I wanted to learn how to breakdance so I paid some kid $15 to teach me out of my hard-earned newspaper route money. I saw him in the street, spinning on a piece of linoleum. He had three friends with him, all of them were good at their own particular style of breakdancing. One kid was good doing the backspins, windmills, and headspins. Another kid was good at doing all the above floor stuff: like popping, etc. Another kid was good at waving. Like his body was made out of rubber. I had lost a contact lens and was afraid to tell my parents they needed to spring for a new pair. So for the entire summer, way back in the mid 80s, I practiced breakdancing every day and I could only see out of one eye. Maybe the best summer of my life. Certainly the most embarrassing when I now think back on it.
In every spare moment I either hung out with my new friends, having no issues abandoning my other friends who weren’t cool enough to understand the finer subtleties of the windmill, or I practiced in front of a mirror. Its even embarrassing writing these words down.
Of course, like in all my remembrances, I thought that by learning how to spin on my back and do other random contortions with my body I would , of course, meet girls in clubs. I had gotten rid of my glasses and braces a year earlier so now I was ready. I was the new me. That’s what the braces were for, right? Now my teeth were straight and shiny. Good for kissing. But it didn’t happen because I still had “me” to deal with. The me that couldn’t talk to anyone or was too shy to ask anyone for their number.
Much later, when I applied to colleges I never mentioned this little episode in my life. I focused on things like “chess” and my stupendous performance as a “mathlete”.
But its all related to making money. My insecurity was so high that only by being the best at something could I muster the confidence to say, “this is me, this is what I do.” If I wanted to pursue ANYTHING (and it has to be something I’m passionate about or it won’t work), I had to apply the following principles. Who knows if I ever really got good at anything, or mastered anything worth telling people about. But at the very least, I applied the principles below and got good at a few things. Good enough to make some money, good enough to have fun, good enough to have some interesting experiences along the way.
A) Teacher: Get a teacher/mentor. I’ve done this with everything from chess, to stockpicking, hedge funds, entrepeneurship, etc. You absolutely need a teacher in anything you do to help you quickly jump over the basic mistakes.
B) Read. Read everything you can. I have over 200 books about chess. I’ve read over 2-300 books on investing. In the early stages of the Internet I read every book that Tim O’Reilly ever published. I learned every programming language, everything about networking and security, everything about design. I read everything I could on entrepeneurship. I read so many books about Warren Buffett I wrote my own book about Warren Buffett (“Trade Like Warren Buffett” (2005) ) 200 books on a topic seem to be about the right number. You need to also study the present. Every day new things are developing in your field. You need to know all of them. If you are a lawyer, you need to follow every case. If you’re a doctor, every new breakthrough technology. If you are an Internet entrepreneur, every new twist on website development, on business model innovations, on the new businesses being started every day, etc.
C) History. You need to know the history of what you are doing. When Bobby Fischer was about 14 years old, after already proving he was a talented chess prodigy, he disappeared for about a year and studied every game played in the 1800s. By the time he reappeared he had developed some critical innovations to games played a hundred years earlier and handily won the US Championship, the youngest champion ever. In investing there are tons of books written in the 60s, 70s (Adam Smith’s “Supermoney” is a great example) and even in the early part of the century (Baruch’s autobiography, anything by LeFevre). I would study all of the so-called bubbles (I do not believe there ever was a tulip bubble or South Sea Bubble, for instance). Get software to model the markets so you can see the subtleties in the data over the past 100 years. It’s the only way to understand what is happening now.
D) Fail. Study your mistakes. Repeatedly. You can’t improve by only studying your wins. In poker, you have to analyze every hand you lost and why. In chess, you have to run your losses thorugh the computer, through your teacher, you have to spend hours studying the games and looking for your weaknesses: the weaknesses in your knowledge and the weaknesses in your psychology, which are part of every loss. Ditto for investing. You’ll always have losses. But the second you blame it on “bad luck” then you’ve gone from having a loss to becoming a loser. You don’t want to be a loser. Same goes for relationships. When it doesn’t work out, its just as much your fault as the other persons. Where did you go wrong? How can you be better? There’s a corollary to this, which is that in order to succeed, you have to fail at many things (not always, but most likely). You will probably fail dozens of times. There’s countless examples in history (Edison, Einstein, Lincoln).
E) Ideas. Generate new ideas. When you work at a company, its not enough that you be a good employee of that company (i.e. you do everything well that your boss asks you to do). You must actually BECOME the company. You need to act as if you are the force that brings that company to life. And every company, just like every endeavor you embark on, needs new ideas. Once you inject your own life force into an endeavor, then you inevitably will bring to it new ideas. You’ll develop new chess openings that match your style. You’ll discover a new risk arbitrage technique that matches the type of risk profile you’re comfortable with. You’ll bring a company or academic discipline into a new direction that nobody’s ever thought of before. You’ll start a new company where everyone says, “gosh, that was so easy. Why didn’t I think of it?” But in order to do that you have to first do all of the techniques above, then do everything you can to develop the idea muscle. Every day, making a list of ten to twenty new ideas in your chosen field.
F) Do. You need to not just “read” and “study” but “do”. If you want to write a screenplay, every day you need to write. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you must start right away thinking of services or products you can provide and sell people. If you want to invest, open an account and start buying stocks. Nobody is going to do it for you.
G) How long does it take? You need to be patient. I think to properly follow the steps outlined above its at least a three to five year process. Three years before you can say, “I understand this field”, five years before you can say “I can make a living doing this”, and eight years before you can say, “I’m one of the best in the world at this.” Its ok not to be the best in the world at something. But if you want to make a difference you need to put in the time, whether its art, internet, sports, etc.
Finally, you need to maintain. Everything I’ve ever done, I still keep track of and stay in at least “maintenance” mode. I’m not saying I’ve mastered anything. And I haven’t created billions in value. But if you threw out a piece on linoleum and wanted me to spin on my back, I can probably still do that, although when I do it in front of my kids they laugh at me.
p.s. My current favorite breakdancing video: (I like how the guy is confident enough to go slowly. He doesn’t need to jam every second with moves. That’s confidence! Note the 24mm views on this video).