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.