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Note: much of my daily market analysis and market-focused educational work is now hosted at MarketLife. This, my personal blog, will evolve in some slightly new directions. Though there will always be connections back to finance, expect to see more wide-ranging topics covering things like art, my renewed focus on music, food, human peak performance, optimizing our lifestyles, and generally working to be the best we can. This is the first post that is headed in this new direction.

Many of you know that I had a previous career as a classical pianist and composer. About ten years ago, I made a career change, left music completely, and focused on my finance career. While that transition has been rewarding in many ways, I also left something behind, and, in recent years, that has bothered me more and more.

I remember when I made the switch, many people said things like “you’ll be able to do music as a fun hobby.” Well, no… I knew that wouldn’t be the case. Perhaps someone out there could derive pleasure from casual playing, but I knew that I would be unhappy playing casually (and, if we’re honest about it, very poorly) after I’d dedicated more than half of my life to developing significant skills. So, about ten years ago I left music completely and literally did not play, even casually, probably a dozen times in those ten years.

About a year ago, I made the decision to return to playing, not really knowing what the future would bring or how this would all fit together. The factors that drove that decision aren’t important here today; I want to focus on a few lessons I’ve learned, or relearned, as I’ve gone through the process.

The importance of working with a teacher (or a coach). When I decided to start playing again, I wanted to do some deep work and rebuild my technique—though I’d played at a high level, I knew I had limitations, both physical and mental, that I wanted to break. I saw no point in investing the time to play again unless I could go further than I had before. Of course, there is the virtuoso literature (Islamey, the Liszt etudes, etc.), but I also wanted to be able to play, for instance, late Haydn sonatas with comfort and mastery. Though this Classical-era music might sound like simple textures, it is so exposed that everything must be absolutely perfect. In the past, I’d largely avoided this literature because it emphasized the weaknesses in my technique. Basically, it’s like I had a giant hole in my backyard, and, rather than properly fill it in, I just put a fence around it. The problem is still there, and I wanted to fix the problems from the ground up.

On one hand, I thought it pretty likely I could do much of this work myself; I’d played at a pretty high level, had done a lot of research on biomechanics and how the body moves, and I also was a successful teacher. Why could I not just teach myself, perhaps even using technology to record myself and evaluate myself as I would a student? On the other hand, working with a teacher provides some obvious and clear benefits: you are accountable to another person so you will focus your work differently, leveraging the wisdom of someone else’s experience and perspective (no matter how strong your own might be) brings incredible potential to the experience… oh, yeah, and there’s also the chance that someone else knows something you don’t! In my case, I’m absolutely certain that my work with my teacher–and this work has been profoundly and absolutely transformative–saved me years of time. Here, a year and a few months after I began this work, I am able to do things that I never could do before; I feel like I have new hands and a completely new grasp of technique. Maybe I would have gotten here in five or ten years, but it’s far more likely I would not have done it at all.

In everything we do, there are some lines: there’s a big, fuzzy line between “easy” and “difficult”, and then a pretty clear line between “difficult” and “impossible.” A good teacher can move those lines for us, and we discover that the “difficult but possible” might encompass much more than we ever thought. But, you’re probably not going to get there without some help. In my case, I was fortunate to find the right teacher, which brings me to point two…

When you see is not what is actually happening, and even successful people often don’t understand how they do what they do. When you see someone play the piano, you see fingers moving. Those of you who have had lessons may remember advice like “lift each finger high”, and some of you may have had teachers who put coins on the back of your hands to make sure the hands and arms were “quiet” while playing. Much of traditional piano teaching centers around this idea of isolating the movement of each finger and strengthening the supporting muscles.

It turns out that this approach is actually dangerous and harmful. One of the dirty secrets of the music world is that most pianists suffer from repetitive motion injuries, and many careers have ended in swelling and pain. For centuries, we’ve accepted that this is simply the way things have to be (Robert Schumann famously ended his performing career when he wrecked his hand in the 1830’s trying to strengthen his fourth finger).

So what’s the right answer? A very big part of the “right answer” is that the fingers do not move in isolation, but each movement of the finger is supported by an often imperceptible rotation of the forearm. We can’t see this movement, and the performer may often be unaware it is even happening, but it makes all the difference in the world. (Incidentally, this is also how you should use your hands typing and when using a mouse—using the correct coordination of the body will make pain and tendonitis a thing of the past.)

This idea, that successful people don’t understand how they do what they do, pops up again and again. I just read an interesting article about the pseudoscience that Tom Brady credits for his longevity and athletic success. How many traders attribute their success to tools that have no objective edge? Perhaps they make money but they have no idea how they do so, so when they try to teach and transmit their knowledge they are completely unable to do so.

This is one of the big problems with learning from successful people: you can’t simply accept their explanations without a of analysis and work, and, as a learner, you may not have the background to do ask the right questions. Here, again, is where a skilled and successful teacher really shines.

Learning is hard work; it requires sacrifice, dedication, and time. Oh, and we also are never too good to return to basics. As I said, I was fortunate to find the right teacher in Edna Golandsky, someone who has spent a lifetime working with pianists, thinking about how to solve problems, and understanding the connections between simple physical motions and artistry. If you had seen my lessons for many months, you would have wondered what was going on. For many weeks, I simply played one note a time. Then I spent more than half a year playing one note connected to another, very slowly, hands separately.

I think, honestly, few people would have the patience for this kind of work. The musical results were pretty close to zero—I played only patterns and never even complete phrases, and nothing that would have sounded remotely pleasant to anyone listening. At the same time, the work was mentally grueling because I was focusing on minute details of body alignment and movement; I was often exhausted after sitting at the keyboard for 10 minutes playing one note at a time!

I’ve seen this so many times in trading, too: traders who think they are too good or too advanced to think about simple basics such as trend patterns, money management, or to develop a simple trading plan. Often they think they have some advanced and special insight that elevates them above basics, or they have some other aversion to going back to basics. I find myself returning to fundamentals so often: as a cook, I think about how to sear a piece of meat in a hot pan, or how to cook a vegetable perfectly in water. As a writer, I think about sentence construction, grammar, pacing, and the power of simple, short words. As a trader, well, it’s all “basics”. (And traders who have gone through my free trading course (free link but registration required) find transformation in spending time re-thinking their approach from the roots up.)

Returning to my lessons, I made significant sacrifices. My commute is about an hour each way, meaning that I must carve three hours out of an already-overflowing schedule once a week. In addition, I must spend several hours each day working on developing my skills, or the whole investment of time and money would be wasted.

I think this post is long enough, but I expect to write much more on this topic in coming months. I’m finding lessons and connections that cross back from my artistic and musical work into trading, teaching, and life in general. Some of the other points I’ll cover soon include: how, specifically, to do deep work; thoughts on world-class mastery; the wide range of resources and quality levels available on the internet; how the internet is changing humans; be careful of boiling the frog; the flow experience; and what art is and why it matters. Everything is tightly connected together, and, if we pay attention, meaningful lessons show up in surprising places.