“Habits make decision-making easier”, Denise Shull of The ReThink Group and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Write down all the things you are afraid of if you say NO to this or that. Just feel the feelings and imagine the worst-case scenario. Then, ask yourself if maybe the time you gain is worth risking the worst case (which is most likely someone being mad at you). As a part of our series […]

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Write down all the things you are afraid of if you say NO to this or that. Just feel the feelings and imagine the worst-case scenario. Then, ask yourself if maybe the time you gain is worth risking the worst case (which is most likely someone being mad at you).


As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Shull.

Denise Shull is CEO of The ReThink Group, a high-stakes decision making consultancy that works with clients who regularly deal in high-pressure, high-consequence situations. She created the Shull Method of performance training and her popular book Market Mind Games helps professional traders leverage their convictions and intuitions. Denise spent 15 years as a securities trader after earning a master’s degree in neuroscience.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Interesting first question! I was born in Akron Ohio to a 16-year-old runaway. I was in foster care for four months and then adopted by Wayne and Virginia, a couple who had lost a baby boy at birth. I found out I was adopted in third grade by tripping over a table where the papers were stored in a secret compartment.

A few other childhood events that shaped my life:

In second grade, I pulled How to Win Friends and Influence People off my dad’s bookshelf. I sat on the steps thinking I was reading some illicit secrets about looking people in the eye and firmly shaking their hands!

My paternal grandmother divorced her husband in 1932 with 2 young kids- unheard of at the time. Hence, my father was raised by a very strong woman and did not really know that women could be perceived as any less intelligent or competent. Absorbing that viewpoint at a subconscious level has helped me expect to be treated equally in business.

The most transformative event of my childhood, however, happened in 7th grade when I got beat-up by, essentially, the most popular girl in school. I switched schools for 8th grade and met kids who took off for ski vacations and summer homes. I might have been ambitious anyways as my father wanted me to become professionally successful, but visiting friends who had indoor pools in Northeastern Ohio implanted a desire to succeed that I don’t know I would have had otherwise.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I married my high school sweetheart, Bruce, at 19. His father was a Branch Manager at IBM and I learned what a good paying job selling IBM computers could be. I set my sights on working for them. I obsessed about it and finally got hired after being rejected a couple of times and after waiting out a hiring freeze.

When, at 25, I belatedly realized that Bruce and I didn’t have the same vision for life, I took advantage of IBM’s employee counseling service to ask if I was crazy to want a divorce. When my predicament made sense to her and she helped me make more sense of myself, I thought “what a terrific job — helping people sort themselves out.” It took a few years, but I redirected life away from the planned MBA and away from IBM. A bit of finagling got me into a program at The University of Chicago where you can effectively design your own master’s degree. I ended up writing what became one of the first academic papers in what is now called neuropsychoanalysis.

I intended to become a counseling therapist or research psychologist when the guy I was dating at the time invited me to assist the traders at a new trading firm in Chicago. He had previously tried to get me to trade on the floor of what used to be The Chicago Board of Trade, but I had refused because I could not see myself shouting and waving my arms with a bunch of guys who were taller than me. This time I took him up on his idea as I could not just write my MA research paper all day every day and fell head over heels in love, not with the boyfriend, but with the decision process of trading. The PhD went by the wayside.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There is a couple in NYC (Drs. Deborah and Charles Bershatsky) who are both what is known as Modern Psychoanalysts — a branch of psychoanalysis quite different from Freud. They helped me realize I was sad about being adopted, mad about having to find out by accident, and I was totally in denial about that. Deborah, at first, helped me realize I had a whole slate of negative emotions that I was not aware of and that those unconscious emotions were preventing me from reaching my full potential. For example, as a trader, I had a string of times where I made a bunch of money and then gave it back in some inexplicable way.

Later, I worked with Charles (and still do). He helped me to fully trust my vision, my instincts, and my relevant emotions. I learned to separate the expectation of rejection left over from the adoption and from being a tall redhead in a world of short blonds.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In May of 2009, I met with a ghostwriter who had just released a book under her own name about Jamie Dimon. She gifted me a copy to review her style and later that afternoon I was walking past Gibson’s on Chicago’s Rush street and there sat… you guessed it, Jamie Dimon! I pulled out the book and said, “You are either Jamie Dimon or his body double!” He invited me to join him and Bill Daley and, while we chatted for a few moments, I refused. I did not want to impose.

What did I learn from that? I learned that the “tall, adopted, outcast redhead,” self-image still existed. He could not possibly really want me to sit down despite the questions he was asking me about trading psychology and the book that became Market Mind Games. I learned that we absolutely have to always remember to be on the lookout for and then to untangle the predictive emotions of the past.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Even if you are not where you want to be, figure out what the almost perfect scenario would be and take steps, even small ones, towards it. Specifically, if you want to do what I do, take classes in Spotnitzian Modern Psychoanalysis and get into therapy with a Modern Analyst (though maybe reverse the order). When I was still selling computers in Chicago, I started taking biopsychology classes at Northwestern in the evening so that something in my life was moving me in the way I wanted to go.

The other is it really is never is too late. It seems like it is. It is not.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Drama of the Gifted Child. It explains what happens to perceptive kids when there is adult dysfunction around them. And, most kids are really perceptive — even if no one calls them gifted.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

It’s from Freud about our “compulsion to repeat:”

“…[P]eople all of whose human relationships have the same outcome: such as the benefactor who is abandoned in anger after a time by each of his protégés, however much they may otherwise differ from one another, …or the man whose friendships all end in betrayal by his friend; or the man who time after time in the course of his life raises someone else into a position of great private or public authority and then after a certain interval, himself upsets that authority and replaces him with a new one; or, again, the lover each of whose love affairs with a woman passes through the same phases and reaches the same conclusion.”

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One of my favorites is working with a CEO of a startup medical firm. He is out to change the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare, so I feel that any help I give him ends up helping thousands, if not millions, of people.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Habits make decision-making easier. They take less mental energy and are therefore easier to execute on.

Ultimately life becomes the sum of all the decisions we make so making more good ones through the “automation” of habits adds up over time.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I start preparing early for just about everything. I have ALWAYS done this. I may have done it out of being afraid of being not good enough, but now it gives me time to deliver A+ work when I am presenting. I start early and finish with enough time to catch mistakes or opportunities to add nuance. I rarely if ever make the mistakes inherent in rushing to finish something.

I also THINK first, and act later. Taking action is WAY WAY WAY overrated as compared to strategizing and prioritizing. Only after thinking and feeling, can a wise decision be made. Today’s zeitgeist is action first but that strategy just begs for more problems.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

Figure out what you want the most. Make a list of what you need to do to get it. Figure out the early steps that won’t cause you too much angst or disruption. Do just a little and get some satisfaction. Then repeat — over and over and over.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

Cut out the carbs! I believe — truly believe — this is a transformational key to wellness. We don’t need sugar or really anything that turns to it easily. Without it, we lower inflammation and sleep better — two foundational elements of wellness.

Also, eat only in an eight-hour window.

Get enough deep sleep.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Cutting out carbs isn’t that hard if you look into the research that says high fat is okay. You can eat lots of yummy stuff if you really understand the whole picture — butter, bacon and a burger… those aren’t difficult foods to eat. (As for the guilt around animal foods, do your homework. Like emotions, the conventional wisdom is most likely incorrect.)

Getting more sleep is really a matter of planning. Organize your life to go to bed earlier. Get up and go outside to get sunlight first thing in the AM and then block the blue light from screens after sunset. Get your circadian rhythm working for you.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

I think of them as strategies for getting out of your own head. Since most humans naturally predict catastrophe, most of us can benefit from realizing we are doing that. The only way to use a machine right is by using the machine in the way it was designed. Humans subconsciously predict. In particular they anticipate future emotions. Work with this not against it!

  1. Stop trying to intellectually manage your emotions:
  2. Make it a habit to know what you are truly feeling.
  3. And then, learn to study to find out exactly why you are feeling it. .

I work with clients to do this every single day. They think they feel one thing for one reason, but it’s almost always something else. They beat themselves up when, really, they are afraid of admitting they are angry with someone. Over and over, when they find the true why, the distracting and disruptive energy of the unhappy feeling abates.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Understanding the feelings you are predicting takes a lot of time and practice. It helps to find a good therapist who specializes in Modern Psychoanalysis. Journaling can help in this process, too, as can a very non-judgmental friend.

In other words, having a place where you can experience and put every feeling into words is a huge asset in performance. It is ironic and most of us are afraid of doing so but, that only makes it more of an edge for those who can.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Find time to get organized. When we are organized our anxiety goes down and our focus goes up. We get more done in less time in that mental state
  2. Learn to say “no.” You can do it kindly and respectfully.
  3. Block out unscheduled time to work on the things most important to you — the things you desire the most. Leverage that emotion of wanting!

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Make lists of absolutely every single thing you can think of that you need to do. Just write it down preferably in a place easily seen and easily edited. Do not worry about order or priority, just a list that runs until there is nothing else.

Then try to find some broad categories and group like items together. Take a morning to follow up on insurance claims, taxes, stupid subscriptions you don’t want to keep.

Write down all the things you are afraid of if you say NO to this or that. Just feel the feelings and imagine the worst-case scenario. Then, ask yourself if maybe the time you gain is worth risking the worst case (which is most likely someone being mad at you).

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

When a person is able to say, “I am worried, scared, agitated,” — admit all of these non-flow feelings — and they can say why they are feeling these feelings, they become calmer and their likelihood of flow goes up. I’ve been known to give my most kick-ass talks after admitting I am terrified of a given audience, for example.

Creating that space from the suggestions about focus helps too. So often, it’s the avalanche of little tasks that distracts us.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would change the conventional wisdom around emotions. I would want everyone to respect their own fears and frustrations, as well as desires. We should seek to understand the so-called negative emotions, as opposed to judging or criticizing them. At minimum, this would totally change pop-psychology and in turn change mass psychology for the better.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I couldn’t pick from these two so I will say LeBron James or David Asprey or both if I am really lucky! (Maybe I should say Jamie Dimon!)

  1. LeBron James: He and I are both from Akron! I’ve followed him since his high school days when he was at the Catholic HS my friends went to. Obviously, he has become quite the success on and off the court and I am very interested in his work in health and wellness. I think his understanding of what we are learning about predictive emotions could help spread the word and help people in significant ways.
  2. Dave Asprey: I love his work on biohacking, but I also believe we are one integrated system where mind, body, diet, energy, emotions all work in tandem (like gasoline, oil, engine and tires in a car). I have visited his center in LA and loved the different technologies. I think I would chat with him about the predictive model of the brain so that he could help even more people.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is: https://therethinkgroup.net/

You can also follow me on twitter: @DeniseKShull

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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