JS Note: Minus a tweak or two, the following review was written by yours truly in 2009. It felt worth revisiting given the recent stirring of debate over passive investing versus active management. While true that most investors should not try their hand at trading — just as the average golfer should not attempt a living at golf — there is a path to excellence, and potentially remarkable success, for those who take the challenge seriously. (The fact that most do not take the challenge seriously explains the success / failure numbers, as Colvin’s book makes clear.) And talent is not the determining factor…
I inhaled this book. The informal plan was to read it over a few short weeks. Instead I plowed through it in maybe three days.
For those teetering on the edge of greatness — or thinking about really going for the gusto, in whatever field or endeavor that has captured their spirit — this book is an invitation to walk among the gods.
For those who have soured on their dreams and bitterly written them off, however, this book will be painful. It might even read like a damning indictment, and thus incite a hostile emotional response.
And finally, this book also has the potential to be terrifying. For those who feel the pull of greatness but also wrestle with a deep-seated fear of failure, the starkness of the choice will be revealed to them in these pages.
Why? Because Colvin’s deeper message, beyond the powerful insights into “Deliberate Practice” and what it can do, is that there is no excuse. Whatever it is you like (or love) to do, the fact that you don’t hate it means you probably have the basic tools — and so there’s no reason you can’t get better, maybe a lot better. And so, at the end of the day, there is simply no real excuse for not being great. Only the classic Bartleby the Scrivener response: “I prefer not to.”
Greatness requires dedication and sacrifice, period. Being good at something requires a fair amount… being great requires a huge amount. If you truly desire greatness — or simply to be great at what you do — then much sacrifice is required.
But I fudge slightly. The book does leave room for one excuse of sorts, but not a very satisfying one. In some cases of highly competitive endeavor, wunderkinds (like Mozart and Tiger Woods) have built up a nearly insurmountable “time in the saddle” advantage via taking up the hard work of Deliberate Practice (which I shall from here on out refer to as DP) at an astonishingly young age.
The “didn’t start young enough” excuse is hardly available to trading and investing practitioners, however, given the stunning successes of those who started late in the game, or have continued to play the game well into advanced age and beyond. Julian Robertson launched Tiger Management at age 48. Barton Biggs started a billion-dollar hedge fund in his early 70s (after retiring from Morgan Stanley). Seth Glickenhaus ran $900 million til age 98. Irving Kahn, as of this writing, is 107 years old and still active.
Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps has analogized his hard training to putting credits in the bank. DP is like a disciplined investing program — the longer you do it, the more compounding you see, and it takes many years up front to get to a point of real momentum. This makes it all but impossible in certain prodigy-dominated arenas to come to the game late and try to catch someone who has been continuously working their butt off from, say, age twelve. (Or in Tiger and Mozart’s case, age three.)
My personal experience with DP — which I practice in the world of trading and investing — is that it’s a lot like running. The brain is like a muscle, or rather a group of muscles, that has to be built up, like legs and heart and lungs for the runner, if a rigorous DP program is to be sustained.
This is another reason why getting into DP is so hard for the average individual. People don’t intuitively grasp the concept that the brain is like a muscle… that you have to strengthen your cognitive control and tighten up your executive functions before you can become a powerhouse.
Nobody starts out on a running program from a dead stop and assumes they’ll be able to run three marathons every week. They build up to it, and work on ways to overcome the initial physical pain and resistance that act as a barrier before “runner’s high” kicks in and positive addiction carries them through.
It’s a similar dynamic with DP. Many people fail in their early quest for excellence, I suspect, because the mind flags and the will tires, and instead of taking this as a normal part of the training process — like being winded in the early stages of a running program — they decide they can’t hack it and quietly slip back into mediocrity.
Another thing I liked about this book is how it puts talent in the proper context. Is it true that talent is overrated? Well, yes. Based on these findings, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean talent plays no role in success. It simply means that having some modicum of talent (whether imparted by genes or favorable early developments) is often a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success. That lack of sufficiency, i.e. talent alone not being “enough,” or even anywhere close to enough, is an absolutely critical point.
It’s a further interesting quirk that too much talent can even be an impediment, in certain cases, if the obvious presence of said talent convinces the individual that it’s okay to shirk on DP. It’s no statistical accident, for example, that the less flashy “work horses” of the baseball and basketball worlds tend to have longer careers than their flashier co-players, thanks to a tighter regime of working hard on the fundamentals to make up for lesser natural gifts.
And it seems like we all know someone who had a great knack for playing guitar or piano by ear in high school, but couldn’t be bothered to put in the sweat equity of trying to develop it into something more.
Colvin’s book, overall, is excellent news for those willing to live up to the words of Thucydides: “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”
Knowing what it takes — and knowing there are no excuses, if you truly want it — do you have the guts to make your dream happen? If so, go forth and get on the path to greatness!
(Oh, and if you’re wondering where to begin – this is a great place to start…)