Steps to Mastery

Long before it was popular in books and on blogs, musicians suspected that the learning process actually involved a physical re-wiring of the brain. The cutting edge of neuroscience research verifies that this is, in fact, true. When you learn a skill, your brain (and, longer nerves, if the skill involves muscles) actually grows new connections. This process takes time, but there are some things we can do to help it out and speed it along. In fact, the training environments developed for musicians, athletes, chess players, etc a long time ago already included many factors that increase the speed of this process. Today, with new insights from neuroscience, we can do even better.

In my last post, I talked a little bit about the kind of commitment and emotional charge that I believe it takes to truly excel in any field. I wanted to write a follow-up post focusing on some of the things that I learned about skill development as a top-level classical musician. I think all of these apply in one way or another to trading, but I am going to leave it to you to connect the dots. (For one thing, I don’t have all the answer to this one, just some interesting questions.) I won’t explicitly draw the connections from these points to trading performance, or to the process of learning trading, but I hope that at least a few of these are good food for thought:

  • One of the keys to developing skills is consistency. It is not possible to develop a high level skill without repeated, consistent exposure… rehearsal, practice, or whatever you want to call it. Days off should be rare, but the work may be paced to allow for muscular growth if that’s a factor. (I don’t think it is in trading, but it certainly is in many fields.)
  • Length of practice sessions is not incredibly important, as what is done at the beginning and end of the session is most valuable for longer-term retention. If you have three hours to work, it may make sense to break that up into 20-minute sessions with two-to-four minute breaks in between. Of course, this tests your conviction because many people will go on one of those short breaks, punch up a video game, and never come back.
  • It is well known that your brain continues to work and process while you are not actually involved in the practice activity, if (and this is key) you have constant, repeated exposure. Progress actually seems to be made more in the “off times” than while you are actually working, but it is the hard work that causes the advance in skills. I can remember struggling for hours with a difficult passage to no avail, feeling that I had made no progress in the session, moving on to something else, taking a break, and coming back to find that I could play it flawlessly. It wasn’t magic—it was due to many hours of concentrated work.
  • Sleep is important. This is an extension of the previous point, but a lot of progress is made while we sleep. If you are dreaming about the activity, your brain is probably still practicing and developing the skill—this may well be part of the process by which those physical changes happen in the brain. If you aren’t dreaming about the activity, then you aren’t working hard enough. (No joke.) In addition, work done immediately before sleep seems to almost be “supercharged”. If you can study something or work on something and immediately fall asleep, the overnight progress is usually very impressive.
  • Over the longer term (months to years), progress is not linear, but is more of a step function. Again, musicians know this only too well—you will work for weeks and weeks, and sometimes even have the experience that you are actually getting worse at what you’re doing. (Let me tell you, that is awesome, especially if you’re putting in solid six-to-eight hour days.) Then, in a sudden burst, you will wake up one morning and have made massive progress seemingly overnight, or perhaps you will make incredible progress in a few days. What has happened is that the hard work finally paid dividends, but it can come after many weeks or months of no progress. Your growth will not be a line or curve but more like a series of plateaus and steps. Most people get lost here because they lose faith on the plateaus, or they think they magically got better because “they are just that good.” No, you didn’t, and you aren’t.
  • Great learners are captivated by the process of getting better. The goal may be motivating, but the struggle and work itself is rewarding in its own right.
  • Most people experience that as they move closer to mastery, they are more fascinated by a focus on simple fundamentals. As a musician, this might mean focus on simple building blocks of technique long-ago mastered, or on simple pieces that are well below the artist’s ability level. As a trader, maybe it means losing the indicators, charting by hand, and focusing on simple fundamentals of trading. Beginners tend to be entranced by flash and glamour. Experts often bring a profound focus to simple fundamentals of their art.
  • Emotional state really matters. (See this recent Newsweek article that mirrors many of these points.) Perhaps this is why that “rage to master” is so important. Being emotionally involved in the process actually makes you learn faster. Good coaches can help, as can being in the right environment, but, in the end, I think a lot of this must come from the individual. If you can make it fun, make it play, skills will come faster.
  • Visualization is a powerful tool. It’s interesting because I hear this now being touted as a new advance, but I remember my teachers talking about their teachers talking about learning pieces without actually touching the instrument—so musicians, at least, were doing this before 1900. (One of my teachers learned both books of Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” as a child without ever touching the keyboard, performing the entire five+ hours of music from memory the first time he sat down to play them. This type of seemingly super-human feat is not that uncommon, actually.) Visualization is most powerful when it augments and extends work being done physically as well, and, in my experience, may be more useful for a master to hone and develop skills than for a beginner to build those skills.
  • High level skills are assimilated beyond the level of conscious thought. For instance, playing rapid passagework often involves such accurate timing that the critical ear can perceive imperfections of just a few milliseconds. This is far beyond the conscious mind’s ability to manage—there is no way, for instance, that the brain can micromanage the muscular coordination required to produce a perfect scale in a Mozart concerto. However, years of practice build a technical ability that allows many of the details to be managed by the performer’s subconscious. It we do it right, it looks very easy… so easy that you lose sight of the complexity and believe you could do it (you can’t, not without years of work).
  • Chunking is an important component of mastery (I’m sure there is a more elegant term for this somewhere). Just as good readers do not read the sounds of each letter, but see words and whole phrases as units, good musicians don’t see notes—they see phrases and passages. I can zoom down to the level of individual notes if I want (or if I want you, the listener to focus on them), but in general I am focusing on a higher perspective. Masters in all fields use this skill. A competent chess player can glance at four games in progress and easily reproduce, from memory, the board positions for each one, but if you give him one board with randomly arranged pieces, he probably will not be able to do it. How? Because he doesn’t see individual pieces, he sees them as meaningful units that arise in the course of a game. He doesn’t see, say, 14 individual pieces in a middle game, he sees three or four units that he recognizes. If the pieces are randomly arranged, he has no edge and can’t do any better than you or me. (I know I said I wouldn’t make direct trading tie-ins, but I believe this one is really important.)

So there you have it, a long list in fairly random order. I could have gone on and on, but this post is probably too long already! I am sure how some of these tie into trading, not so sure about others. Maybe we’ll get some good discussion going in the comments, so check back in and/or please feel free to contribute.

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10 Comments on “Steps to Mastery”

  1. I had the good fortune to meet Shelby Foote the author who appears often in the Ken Burns Civil War series. He told me he did all his writing by hand with an old fashioned ink pen. He didn’t even use a typewriter let alone a computer because he lost touch with his subject using those methods. I also noticed that in one of his lectures, Al Brooks said at the end of the day he prints out several charts and marks them up by hand which he calls his practice session. Clearly taking pen to paper helps at least some individuals with the creative/learning process.

  2. Goo post, thanks Adam, I definitively agree with Kras, exercising keeps me sharp and in a great mood. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the ability to think without thinking in his book Blink. That directly relates back to your comment about your brain working long after you’ve completed the task at hand. The great thing is that these principles carry over to all aspects of life, not just trading. Once you master them, you can be successful in any discipline.

  3. On the sleeping note.

    While the article praises practicing whatever you want to achieve before you go to sleep, trading has probably actually had a negative effect on me, since I’ve become an insomniac.

    When I lie down to bed at night and close my eyes, I immediately see market price flashing before my eyes. I can’t control it – it just comes absolutely naturally. A wide variety of price movements flashing before my closed eyes, zooming in, zooming out, with various explanations of what’s happening that my brain produces, and focusing on certain candle wicks and lower projection candle tops in an upswing in a downtrend, etc. etc. etc. etc.

    I often find myself lying there with an open mouth. I’ve been absolutely amazed how clear market situations from that day seem to me once I lie down and try to sleep. I feel like I completely, completely understand what happened in the market and why did it turn at the moments it did turn – something I was not sure about during the actual day. I’ve been amazed by this over and over again.

    The net result is mixed feelings – while this article promotes similar behavior, for reasons I believe I understand, for me personally this also means I’m simply lying in bed for 4-6 hours until I fall asleep, sometimes with no sleep at all – I just get out of the bed in the morning after no sleep at all.

    As personal health of all individuals is in their own hands, the fact is, I’m having a therapy about this and it slowly seems to be helping. Once of the drawbacks though is I was forbid to do anything related to trading after 6pm, which is hard for me. But I believe proper sleep is very important.

    I’m not yet consistently profitable. But from the very first day I began to take trading seriously, I had no doubt I will reach this point. For me, it’s not a question of IF, but of WHEN.

    Anyway, just wanted to emphasize that while obsessions is great for results of the thing you’re obsessed with, do not forget to look after your health.

  4. Thanks for the great blogs. This one really connects for me. When in college I decided to become a pilot. My landings were awful and the instructor pointed out that some people just are not cut out to be pilots. Finances forced me to go a year without lessons but during that time whenever I could – usually when being alone – I would visualize and pace the floor acting out all the motions, sights and sounds of landing the plane. After that year, I went back to the flight school and the same instructor went up with me. He got angry and accused me of having taken lessons at another school. My landings were perfect. Said it was impossible to change that much without a lot of practice. After a time, I actually became respected among my amerature pilot crowd as pretty good.

    This is exactly the process that Adam so well described. Learning to trade has been the exact process for me — but I am not at the point where I want anyone to know how well I am doing — still staying at it.

  5. Regarding the sleep thing, when I practice trading before sleep, I don’t get enough deep sleep, and walking up in the morning very tired, and less productive all day, its killing me, I don’t like it.
    So I am trying to stop (practicing / studying/ reviewing) before 1 hour of bed time.

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