The Rage to Master

[dc]B[/dc]efore I was a trader, I was a musician. In my career as a musician, I discovered the value of teaching—that I enjoyed teaching, I was good at it, and that teaching helped me refine my own skills and thinking. (The same is true of teaching trading, which is one reason why I focus on helping other traders learn to trade.) 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. Though this is obviously a complex question that will defy a “one size fits all” answer, I did see a common thread: They were passionate about it—in most cases, completely, totally obsessed. They loved music and it was a part of who they were. Without that passion, success was average, at best.

I came to music relatively late in life (nearly 10 years old), but was able to make very rapid progress for many years. Once I became obsessed with mastering my instrument, I literally practiced 6-10 hours a day, every day. I carried printed music with me at all times and rehearsed in my head every chance I got. In nearly 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. I skipped school to practice, I read books about music, I listened constantly, and 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.

I was completely immersed in the process of learning, absolutely obsessed, and literally addicted to the flow experience. Incremental progress was as satisfying to me as any drug could have been—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. Challenges and milestones were clearly defined, and my teachers taught me how to break huge challenges down into manageable chunks. Any stubborn challenge was simply an obstacle to be conquered; the harder it was, the more it drew my attention until I won.

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 experienced, and what I later saw reflected in my best students: the rage to master. 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, hard work usually doesn’t seem like work. 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 that 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 that exact connection before that moment.

Not everyone can, or should, approach financial markets with this degree of obsession. 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 this craft, I challenge you to ask yourself a difficult question. Do you have the passion to immerse yourself in markets and to become obsessed, probably beyond the point of balance and reason? Can you work on your path to trading mastery with that degree of focus? If so, are you prepared to maintain that level of intensity for the 3 to 4 years it will probably take you to achieve some mastery, perhaps without a lot of positive reinforcement along the way? If the answer to those questions is “no” or “I’m not sure”, maybe ask yourself another question: how can you kindle that spark? How can you find the passion—the rage to master—within yourself?



Adam Grimes has over two decades of experience in the industry as a trader, analyst and system developer. The author of a best-selling trading book, he has traded for his own account, for a top prop firm, and spent several years at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He focuses on the intersection of quantitative analysis and discretionary trading, and has a talent for teaching and helping traders find their own way in the market.