Remembering Mental Health, and the Importance of Being Earnest

One of my favorite comments when I started first appearing in media around the dawn of the Gamestop saga (ages ago in internet time, last month in reality) was along the lines of “I honestly didn’t believe you were a real person, I thought your photo was generated from”. It was innocent and on its face almost a compliment; throughout my life, and especially since I started in trading communities, for one reason or another I was always compared to an AI, usually in an assumably-complimentary way.

Much like our ersatz internet hero of the monomyth Keith Gill (the Roaring Kitty), I am a real person, not a cat. To back up on things, this whole experience since January has felt largely surreal to me, and perhaps surreal to those close to me. It’s not a usual story, by any means.

I wanted to write a post however, explaining that at the end of the day, I am a real person, just like everyone else. My name is Lily Francus, and I was formerly a software engineer in another life, and perhaps a bioinformatics doctoral student in this one. Perhaps a trader, perhaps a quantitative researcher (shameless plug for my own research). I’m not writing this post as some eulogy to myself; in general, I try to live in the world of ideas and not of people. In fact, I want to write this post specifically to dispel some notions others affix to me, and make sure my readers know quite clearly the very human struggles and handicaps I have.

The Virtual Era

I had always paid attention to the markets, but it took a new dimension for me — and probably millions of others — once the pandemic started. It suddenly became possible to hold a job while trading on the side. I’m one to always publicly underestimate myself, but in private overestimate my own abilities. It made sense to multi-task and try working and trading, and also preparing to go to graduate school (which I started in October of 2020).

In the first month, it was easy. I made bank. Everyone did in May, unless you were a bear. The first one is always free. It made sense, it was fun. I got my best friend into it, Monica, and we swapped stories. It was nonsensical. At certain points we just bet money on funny tickers rather than doing due diligence. As a strategy, that outperformed.

And trading is fun when you’re winning, until you’re not, which almost always happens. I got my first rude awakening in June like pretty much everyone else when the market tumbled. I remember staring down a $6,000 potential loss in MongoDB call options. It was when I traded weeklies. It was not fun. I knew tons of people who were blown out of the markets, and probably more that should’ve been.

Trading though gave me a sense of purpose, and a new area to explore. I was always considered someone “good with money”, in the sense that I actually knew what stocks and bonds were and could calculate compound interest. It got even more interesting in many ways when the correction happened. I had joined online communities. Many people panicked and more left with ruined portfolios (if you can consider betting your full cash on weekly options a portfolio).

That said, like others, I have a tendency to get engrossed in the virtual world. I was good at it, and that made me popular — since I had a vibe for the markets — and therefore I devoted more time to it. Around the start of the NOPE project, I had actually left my job to prepare for starting graduate school. A lot of my earliest breakthroughs there were built on mountains of ephemeral free time, where I grew a bit obsessed about learning the inner workings of Mr. Market to the detriment of social or health-related needs.

Looking retrospectively, I think the markets attract those with a perfectionist bent (or, in a more clinical way to describe it, obsessive personalities). Most non-finance-oriented folks look at the markets with a mixture of fear and jealousy. We’ve all seen movies of the Jordan Belforts or the Gordon Gekkos and the lavish riches cracking Mr. Market can afford you. That said, most people who start in the markets and play the game of timing and stock picking learn a painful lesson that the market is a mathematical game. And most people are just not very good at math.

I don’t at all regret starting this, or where it led me. I’ve met some really awesome people. Especially by joining Twitter. Social media and the internet- especially in a culture of anonymity-ends up being the ultimate weighing scale of ideas. While the internet isn’t completely void of idiots with megaphones, especially when it comes to money matters eventually you develop a track record on merit rather than standing. It’s especially easy in the game of prediction. It really doesn’t matter if you’re an SVP at Goldman Sachs or a fry cook at McDonalds if you can predict the market; eventually, people will see, and they will listen.

Honesty and Earnestness

To get this out of the way — there is so much I do not know about finance, or trading, or any topic I discuss. You kind of learn this as a Ph.D. student when you focus on the field, and I consider it — perhaps naively, coming from a researcher mindset — a virtue. On the internet, especially in the virtual savannas filled with fake stock gurus, finance professionals, and the occasional philosopher king — admitting ignorance might as well be akin to admitting defeat. It seems the farther you go in your track the less you’re allowed to admit what you don’t know, and this tends to have a chilling effect on discourse in general. Instead of becoming better and incrementally improving, you get stuck in a Peter Principle’d existence of hoping to get by on what you do know, and hoping that you hit a high enough seniority to avoid the public knowing how outdated your skillset is.

I don’t know much. And that’s okay, I’m learning. And I hope to keep learning. As long as you admit you’re wrong and make a mental note to not be wrong next time, that itself is a virtue. This is how you learn and become better, and often become better rapidly. That said, I’m not a Platonic ideal of a person. I am prone to arrogance, and often times live in fear of broadcasting my own ideas or the backlash if the results I release end up wrong (spoiler alert-I’ve had to retract spurious results before, even on the NOPE project).

Except for my stream of consciousness, the whole point I wanted to make here was this. I’ve heard many, especially younger folks, tell me some variation of “I’m scared to talk in X”. This is true on financial Twitter, this is true on my Discords, this has been true in my jobs as well. It’s much easier, in my experience, to be wrong and to question dogma online without fear of repercussion. Financial Twitter is especially interesting as the meeting of the minds because on one hand, you have complete charlatans peddling fractal VIX and on the other, legendary traders and multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers with profile photos of their dogs. By being wrong and engaging in discussion, you end up learning, and most people are happy to talk. They’re happy to teach you. After all, if they weren’t they wouldn’t be on talking in the first place.

Mental Health

In short — my own mental health is often in turmoil. It’s kind of an open secret that mental health among my generation — the millennials — is a sore spot, and that sore spot is magnified under the duress of academia. I have depression and anxiety. Many in my generation do; most of my friends do. Nowadays, the conversation has shifted. In a kind of gallows humor way, it becomes the shibboleth of the millenial and zoomer culture to joke about serious mental health issues. It’s a light-hearted way to acknowledge we’re all staring at the Abyss — an uncertain future, a planet in decay, debt, social or financial pressure, you name it — together.

The conversation has shifted and people are more open about it, which is an incredible thing. That said, even writing that paragraph I pauses, knowing that the internet is forever. In some minds I may have tainted the platonic ideal of Lily, and perhaps future doors will close for it. It deserves to be said, though, because without saying it you cannot make it accepted. I know that despite my own struggles, my work and my ideas will speak for itself.

I think a point to clarify here is the difference between the mood of depression — succinctly, being sad — and the state of chronic depression. Much like a physical illness, chronic depression comes and goes. Often times when it starts, you don’t feel sad. A depressed person in general is like a car with its brake pads worn out. You can keep going, for sure. You probably won’t crash, at least not all at once. As you keep going, the pad thins. You stop being able to do certain things, or lack the energy for other things. The pad thins more. Eventually, it will fail. Some people can stay in this state almost zombified for years. Others have spectacular breaks. It tends to come and go. For me, it’s hard to pinpoint being depressed except in hindsight.

The key thing to understand here is the weight of depression and how it shifts your priorities around. I struggled with significant depression around the tail end of last year, and for the most part, no one knew. I produced, I worked on my model, I talked on Twitter, I even managed to get all As in my courses. It took an immense toll on me.

If you think about it again as a brake pad, the car still stops (you can still, at least in the early stages, continue to work properly). Most people have an innate ability to compartmentalize, and in general the first signs are not slipping work, but hygiene, socialization, and relationships. Things that seem unimportant or forgettable in the instant since they lack a financial or reputational penalty, but inspire regret later on. These are of course the warning signs, not the main event.

My hunch is most of my readers here work in high pressure environments. I love to jokingly mention that my blog is where Wall Street seems to meet WallStreetBets. In those environments, decisions tend to be results-oriented. Even when there’s tacit acceptance of the importance of mental health, it in practice tends to ring hollow. Even when the pulpit may preach it’s okay to slow down or catch your breath, the rat race will still go on and you will end up behind. For me, I’ve always lived with this notion that my time here was finite, and that I needed to maximize the potential of every second of every day or else I would run out of time (could you guess from that I was a Hamilton fan?).

I can’t really give advice here, nor do I want to. I still struggle with these notions. I tend to be excited by way too much to the point of being overwhelmed by commitments, doubly so when combating my own inner demons. It gets even worse when you’ve built a reputation in many ways, because your inner voice tells you it is not okay to fail. For me, initially I shrugged off the growing interest in my research and ideas as a “science project”, divorced from my “real job” in academia. With this mental fiction, failure becomes much less scary. It doesn’t really matter then.

In fact, I wanted to write this to lift this platonic ideal of my work or myself. Much of what I’ve learned and researched was not done sustainably, especially while working on a Ph.D. It is not something I would, knowing what I do now, recommend to others to emulate. It isn’t the hare who wins the race for being the fastest but the tortoise for being able to stay in the race. Burnout is the boogeyman of any successful career. You need to stay in the game to win the game.

The fiction has started to break though. From early January to now, it’s been quite difficult to pretend my work in finance is merely a side project. I think that illusion ended with my appearance on Bloomberg. I do not mean to whine here or complain. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunities my work has afforded me, and the fascinating and generous people I’ve met along the way. I think importantly I’ve met more kindred spirits with similar mindsets in the past few months than I’ve met before in my entire life. I truly enjoy my research and get excited at market open. I love prediction, and like everyone else, I love doubly when my predictions are accurate.

It hasn’t been easy though, dealing with the veil being lifted. I’m more cognizant than ever that not only do I need to succeed but I need to set an example. I want to pass the microphone and elevate others, and serve as an inspiration for others while still working on my own journey.

At the end of the day, I’m a human being, just like you. I have hopes, I have dreams, I sometimes or often say the wrong thing. All I can hope for — all any of us should hope for — is to be slightly better tomorrow than we are today, and to leave the world a nicer, smarter, and more delightful place than we found it.

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