What It Takes To Become An Elite Trader

Millions of traders test their skill in the financial markets each year, but most are destined to lose their stakes and walk away with their tails between their legs. A select few defy the odds, churning out profit after profit over long periods, building the wealth, security and wellbeing that others just dream about. So what separates these elite traders from the mediocre pack and how can you gain membership to this exclusive club?

First, let’s consider what isn’t required to become an elite trader. You don’t need to take special courses or move to Manhattan and work on Wall Street for a decade or two, although many elite traders follow that path. Nor do you need a huge stake to start your journey, because you already possess the tools for slow and steady wealth creation. Finally, you don’t need to trade in a prop shop environment, heading into work each morning to commiserate with other like-minded individuals.

So, what does it take to rise above the crowd and supercharge your trading results?

Treat Trading as a Business

For starters, treat trading as a business, not a hobby or a slot machine. This takes effort, because most humans are burdened with deep-seated money issues that rise to the surface during risk-taking. Overcome these headwinds by drafting a business plan that sets forth a budget for required tools, like real-time news and charts, as well as by listing the markets, instruments and strategies you’ll trade. (See: What It Takes to Become an Elite Trader.) Complete your plan with a realistic snapshot of monthly and yearly profit targets.

Record Keeping and Taxes

As with any business, it's important to keep accurate, organized and up-to-date records for your trading business. It is a good idea to have both digital and hard copy backups of essential trading -related documents, including:
Your Trading Plan:

  • A description of the plan
  • The programming/coding for the plan (if applicable)
  • Inputs (for example, the length of the moving average)
  • Past versions of the plan

Brokerage Statements:

  • Organized by broker
  • Should be reconciled monthly (mistakes do happen)

Trading Journals:

  • A record of your trading activity


  • List of important phone numbers (i.e., broker, ISP)
  • Economic calendar
  • List of market holidays
  • Rollover dates
  • Troubleshooting list

It is helpful to keep a digital copy of these in one folder on your computer and a hard copy of each in a dedicated "trading binder" with dividers for each section.

Beyond the Documents

Staying organized in general—beyond the relevant documents—can make it easier to be an effective business owner and trader. Your office and trading desk, for example, should be well-organized, free of clutter, and have necessary office supplies handy. Things such as calculators, paper and pencil, your trading journal and a list of important number should be easy to find at all times.

It's helpful to also have a structured method of conducting research and development for your trading plans. Much of this comes down to having a well-thought-out method of conducting your research, so that you don't waste time repeating work you've already done. Having a methodical means of labeling the different versions of your trading plan, for example, can make it much easier to find what you're looking for. Your countertrend strategy, for instance, might start as CounterTrend V1.0; after making changes, the next version can be saved as CounterTrend V1.1.

Track Your Taxes

The IRS expects you to follow the same tax laws as investors, unless your trading activity reaches a certain level and you achieve "trader tax status." Active traders can make the mark-to-market (MTM) election for tax purposes, which makes it possible to deduct certain trading-related expenses, such as platform fees and education. 

Not everyone qualifies for MTM status, nor would everyone want to. If you make this election, all your positions must be counted as closed at the end of the year; whether or not they have actually been closed, all related taxes become due.

While securities traders in particular may benefit from making the MTM election, it can be a detriment to futures and commodities traders who typically have more favorable tax treatment without the election. Reversing the MTM election can be difficult; if you are considering making the election, you should consult with a qualified CPA, tax specialist or attorney who has experience with trader tax issues, before making any decisions.

Trading tax laws are complicated and do change from time to time. As such, it is typically worth the expense and effort to find a qualified professional to handle your taxes. Keeping good records can make tax time less stressful and even less expensive if you are working with a CPA, tax specialist, or attorney.

Specialize in Something

Become a specialist as early as you can in your trading career, choosing specific markets and styles that suit your temperament and knowledge base. You’ll need to find and master multiple trading edges, in which positive results for specific strategies can be reproduced at will over dozens of positions. All effective edges have one thing in common–an effort is made to control risk before seeking profit. Master that single concept and you’ll be well on your way to elite status.


What It Takes To Become An Elite Trader

Choose Your Information Sources Wisely

It’s easy to get caught up in the media circus, watching an endless parade of talking heads spout opinions that have no bearing on your daily workflow. Instead, turn off the television and subscribe to a real-time news service that gets you the facts, unimpeded by bias or emotion. Add a selective Twitter feed, following no more than 75 carefully curated sources and you’ll be watching the same news flow as Wall Street’s finest.

Find a Quality Mentor

Now comes the tough part. To become an elite trader, you need to learn from the best. That’s a tall order because self-proclaimed gurus are everywhere, hawking in their chat rooms and newsletters. Sadly, few of these folks have the information, experience, or long-term track record you need to raise your trading game to elite status.

However, rather than avoiding these folks while seeking a mentor, it’s better to sample as many teachers, styles, and approaches as possible to find out what works for you and what doesn’t. In the process, you’ll come across a handful of helpful teachers who will yield a lifetime of trading knowledge.

Take Care of Yourself

Your final task could be the hardest, depending on your current lifestyle. Once you’ve chosen to walk the elite path, you need to monitor personal habits and interpersonal relationships. Drug use, poor nutrition, and insomnia undermine the mental faculties required to take money out of the market each day. Add in marital discord or fighting with parents and there will be even more chances for your money and your discipline to be lost through your positions.

Understand the deep connection between how you feel and your bottom line results. Financial markets are the worst place to deal with personal issues, so clean up your act and quit smoking, get to the gym, and buy your spouse flowers. You’ve got important work to do and need to be at your best to trade at the top of your game.

The Bottom Line

The elite trader develops a serious approach to the financial markets, weighing risk against potential reward at all times. They hone their craft through detailed recordkeeping, carefully chosen data sources, well-defined trading edges and lifelong connections with mentors who will guide them to the next level of achievement.

Article Sources
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  1. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. "26 U.S. Code § 475. Mark to Market Accounting Method for Dealers in Securities."

  2. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). "Topic No. 429 Traders in Securities."

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