The Rage to Master

Most of my previous posts have focused heavily on technical trade ideas, setups, or statistical analysis of market data. As I have mentored more and more traders on the SMB desk, I have been thinking a lot about the parallels between the process of learning and teaching trading, and my previous experience as a top-level classical musician and teacher. I want to write a short blog series sharing some of these ideas because I think there are many interesting and valuable lessons here for developing traders.

One of the things that I struggled with most as a music teacher was why some students did so well while others, given the same effort and attention from the teacher, did not. I suspected the answer was related to another interesting question, which was how and why I was able to make incredible and rapid progress after I came to music relatively late in life (nearly ten years old). After struggling with this question a long time, and usually asking what I, as the teacher, could have done better, I decided the answer was actually pretty simple—students who made real progress toward mastery loved what they were doing. They were passionate about it, not in the sense that every business school student will tell you they are “passionate about I-banking” or “passionate about capital markets”, but passionate in the sense that music, for them, became all-consuming. At first a fairly normal kid, once I became obsessed with mastering my instrument, I literally practiced six to ten hours a day, every day, in addition to whatever else I had to do. I carried printed music with me at all times and rehearsed in my head (visualized, but that’s a topic for a later blog) every chance I got. In every class, I pretty much ignored the teacher and studied music as much as I could. Every spare minute, at recess or study halls I usually managed to work my way into a practice room instead of wasting time doing whatever “normal” kids did. When I got really obsessed on a particular piece of music, I would skip entire days of school so that I could work on it. (Yes, I skipped school… a lot of school… and stayed home to work!) I rigged my instrument so that I could practice more or less silently, well into the wee hours of the night. I was, in no way, shape or form, a “well balanced” kid. I was completely consumed, completely obsessed with the drive to master my chosen craft, and I eventually became better than almost anyone else at what I did.

In retrospect, it is obvious to me that some sacrifices were made. I didn’t do a lot of the things normal kids did. Teachers and a lot of my peers thought I was an alien from outer space and had no idea how to relate to me. I probably missed out on a lot of things a lot of other kids did growing up, but, and here’s the interesting thing, even though I was working close to 60 hours a week on mastering my craft it did not seem like work. I was completely immersed in the process of learning, absolutely addicted to the flow experience when I performed well. Incremental progress was as satisfying to me as any drug could have been. I could see the where the ragged edges of my technique were not up to the challenges of certain pieces, and I took every failure as a challenge to get better. I was actually angry when I couldn’t play something, and I channeled that anger into effort. Frankly, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the possibility of failure. For one thing, I saw clearly that with proper focus and effort I could do pretty much anything in my chosen field. Challenges and milestones were clearly defined, and my teachers taught me how to break huge challenges down into manageable chunks. I guess I also didn’t think too much about failure or about not being able to do something because failure simply was not an option.

I wasn’t until much later that I heard a term (first used by Ellen Winner I think) that captured the essence of what I went through as a child musician, and what I later saw reflected in my best students—the rage to master. Children are able to find this much easier than most adults, for many reasons, but people who have the rage to master are completely obsessed beyond any sense of balance, beyond any reason with mastering their chosen craft. For these people, working toward mastery rarely seems like work, simply because they love what they are doing. They are motivated by the end goal, yes, but perhaps even more so by the process of learning and the process of getting better. I had a major “ah hah” moment sitting on a plane, reading one of the first copies of Dr Steenbarger’s Enhancing Trader Performance, when he used the term rage to master to describe what he saw in the master traders he worked with. I had been trading for a long time before that, but I never drew the connection between elite performance and trading until that every moment—and nothing has been the same since. (Thank you, Dr Brett.)

I know that many people with a wide range of interest levels read this blog. If you are casually interested in markets or trading, then that is fine. It is certainly possible to have fulfilling interactions with the market, enjoy the experience, and get something valuable out of it as a lifelong hobby. But, if you think you have made the commitment to really master trading and to become a professional trader, I challenge you to ask yourself a difficult question. Reread what I wrote above. Though it specifically described my early childhood experiences as a musician, most people who really master any field will tell you very similar stories. The best athletes, artists, actors, writers, professors—the elite performers in any field—would be able to write similar descriptions of their own obsession and efforts at improving themselves. If you want to be a top-performing, elite trader, ask yourself if you are consumed by the rage to master your chosen craft. Do you dream about trading? Do you work seven days a week? Are you thinking about trading in the shower, in the car, on the train, while you are eating? If so, are you prepared to maintain that level of intensity for the three to four years it will probably take you to achieve some mastery? When you close your eyes, do you see the market patterns? If the answer to these questions is no or maybe, I suspect you can still become a competent trader given enough time and the right environment. However, if you think you have made the commitment to becoming a top notch professional trader, if you think you have “burned the ships”, and you cannot emphatically answer yes to those questions with no reservations, I suspect you may be in for a bumpy ride.

In fairness, I think there are some things that make it difficult to maintain this level of intensity through the process of becoming an elite trader. Let me collect my thoughts, and I’ll share them in another post soon.

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19 Comments on “The Rage to Master”

  1. Great post. In fact, one of the best and most important I’ve read. I look forward to the next piece. Thanks.

  2. Adam, great post, it really gets you to thinking about where a person has had success in life and it is directly proportional to how ” passionate ” I have been in that area. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. It is appreciated way more than you may realize.

  3. ThanX Adam! This is a great “says it all” commentary about true natural passion. As always your posts are of the highest insight and quality. TGIF & have a great weekend thinking about trading.

  4. Truly outstanding post Adam. Very important to trading and life in general! I will definitely be sharing this with everyone I know.

  5. My favorite part “I didn’t spend much time thinking about the possibility of failure.”

    A lot of people dont realize what that means

    Great post

  6. thanks guys. glad that this was interesting and useful. i’ll follow up soon

  7. Awesome post, Adam. I can’t wait for the follow up. Now you’ve got to tell us what instrument you played.

  8. The only other person that I know who has been brave enough to tackle this subject head-on is Dr Steenbarger. Kudos to you for doing such a good job so far. What does happen when someone puts their heart and soul in to something and still things don’t work out? It’s no wonder it’s not a popular topic in the trading literature. You are heading into heart of darkness territory and wish you the best of luck with the next installment. Please be gentle.

  9. Excellent post. If I may ask, why are you no longer pursuing your passion in music? As a follow up, do you feel that trading has become the outlet for your passion that music once was?

  10. The point that you reach here is the same point that is reached in the overview book “Talent Is Overrated.” It seems as though a lot of study of world-class performance essentially comes down to conclusion that the passion required for world-class performance is world-class dedication and, consequently, the forsaking of other aspects of life. Talent Is Overrated essentially comes to the same conclusion as this post: if you want to be a world-class performer, you will probably not lead a balanced life. If you really care about one thing, you will sacrifice other (important) things for it, including social relationships and entertainment and general life balance.

    I think all traders should consider whether trading is really worth the type of dedication required to achieve mastery. For some (very few), it is. For most, it is not. Most traders do not actually care about mastering trading enough to master it, nor should they care. Indeed, most people should stop wasting time with trading, admit that they actually care about nature or their friends or education far more than trading, and go enjoy other aspects of life that we actually care about.

    I feel as though this reminder would help some readers. Trading is not “good.” It is not “great” to be a profitable trader. If you are enjoying life in other areas and are addicted to or stubborn about your long-failed attempts at trading, it is probably best to just move on. Enjoy life, you only get one chance. There are other ways to make money.

  11. I can identify exactly with what you have said. I developed an interest in trading as soon as I began almost fifteen years ago. Despite repeated failure, I kept trying to learn how to improve. I have told people that I have lived and breathed “the markets” for that long and they just look at me funny.
    I did the same thing with flyfishing about 25 yrs. ago. That obsession lasted about 5 years. Then I became a Paramedic and immersed myself in that. The school was only about 2 years, but I continued to devour medical literature for another 3 or so years. Then trading.

    I’ve read hundreds of books on trading. I watch the markets all day on the days I don’t go to my “real” job. (RN) I dream at night about markets. Lately it has been the demise of the US dollar and silver…
    I have come to believe that there are various degrees of autism and that I may be mildly affected. It may be an asset when it comes to keeping emotion out of my trading.
    Anyway, things finally clicked about 3 years ago. I spent a long time telling myself how to trade well, and I could do it sometimes, ie, run up my account for awhile, then start to disregard the rules and give alot back. Stop, regroup. And run the account up again. After the last long drawdown, I really internalized that quote, I think it was Michael Markus, in Wizards when he talked about pain and “Mr. Stupid”. I just don’t want to be Mr. Stupid anymore. Life is so much easier when I just trade well. And the feeling of control is just exhilirating. Whatever happens in the markets, I am confident I will do the right thing. And my acct. is the daily evidence.
    Thanks for the article/blog.
    Greg H.

  12. I can relate on some level, because I have had several areas that I have focused on achieved a pretty high degree of success. Music came late in life for me, but once I was hooked I was really hooked. I applied this level of obsession to several different areas in music, with degrees of success ranging from average to truly outstanding. (I think we may be entering a period of thought in today’s society where “talent is underrated.” It is true that most people can do far more than they expect, but people also come out of the gate with some genetic predispositions that help them along. If you don’t have that in the field you choose, I can’t imagine a scenario where you climb to the top of the field and you are not at a disadvantage competing with people who worked as hard as you did who also happen to have drawn a lucky hand genetically. For instance, I played nearly all musical instruments and built a good degree of proficiency on many of them very easily, while remaining nearly unable to play a few for which I did not have the right genetic combination of musculature and body parts. This is reality.)
    I also applied this degree of focus to becoming a chef, and after spending a few years in an intensive and focused (there’s that theme again) internship, carrying textbooks with me on the one or two days a week I was not in the kitchen (how many people who want to learn to cook carry Escoffier around with them?), I achieved a level of proficiency that usually takes people 3 times as long. I could go on through other less interesting obsessions, but I think this is just the way I am wired. If I decide to do something, I do it with crazy focus, and I think it makes me hard to work with because I have a difficult time respecting people’s efforts when they are not working with this kind of focus. Just as an example, I have recommended charting by hand as a way to internalize market patterns. How many struggling traders have done this or tried it for a period of weeks to months to see if it helps?
    As a final thought on this topic, though I’m not certainly a mental health professional, I do suspect there are links between this kind of focus and addictive or compulsive personalities. I think most people who find this level of focus have to be very careful and work consciously on having healthy lives outside their chosen field. It may also explain why so many elite performers have substance abuse problems, especially when coupled with the pressure most of them put on themselves to stay at that level.

  13. Thank you. I was a classical pianist, eventually coming to focus equally on Baroque and 20th century music. (Seems like odd areas of specialization, but it’s more common than you’d think.) I played a lot of early keyboard instruments as well… harpsichord, pipe organ… and I also was (am?) a composer (actually that came to be my main focus for quite a while.) Later I started playing a little jazz, fairly competently, but wouldn’t categorize myself as a jazz musician. And I get asked this all the time (not on the blog yet), no… I don’t do music for a hobby. I was at the point where maintaining my skills took 3 hours a day just to stay in shape. Not to improve, just to maintain status quo. My mind and ear is just as critical but now that it has been a long time since I have worked like that, I no longer have the technique to deliver… so it’s just painful!

  14. Kevin, personal and artistic reasons. Basically I did what I wanted to and to get to the next level would have required many years at 8 hours a day for no conceivable financial reward… and I had serious issues as a composer with the future of the art… just kind of didn’t see the future or audience. Trading certainly has become a huge focus in my life, and in fact my growing interest and competence in trading was part of what pulled me away from music. Honestly, it’s not a substitute though—the demands are totally different. I find the demands of trading, at least in short time frames, to be primarily emotional in that it takes an enormous degree of strength and personal control. In a lot of ways, the mental and analytical demands of trading are actually fairly trivial compared to music, but the discipline definitely makes different demands.

  15. I am not at all sure I have the wisdom to really address this question Bryan, but let me think about it. I think this is more related to someone finding their purpose and meaning in life, and it is very hard to strike a balance between focus and obsession. The reality of it is that if you have a group of people approaching something with a “do or die” attitude of complete commitment, some of them are going to die trying. Perhaps you were right to evoke the ghost of Conrad there… let me think about this a little more.

  16. Yes, I absolutely agree with this. People who do something really well are almost always not well-balanced. They make sacrifices… it’s basically the cost of admission. Whether it is worth it at the end of the day is a decision that each person has to answer for herself, but some people are motivated by doing one thing better than almost anyone else. This requires superhuman focus.

  17. Hi Mr Grimes. Thanks for posting this. I can relate and am glad to see that you and others experienced this hyper learning mode and obsession to master. B/c I always felt like the odd ball. The movie Gattaca comes to mind, and the theme of “not saving anything for the swimback.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWNRvRecE1Y&feature=related
    Also, your link of highly focused people and their need to be conscious of staying healthy, and putting too much pressure on themselves is spot on for me. A lot of times I forget about it b/c I’m so into what I’m doing. And their wasn’t a lot of people I could relate to and talk to while growing up in the midwest. For example, in my olympic style taekwondo days…I decided to go to south korea to train w/ the national & olympic team for four months in the winter time. And more recently, for the past 5 months since I started foundations I have really negated going to the gym and eating right. If I didn’t understand something in the study material, I would keep pushing till I got it and forget everything else. For instance, many things were difficult to understand when first studying the tape…and I kept reading lectures and watching videos over and over. I’d skip the gym, and eat microwave food b/c it’s faster to make. So thank you for pointing this out. Also, another link is that laundry never gets done till you realize you have no socks left. By that time its too late so you end up just wearing your nikes without socks to do errands w/ the g-friend, and you really don’t give a care. ha!

  18. I really wish your HR department made decisions based on the qualities mentioned in this excellent post. This article is just another reaffirming factor that I am on the right path.

    Thanks Adam!

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