longevity a lift…”
And also Frances Stilwell of Corvallis OR, USA who wrote, “Well, my goodness. And they say women are so moody.”
And also Warren Criswell who wrote, “Picasso said, ‘I paint with my penis.’ Where does our aesthetic sense come from, ultimately, if not from our hormones? Whatever the subject of our art, isn’t it born of desire? Without desire there can be neither art nor love nor life.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Testosterone in the studio…