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Dorn: So You Think You Can Trade?

Friday, 26 Dec 2008 | 9:48 AM ET

You can have anything you want if you want it desperately enough. You must want it with an exuberance that erupts through the skin and joins the energy that created the world… Martha Graham (1894-1991; fierce, innovative dancer and choreographer)

OK — I fudged the title of this post from the TV series called “So You Think You Can Dance?”

Having been a dancer since age 5, I actually thought I could dance! That was before I watched these amazing young dancers battling it out week after week; one by one, falling down, getting up, getting safe and getting booted. The field continues to narrow until, one day soon, the winner will be chosen. These people have talent, training and experience. So what separates the winners from the losers? Passion, commitment and discipline. That is what separates the winners from the losers in dancing, life and trading.

Why do so many people think they can do something with confidence, courage and competence when they cannot? The so-called overconfidence bias and other cognitive (thinking) biases are topics for another day. Today, I would like to focus on the Learning Ladder of Trading.

One day, you get up and realize that you are in a dead-end job, and just sick and tired of being sick and tired. Your buddy has been trading the markets for a few years and doing OK…not great...but getting by. Your buddy's buddy just set up a trading account, paid thousands for software, books and courses, but is not making any money. In fact, he has lost half of his initial stake. Yet, you hear others touting returns of 100-1000 percent gains a year, and the siren call of greed coupled with the idea that if they can do it, you can do it better, is too tempting to resist. I mean, how difficult can it be? You just buy the right books, get the best software, go to the right seminars, subscribe to the hottest newsletter, and--with the click, click of your mouse--buy low and sell high or buy high and sell higher or sell high and buy lower. No problem. Piece of cake.

So, you announce to your family that you are going to quit your job, become a full time trader, monies will flow effortless into your account and everything is going to change. It all seems so easy, and the seminar people are doing it, so why can't you. You are just as intelligent as the next guy.

This type of thinking borders on the delusional. Just as one cannot wake up one day and announce that one, without any formal education training (including the school of hard knocks) is going to start practicing law or medicine, one does not become a proficient trader overnight. Get over yourself, because it just isn't going to happen.

No matter how many bells, whistles, indicators, seminars and books with which you surround yourself, you have to pay your dues. You must learn that that piece of cake needs to be converted into humble pie, and that the most-successful traders got that way by first getting a Ph.D. in losses.

Trading is simple, but it is not easy. Trading is a skill and an art that takes time, patience, perseverance and courage. Successful trading and investing are skills, which combine both art and science. In order to achieve and master these skills, one must progress on a path, which is mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. For many, this is the most difficult journey ever taken. Start where you are, and understand that it is about the process, that it takes time and that the rewards are worth it if you just keep going with passion. Without passion, why bother?

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure… Colin L. Powell

Every trader must climb the four rungs of the Ladder of Learning, and must do this one step at a time. You cannot skip a step, but if you let your guard down, do not continue to study and practice, you can and will fall down a step or two.

What do I mean by the Ladder of Learning and the four steps? In this case (and putting other learning theories and the neuroanatomical bases for them aside for now) I am referring specifically to the four stages of trading competence:

Somewhere in your make-up, there lies sleeping, the seed of achievement which, if aroused and put into action, would carry you to heights such as you may never have hoped to attain… Napoleon Hill

(1) Unconscious Incompetence: You don't know that you don't know, and you don't know what you don't know, a.k.a. ignorance is bliss.

At this stage of your trading, you are not aware of the existence of, or need for, specific trading skills. You don’t know what you don’t know, including that you have any deficiencies (since you don't know that there are any specific trading skills). Denial may come into play here as well, as you may think that such skills are unnecessary or not useful, and all you have to do is to subscribe to a service or hotline, or jump on the next "hot" pick and money will come rolling into your account. In order to move to the next stage, you most overcome your denial and become consciously aware of your incompetence. Without taking this next step, you will not progress and no new skill will be acquired. There will be no learning. The next step is:

(2) Conscious Incompetence: You know that you don't know, but you are not entirely sure what you don't know.

At this stage, you become aware that trading is a skill, which exists, which is practiced by many and is relevant to your success. You also become aware of your deficiencies in this area by attempting to trade or practicing how to trade. This is the stage in which you begin to figure out how much you don't know. Successful traders will, at some point during this stage of the learning process, make a commitment to learn. They will make a commitment to study, to be teachable and to practice, practice and practice until you know what you don’t know. Now, you are ready to progress to:

(3) Conscious Competence: You know what you know, and you can trade, but you have to think about it.

During this stage, the skill of trading can be performed reliably, consistently and at will. However, you have to concentrate a lot, and think a lot, in order to do it. It is not second nature, nor is it automatic. At this stage, you are open totally to more learning, but you are not able to teach anyone else how to do it. The only way to proceed from this stage to the final stage is to practice more and more until— eureka — one day you have reached the stage of:

(4) Unconscious Competence: You know how to do it, and don't have to think about it. You just do it.

At this stage, the act and process of trading consolidates within the memory and pattern recognition areas of your brain…it becomes second nature. If you are really good at it, you can trade and do other things at the same time (I do not recommend this, however). Certain people at this stage are capable of teaching others, but this is not universal. In fact, it may be more difficult to teach at this stage since the skill has become largely instinctual. It is at this stage when, if someone asks you how you knew to do that, you have to pause, think and say, "I don't really know. I just did it." This is trading mastery.

There is another, final and rarely-discussed stage that is called Conscious Unconscious Competence. Those who have reached this stage are the best teachers, and they are rare and difficult to find. Find one of these people to guide and support you if you really want to learn how to trade.

Champions execute the fundamentals with unconscious competence. That means they've practiced the moves so many times in the past that they can do them almost perfectly without thinking about it. When you can perform brilliantly without thinking, you can perform at a very high level…June Jones (Head Football Coach, University of Hawaii Warriors)

Thanks and Good Trading!

- Janice

Janice Dorn, M.D., Ph.D.
www.thetradingdoctor.com

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Janice Dorn, M.D., Ph.D., is a financial psychiatrist and chief global risk strategist for Ingenieux Wealth Management in Sydney, Australia. She also offers trading consulting and coaching services via her Web site, TheTradingDoctor.com.

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