Saturday, August 15, 2009

The passion to practice

Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated (Portfolio, 2008) overlaps at many points with Brett Steenbarger’s Enhancing Trader Performance (2006). Both offer enlightening analyses of performance; the trader would do well to read them both. I’m going to focus in this post (and a couple of planned posts) on insights from Colvin’s book. I suspect that, even though Colvin is senior editor at large for Fortune magazine, this book may never have made it to the reading lists of traders and investors.

In yesterday’s post on muscle memory I wrote about the similarities between learning to walk and learning to trade and the one huge difference—the psychological toll the latter takes. In trying to understand what he considers the deepest question about great performance, where the passion comes from, Colvin addresses this very issue. He looks at Shizuka Arakawa’s nineteen-year road to Olympic gold. Her specialty was a move that required “huge quantities of practice, and falling down during much of it. . . . Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from. That fact raises the question of why anyone would go through it. . . .” (pp. 187-88)

With children and adult novices the initial motivation is frequently external. Parents set a practice schedule, for instance. Beginning traders may want to leave their dull 9 to 5 job or may need to pay some bills. But at some point in the development from tyro to master the drive to excel starts to be internalized, thus sustaining the passion. It’s possible that this is in part the result of the multiplier effect which, in one iteration, says that simply telling someone that her performance is excellent, despite its actual quality, might motivate the extra practice that then leads to improved performance, attracting more praise. Here’s an area in which traders might help each other out, since it’s hard to keep up positive self talk in the face of less than masterful performance.


  1. [This is a comment on the previous post - I can't seem to be able to post there]

    Hi Brenda,

    While I mostly agree with your post, I'd like to offer my two cents.

    If I was really evil, I would posit the following experiment: let's wire toddlers with electrodes and give them varying-strength random electric shocks with a distribution slightly biased towards movements conducive to upright walking. Then let's see how many end up walking and how many crawl for the rest of their lives.

    Short of that, we could also alter every night the tuning of a piano and track how many young learners end up mastering music and how many end up banging their heads against the wall.

    That is why I think that the martial arts comparison is more apt: you're trying to hit a moving target that hits you back. (An excellent book, IMO, regarding the gist of your post is The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin).

    Many thanks for the excellent blog,


  2. Jorge, thanks very much for the reference; I will definitely take a look at it. I agree that static models are flawed when it comes to markets. I remember Simon from Million Dollar Traders, the third-rate British reality TV show available on YouTube. A retired software engineer, he was confronted with trading stocks for a hedge fund with virtually no training. In his former life, he moaned, it might take a very long time to write a piece of code, but once done properly, that was it. It would always work. In the market there was no such consistency; something that worked one day would fail the next.

    One reason I didn’t pursue the martial arts model further is that I don’t like personifying the markets, thereby making them an opponent, adversary, even enemy. Such personification might work fine for some people, but it’s not good for my psyche. I prefer to think of the markets along the lines of sporting clays where you have to shoot clay targets that are thrown, as Wikipedia says, in a great variety of trajectories, angles, speeds, elevations and distances. You either hit the moving target or you don’t, but it doesn’t hit you back. Admittedly, on my dark days I think of the market as a carnival shooting gallery where my BB gun is loaded with ammo that doesn’t have enough cross section to shoot out the star. That is, I’m being scammed and the carny guys like Goldman Sachs are laughing all the way to the bank.