Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lemov, Practice Perfect

Although the authors of Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2012)-- Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi—are teachers and focus on how to coach teachers to do a better job, the book has lessons for everyone who wants to coach himself to improve his game.

By now I assume nearly everybody has heard about the 10,000 hour rule, detailed among other places in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. That is, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. But what kind of practice? To borrow (and recast) a 2008 Republican campaign slogan, “Drill, baby, drill!” Practice should focus on drills rather than on scrimmages. “A drill deliberately distorts the setting in which participants will ultimately perform in order to focus on a specific skill under maximum concentration and to refine that skill intentionally. Drills … increase density, the number of productive iterations of a skill per minute of practice. … A scrimmage, by contrast, is designed not to distort the game but to replicate its complexity and uncertainty.” (pp. 49-50) Scrimmages should be used to evaluate one’s readiness for performance: “success in scrimmage is the best indicator of true mastery—participants can perform a skill when the time and place of its application is unpredictable.” (p. 51)

Okay, we should drill. The trader could, for instance, practice the physical act of trade entry (and drill in a variety of conditions—entering via a limit order or a buy stop, reacting to a partial fill, canceling a trade) until he can do it quickly and virtually automatically, preferably without a fat finger. It makes no sense to spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out entry rules only to stumble when actually placing the trade. Even algo traders need to know how to override their systems manually.

It is important to practice getting simple things right before adding complexity; that is, we want to encode success. As the authors write, “failure builds character better than it builds skills.” (p. 251) And we should spend most of our time on the skills that matter most—the old 80-20 rule (spend 80% of your time practicing the 20% of skills that are most important).

The best performers continue to drill even after they have attained mastery: “the value of practice begins at mastery!” (p. 32) “Keep going so that what you develop is automaticity, fluidity, and even … creativity.” (p. 30)

Through practice people develop “’economical rote algorithms’ so that ‘in the heat of battle the right maneuvers will come automatically.’ Consider hitting a baseball. It takes about 0.4 seconds for a serious fastball to reach the plate. ‘Conscious awareness takes longer than that: about half a second,’ … so most batters are not consciously aware of the ball’s flight. … Success is based on habits the batter has built but cannot consciously manage in the moment when they are most needed.” (p. 34) Sounds a lot like Curtis Faith’s Trading from Your Gut, which I reviewed almost three years ago.

Since it is geared to teachers, Practice Perfect is not essential reading for traders, but it contains some key lessons—among them, stop scrimmaging so much and start drilling.

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