Monday, January 4, 2010

Using adversity

Josh Waitzkin learned to push himself. With seven weeks to go until he was scheduled to defend his U.S. Push Hands middleweight championship he decided to enter the super heavyweight division of a regional tournament for some extra training. He weighed in at 170 pounds, his opponent at 230 pounds. With only a minute to go the opponent broke Josh’s hand.

Despite the doctor’s pronouncement that there was no chance he could compete at the Nationals because, although his hand might heal in six weeks, his arm would have atrophied from its immobilization from the elbow down, Josh was determined. He was back in training the day after he got his cast. Initially, he didn’t do the usual sort of physical training. Instead, he worked on heightening his sensitivity to “incoming power and intention.” He concentrated on the mental side of his game.

Then he worked to cultivate his weaker side so that his left hand could do everything. He came to realize that if he could control two of his opponent’s limbs with one of his, he could easily use his other arm for “free-pickings.” This principle, he suggests, applies not only to nearly all contact sports but to chess as well: “Any moment that one piece can control, inhibit, or tie down two or more pieces, a potentially critical imbalance is created on the rest of the board.” (p. 130) By extension, the principle can even be applied in art of negotiation or in war. Or, in the financial markets, call it the principle of leverage.

Finally he used intense visualization practice to try to keep his right arm strong. Four days before the Nationals the doctor cleared him to compete; his bone had knit, and he had barely atrophied at all. Slightly favoring his newly empowered left arm, he won the Nationals.

What is the moral of this story? Waitzkin says that one thing he has learned as a competitor is that “there are clear distinctions between what it takes to be decent, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great, and what it takes to be among the best.” He says that in order to be among the best he has to “take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to [his] advantage.” Adversity, real or even imagined, can become a “tremendous source of creative inspiration.” It raises us out of routines in which we are simply going through the motions. It forces us to “get imaginative.” It keeps our minds engaged, searching.

I realize that many traders have disaster drills, but, however important they are, they are often no more than a series of standard responses—the same kinds of responses that fire departments teach. How many traders have thought through possible adjustments to or hedges of their positions in response to some adversity? How do you dig yourself out of a hole? What if the number of trades you made had to be cut in half? What if your dog decided you needed to get up regularly at 4 a.m.? There are lots of scenarios we can envision that might just help take us to the next level of mastery.

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