PSYCHOLOGY TODAY | The Passions of Peter Muller: Math and Music

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A discussion of Peter Muller frequently includes terms such as “math whiz” or “quant legend.” These labels are well-earned: For decades, Muller has developed quantitative, model-driven strategies to guide investments, most recently as the founder and CEO of Process Driven Trading (PDT) Partners.

But Muller is reminding the world that there is another label that should be linked to his name; namely, musician. And with his new album, Two Truths and a Lie, he is making a statement: Having multiple passions is not only possible, but also one of the keys to a fulfilling life.

“So, my theory of life is if something turns you on, and it’s interesting, and you throw yourself into it, and you learn to get better at it and keep getting better at it — that feels great,” he told me. “And the people that I’ve known in my life and have read about that are the most alive, are people who live that way.”


At an early age, Muller developed an interest in mathematics and problem-solving. “I’ve always loved numbers, puzzles, games,” he said. “I loved competition.”


Muller’s love of math brought him to a career in finance. “In finance, I used math to figure out how to invest money in an optimal way. When I got the chance to build a group that traded on Wall Street using mathematical models, I jumped at it. It really required an incredible amount of concentration and single-mindedness — just an obsession — for six or seven years while building this group and figuring out how to make money consistently in the markets,” he said.

But math was not the only love Muller discovered early on. He developed a passion for music that began with classical music and then grew to include jazz and improvisation. He described the many levels of beauty that he finds in music. The first is the ability to express one’s emotions and connect with others. “When I play, as you play, you’re trying to channel your soul. You’re trying to get from the deepest place inside you and express that. You’re trying to communicate a feeling, strong emotion, in a way that will touch somebody who’s listening to it and have them get it … . There’s no better feeling… . It’s feeling like you’re not alone in the world. You’re connected to something, and it’s much, much bigger than you,” he explained.


“And that’s music at its best.”


Research has shown that music can indeed improve well-being by helping someone understand, rather than suppress, negative emotions; suppressing emotions such as sadness or anxiety can actually worsen these negative experiences. In contrast, expressing emotions through activities such as writing down one’s feelings can improve mood and reduce stress responses.


These positive effects of music have been shown to improve mental and physical health. For example, research has shown that adding music therapyto treatment as usual for people who suffer from schizophrenia improves both symptoms and social functioning. Additional studies demonstrate that listening to or playing music can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain.


For Muller, there are parallels between what is being experienced playing music and doing math. In fact, research has shown that “beauty” in mathematical models may have the same effect on the brain as other forms of “beauty,” such as art or music.


One study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the activity in the brains of 15 mathematicians when they viewed a mathematical formula that they had rated as “beautiful,” “indifferent” or “ugly.” Results showed that the experience of mathematical “beauty”correlates with activity in the same part of the brain as the experience of beauty derived from other sources.


Muller explained that music and math can draw him into a state that can be considered flow. Flow is a meditative, mindful state of “effortless concentration,” a complete immersion in experience. And flow may have psychological benefits. Studies demonstrate that mindfulness therapy programs have been effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety.


Muller describes his experience of flow: “… you’re only aware of, and you’re completely connected to, the thing that you’re doing. And your brain is open … . You have no concept of time. You just dive deep into the problem and focus all of your neurons — or however it’s working in your brain — on this particular thing.”


Unfortunately for Muller, success in finance was accompanied by a loss of connection with his music. And this caused Muller to feel that his life was not in balance. “I achieved the mastery that I set out to achieve [in finance]. And I wasn’t happy … during that time, I kind of lost the music. I just said, you know, ‘I like music, but it’s not that important.’ That was one of the reasons I burned out and took a break.”


Like with many things in his life, Muller threw himself back into music in an attempt to restore balance. “I went back, and I said, I’m really going to dive into music, so I did. And when I rediscovered the music, I thought, ‘Well, this is great. Well, maybe now this is the next phase in my life. I’ll just do music. I didn’t move away completely, but I started focusing intensely on music, and then when I met my wife, she looked at me and said, ‘Wow, you’re being really intense about surfing and music, but it seems like you miss the other stuff you did.’ And I found a way to go back and keep that balance and do both,” he said. “To me, they speak to different sides of me, but it’s been a journey to have both of those parts be there and be really important.”


Part of what has allowed Muller to have this balance is that he has learned how both to be curious and critical about his work as a way of improving his work without hurting his self-esteem. In fact, for Muller, this vulnerable state is the epitome of love. “[T]he reason you love is that when you love, you’re vulnerable, and being vulnerable is the best state to learn in. ... You have to be open. I think if you want to critique somebody, critique yourself. If you have that place of love, it becomes safe and creates trust.”


Muller has created this community of trust around him, “I started this songwriting circle in New York, and we met every week in my apartment for about five years … . We’d get together, and play songs that people had written that past week and critique each other. And that process for me — having that built-in audience and that community encouraged me to write a tremendous amount. And with that songwriting circle, we ended up creating an environment where there was a lot of trust. So you knew that you were safe there.”

Muller further extends his musical experience to help others in need. He works with many charities, including a recent show with the Berkelee College of Music to raise money to provide music lessons and instruments for underprivileged children. Moreover, proceeds from his recent album, Two Truths and a Lie, will be donated to Charity: Water, a non-profit that provides safe drinking water in developing nations.


“I’m lucky to be in a position that I’m doing music, because I love doing it. Everything I make from music, I give away, so I’m not doing it for money. I’m not doing it for fame. I don’t aspire to be famous. I would love to connect with a bunch of people, and that’s really cool. The more I connect, the more people that dig my music and give me feedback, the more I’m inspired to play and I love playing,” he said. “[I’ve been] giving money away for a long time … . Raising awareness and raising money, that’s a win all around.”


Muller will continue to pursue his varied passions — and not just music and math. “I have a few other interests that I’m equally as serious about. I create crossword puzzles. I’ve published a whole bunch in the New York Times, and I have my own monthly contest. I love to surf, and I surf a lot.”


And he will continue to be driven by his passions. “It’s always about energy and figuring out what your deepest truth is. If you are excited and passionate about whatever you’re doing, just keep doing that. Because you’re excited and passionate about it, you’re getting better at it, and it will give you more energy and will be a feedback cycle. Keep doing it until that feedback cycle stops and you will end up … becoming remarkably successful.”


“If you basically say, ‘Well, I have to work. I guess I have to do a good job, because I need to get money to do the things that I want to do,’ you’re going to end up getting a job that you don’t like. The question is — ‘I’m passionate about a bunch of things. How do I figure out how to do those passions and make money there?’ That’s not a bad way of looking at things. It’s amazing, when you have that energy and that spark, people respond to you, they want to be around you, they want to be, like, how can I help you? I want to be a part of it.”


“The more energy that you have, the more drive, the more passion, the more giving you are — and Scott Harrison, this guy who runs Charity: Water — has exactly this skill set. The more you have of that, the more you’re going to have people that are like, ‘Wow, how do I help you succeed?’”


“That’s kind of the secret of life.”


Muller recognizes that his path has not been linear, and he feels better about being able to restore balance if needed. “When people don’t succeed, and they don’t go forward, it’s usually because of something in themselves — the way they’re looking at the world, something they haven’t learned that they have to get through.”


“So, for me, my path has been great. But there definitely have been times when I hit a block, and I had to reset. For me, I forgot that the music was an important part of me. And I allowed myself to get obsessed. When I go back and think about it, I wonder, and one of the guys that works for me asked me this once, and I still wonder about this. He said, ‘You talk about balance all the time, but you really didn’t accomplish what you accomplished without getting obsessed. So, isn’t it important to get a little obsessed?’”


“And I’ve come to completely agree with that … . You can get overly obsessed, too, and you have to figure out, ‘OK, what’s the right level?’… . If you’re self-aware, you can say, ‘Wait a second. You know, it’s been a few weeks, and I’m not really having fun. There’s something stuck, there’s something wrong, and then you dive deep, and figure out what it is. All of a sudden you unlock that energy, and you’re back in that place. And I think that’s the main thing I would say: The younger you are, the more energy you have. You have a tremendous amount, but you don’t realize that to accomplish things, you have to focus it and harness it, and give to the universe.”


“And then the universe gives back to you.”


Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.