Bizarrely, personal finance is an area of life where most people have no idea what high performance looks like. Or what it takes.
Talking openly about money is still taboo. So most people that are good at saving keep their head down and quietly get on with it. That leaves newspaper journalists and editors trying to sell more copies or clicks by pandering to people’s fears and prejudices.
There are few programmes about personal finance on TV / radio in the UK and they’re usually pants. Take Radio 4’s Moaneybox (as far away as possible please) which, whenever I listen, seems to be an endless procession of hand-wringing and stories about gullible people. Its all complaining and no action….all mouth, no trousers.
When it comes to money, most people (readers of good FI blogs excepted) have no idea what’s possible. That’s why one of my aims is to show a wider range of people what peak performance looks like when it comes to personal finance.
So let me start by showing you what world class performance looks like…in mountain biking. The video is only 4 mins long…and its gold…especially with the volume turned up.
Danny makes it look easy right? Maybe he’s just naturally talented? Or lucky?
OK, I’ll let you into a secret: the same underlying techniques that produce peak performance in sport and fitness also apply to personal finance.
What?!? Really? How do we go about achieving that sort of performance?
Anders Ericsson is not some internet spammer or guru with a fake tan. He is a professor of psychology and perhaps the worlds leading academic authority on the science of skill acquisition and expertise. Peak is an amazing read and about a year ago, I put it on my list of life changing books.
The content of the book is fantastic. Its rigorous and yet readable. Its based on evidence and is not dumbed-down. I love books like this where a world expert, who has spent an entire career painstakingly researching a subject, boils down everything they’ve learnt and puts it down on a few hundred pages that can be read in a couple of days. Reading books like this is like taking a magic knowledge pill.
Here are some of the key points I took from the book.
Talent is over-rated
It turns out that most of what we thought we knew about human learning capabilities is far too pessimistic. Take the example of musical ability. Perfect pitch is the ability to hear any note played on any musical instrument and to be able immediately to tell what note it was eg A sharp or E flat etc.
Mozart had perfect pitch and its long been thought to be a talent that just a few lucky prodigies have. But Ericcsson emphasises that Mozart’s perfect pitch was no accident of genetics. Mozart’s father was a music teacher who tutored his young child intensively from an early age.
And in recent studies in Japan, they’ve been able to teach normal children perfect pitch with a 100% success rate.
Your abilities are not fixed
Its not just children who have this amazing capacity to learn new skills. Ericsson writes about the studies of middle-aged people training for The Knowledge, the notoriously difficult test taken by London cab drivers which can take years to pass.
The trainee cabbies being studied had regular brain scans and their brains actually changed size and shape over time in response to the process. The area associated with memory grew. Like a muscle, the brain adapts to the training.
With enough deliberate practice, this happens with just about anything. Ericsson summarises:
Although the specific details vary from skill to skill, the overall pattern is consistent: Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required
But this only works where people operate outside of their comfort zone, where the brain and body are pushed to adapt.
The brain, like the body, changes most quickly in that sweet spot where it is pushed outside – but not too far outside – its comfort zone.
Ericsson gives a nice example of a friend who used to say he was rubbish at learning languages, he just didn’t have the talent. Then that guy fell in love with a Mexican woman who didn’t speak much English. Lo and behold, six months later he had learned to speak Spanish.
The moral of the story is that you have to be able to tap into a deep underlying motivation. This is what keeps you going, keeps you doing the work.
In personal finance, you can either have “towards” or “away from” motivation. Towards means working towards wealth, freedom, happiness, growth. Away from means getting away from a fear of poverty or a boss or a job or a life you hate. The more powerful and visceral the emotional motivation, the more likely you are to stay on The Path.
Use mental representations
Ericsson explains how peak performers are effective users of mental representations.
Most people are visually orientated so the most common form of mental representations are visual images. These are the pictures that we “see” when visualising ideas.
I use these mental representations all the time. When I think about financial advisers / wealth managers etc charging 2+% of your portfolio value every year, I don’t see numbers or a boring piece of paper…I see things like this (left)…which means I do something about it.
Now…where is your holy water and silver bullets?
Put in the time
Some of Ericsson’s findings were popularised (and simplified?) by Malcolm Gladwell who write about a 10,000 hour “rule” where you need to put in 10,000 hours of hard work to get world class in an area.
Some simple maths here. If you work on something every day for 4 hours a day you will spend 1,460 hours in a year and it will take you just under 7 years to rack up your 10,000 hours.
The 10,000 hour rule is not a real rule, its just an illustration of the simple truth that it takes time to get world class at anything. But the quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity…maybe more so…which leads us to the concept of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is how top performers get to the top. Its a process of improvement that involves goal setting, repetition, experimentation, adjustment and progression. There is no single magic bullet…just a series of marginal gains.
And its hard work:
Deliberate practice takes place outside your comfort zone. It requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond their current abilities. It demands near-maximal effort which is generally not enjoyable
In other words, deliberate practice feels difficult at the time with 2 steps forward, 1 step back. In the moment, our emotions may trick us into feeling that we’re not making progress. We’re likely to experience temporary barriers, mental blocks or plateaus. The question is then what is the best way to overcome those sticking points?
Get a coach
Throughout 99.99% of evolutionary history, just about the only way of learning (other than painstaking trial and error) was to emulate the people around us. If the guy next to you was more successful at hunting with a bow and arrow, it was worth taking a closer look at his technique.
You can do this informally. For example, if you have a target (eg sales) to hit at work, look at what the top performers in your company are doing. You can observe them and see what they do differently…or, even better, talk to them!
But the more powerful thing is to get a mentor who is on your side and who will share their time, experiences and knowledge with you. This is why all top sports people have coaches. This is particularly valuable when your progress levels off or you hit a sticking point.
I do coaching so you shouldn’t take my word for this. But maybe you should listen to Ericsson, a professor with tenure:
The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them.
Now for the most interesting parts from the film we saw above…the out-takes. From 4:27 onwards, the curtain is lifted on the filming process and we see what it took to achieve the finished product. We see Danny take calculated risks, “fail” repeatedly and get up again and get better.
This is what deliberate practice looks like in top level mountain-biking. Its not for the faint-hearted. As an amateur mountain biker, I bow the fuck down when I see it.
The good news is that deliberate practice is much easier (and safer) in personal finance. But it still involves effort. The question is…are you prepared to do the work?