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Mothers, Musicians, and Marshmallows

May 24, 2016



Malcolm Gladwell is credited with coining the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery, outlined in his book Outliers. This 10,000 hours rule has become dogma in the world of high achievers. In studies ranging from violinists to Russian tennis proteges, it is shown that at around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice the student graduates to mastering a topic. Of course this does not mean that the deliberate practice stops there. Many greats do not create their best performances until they have reached 20,000 to 30,000 hours. There is one problem with this creed, and it is best exemplified through Shane McConkey, Mothers, Musicians, and Marshmallows.


Shane McConkey was a ski legend of the 90’s. He took first descents down dangerous chutes, hucked backflips off of cliffs, and brought to reality the idea of ski-BASE. Shane was truly a visioneer of his time. Just like every great he did not start out doing the impossible but how he got there is perhaps even more remarkable.


Starting out with mogul racing, Shane quickly figured out that this was not his scene. After winning his first event, he ended his racing career by throwing a strictly illegal backflip off a mogul at the end of his run at Vail. He was banned from the event after that stunt, but being Shane he snuck back to the top, took off all of his clothes, and threw the most famous naked backflip in Vail history, subsequently getting banned for life. By Malcolm Gladwell's standards Shane was the furthest thing from being on the path towards mastery.


So how do mothers, musicians, and marshmallows fit into the picture? Getting 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is not easy. A student must have the propensity and be geared towards the idea of mastery. It has been shown that those who grow up in environments where their mothers (or fathers) encourage positive learning behavior and discourage bad behavior were more likely to be successful later on in life. Shane grew up in a broken home and in an environment not geared towards preparing him for the hard work of greatness. His parents had a bitter separation when he was four and Shane saw his father only a handful of times by the time he was thirty.


In one study it was shown that what separated child violin proteges from the others was simply how many hours they spent doing deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is done when you have a goal in mind, purposefully improving upon a skill. Shane lived by the adage “If you remember the 80’s, than you weren't skiing”, creating an environment not suitable for getting any kind of meaningful work done. If he weren't on the mountain he would be partying, playing practical jokes, and doing rather obscene things. Even when on the mountain Shane would pursue lines that were simply fun to do.


In a Stanford psychological study, Walter Mischel performed a straightforward test. He gave four- year-olds the option for a marshmallow right now, or if they could wait for him to return in just a few minutes they could get two. Most took the instant gratification and ate the one. In a follow up test years later, it was shown that those who could delay gratification scored higher on the SAT, were more self-confident, and hardworking.  By definition Shane is a thrill seeker, always looking for a good time with what is right in front of him, unable to delay his gratification.


If all the scientific research and studies over the last few decades say that you have to get 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master then how is it possible that a ski bum achieved such great feats? The answer is one word: flow.


The perception of time changes, your field of vision narrows, your skills are being challenged, you lose your sense of self, and you cannot make a wrong decision. Flow is a state of consciousness but at the same time much more. Unique bursts of brain waves occur allowing for intense focus and creativity. It allows for the seemingly impossible to become effortless in the moment. It produces a potent cocktail of endogenous chemicals and endorphins making flow states highly desirable and rewarding. Most importantly to the scope of this paper, it short circuits the mastery process. 


Racing down the side of mountains and pushing the limits of the sport was Shane's motivation. He was pursuing flow. Being in the zone for most of his time on the mountain he was able to become creative in his lines, see things that others did not and in the process redefine what is possible. One of the main requirements to enter into a state of flow is that you have to be challenging your skills. This means that once Shane did a backflip off a 30 foot cliff or race down a mountain going 60 miles an hour, it was not enough to do that again. He had to dodge boulders, fly down chutes, and BASE jump off of 13,000 foot cliffs to achieve flow again. Flow is how he was able to become a master. In one study of professional snipers, those training in a flow state were able to outpace their peers by more than twice. That means instead of taking 10,000 hours to become a master it would take less than 5,000 hours of doing something that is intrinsically motivating.


Action sports provide a great platform for describing flow, but you don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie to achieve this state. Almost every single person has had a flow experience, whether it was giving a speech, playing a sport, trading in the market, or meditating, the opportunities are endless to achieve this state. As traders, utilizing flow is a requirement. When the market is moving quickly and thousands of bits of information are being thrown at us while trying to execute our strategy, being in flow is what allows us to filter out the noise, focus in, and get our job done. Flow is also necessary in our research. To achieve the high level creativity required to discover a true edge we must enter into the state by backtesting and know that the hard work to enter this state will lead us to our breakthroughs. There is no defined path towards mastery and doing the work is certainly a requirement, but spending time in a state of flow will help shorten the learning curve and increase the enjoyment of the process. 




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