When I look back and think about the things that make me the most proud of what I have accomplished over my life, each memory can be directly attached to some specific obstacle I had to first face and then overcome to achieve an important goal. In mentoring another trader this morning, I was thinking about this and an important lesson I learned back in high school. If you don’t mind, I thought I would share the lesson with you as I think it is instructive.
When I was younger there not much more than I desired than to pummel anyone I competed with on the golf course. My competitive spirit and energy was focused on being one of the best golfers not only in our high school division, but within the entire state as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much natural talent or skill so I had to really work hard for each victory.
I recall there was a match in particular that I wanted to win more than any other. The guy and his team I was competing against were the nastiest, most despicable creatures I ever met on the golf course. They were rude, obnoxious, ego maniacs who did just about everything they could to upset you including laughing at poor shots, stepping on putting lines, conveniently coughing during swings, and other assorted unsportsmanlike conduct.
Unfortunately for me and my team, they also had the skills to back up their behavior and they were considered the best in our division and were unbeaten.
Facing a critical approach shot on the last hole in which I was tied evenly with my competitor, I was had a daunting 3-iron shot 220 yards over water into a well-protected green on a long par 5. While my tee shot was perfect, my competitor previously stepped up and hit a terrific shot into the green in two (10 feet away from the pin) and I had to hit a similar shot to have any chance of winning the match. The problem was that I despised hitting my 3-iron. It was the very club I was least confident with and I avoided using it whenever possible. In fact, I never even practiced with the 3-iron as I was that uncomfortable hitting the ball with it.
Much to my chagrin, the yardage I had left into the green provided no other choice but to hit that 3-iron. Other clubs would have me hitting over the green into a big pot bunker or too short in the water that protected the front of the green. Since my competitor was already on the green in two and had a relatively easy putt for a win, I could not lay up and take the easy way out either.
After taking a few practice swings, I gulped and then proceed to snap hook the ball so much that it went screaming out of bounds and could never be found. I was so upset by what I had done that I then proceeded in a fit of range to chuck that 3-iron into the pond. Not only did I lose the match and the entire tournament for my team, but I became just like my enemy – a spoiled sport and loser. And, of course, to make matters even worse, my golf coach, my entire team and beloved Father were watching the whole debacle unfold from the green.
I was so upset that I stormed off and told my father to take me home and we didn’t speak a single word the entire way. I was so very disappointed in not only that I lost, but I let everyone down and also enabled those bastards get the better of me!
The very next morning Coach pulled me aside before our team meeting and asked me where my 3 iron was. I told him in a snarky manner, as if he didn’t already know the answer already, that it was still back in the pond. He then told me that if I was going to play again for his team that I first needed to go fish it out and bring it to him.
On the next very next team practice, Coach started out by asking me again for my 3-iron. I then proudly pulled it out of my bag and handed it to him after diving into a muddy pond filled with moss, mud and other lively reptiles which I considered both cruel and unusual punishment. Coach then took one look, handed it back to me, quickly grabbed my golf bag away and said to me in a not too happy voice…
“Son, I am going to teach you to love that 3-iron. For the next three weeks, you are benched. Instead, in every practice and in every round, every single shot you take will be only with this 3-iron. At the end of the three weeks, if you can’t show me you can hit that thing like a PGA pro, you are going to stay benched for the rest of the year!”
At first I thought Coach had it in for me and was just trying to punish me for losing the match. With the exception of that final hole blowup, I was playing quite well and this was going to screw up my game not to mention hurt my team. However, I still trusted Coach enough to know I needed to do what he told me if I was ever going to play for him and the team again. You see, Coach realized that I do what many people do which is that I avoided playing and practicing with the 3-iron because I knew it was my weakness and when it mattered the most, I paid the price. Truthfully, I was completely unprepared and not skilled enough for that 3-iron approach shot and when the pressure was on, I choked.
At first I thought I was going to go crazy when practicing and playing with that 3-iron. I mean how do you hit a 3-iron 100 yards to a par 3 green, use it to blast out of a bunker or make a putt? It also didn’t help that I felt like a stupid idiot and those who played with me had far too much fun watching me hack around with it. But, slow and sure, after the three weeks passed, I learned how to hit the darn thing.
Although I would never admit it to anyone at the time, I also discovered enjoyment in learning how to play all sort of different types of shots with it. After hours and hours at what seemed like sheer torture, the 3-iron was no longer my obstacle but instead became an asset. And, in the process, I learned a life lesson that sticks with me some 25 years later. To this very day, that very same 3-iron sits in a corner of my office and every time I see it I remember the valuable lessons it taught me.
First and foremost, we cannot let our fears and weaknesses conquer us by simply avoiding them. Sooner or later, they will always catch up to us and hurt us if we let them. Looking back, I should have known that someday I would have to hit the 3-iron well and should have taken time to practice with it first so that I could do so when it mattered!
Second, I must say that when we screw up or choke as I did, we need to look at ourselves first and foremost to place blame and own up to it. Instead of having a fit of rage and throwing the 3-iron in the pond, I should have instead taken responsibility for not practicing with my 3-iron and preparing myself for that shot. In sum, I should have taken the defeat in stride, figured out what lesson I could learn from it, and used it as an opportunity to grow and get better. My reaction to the shot in so many ways was so much worse as it clearly showed the level of immaturity I see so often in traders who lose and look everywhere else but to themselves to why they were defeated.
Finally, when you have an obstacle in your way, the best way to overcome it is to make it your best friend. By focusing on nothing but hitting that 3-iron for three weeks, I actually learned to like hitting the club and, in turn, I hit it much better and consistently. Yes, it was uncomfortable at first, not a lot of fun, and required confidence in Coach and myself that it was the right thing to do, but in time the struggle I undertook created a skill that continues to help me play well to this very day.
In the markets, we all face numerous obstacles. For many of us, the biggest obstacle we face is ourselves and not the markets. For example, many of us trade in ways that sabotage our returns by avoiding mistakes, failure and whatever weaknesses we have instead of facing and owning up to them. However to thrive and succeed, we must always constantly work and challenge ourselves to face these obstacles and learn to enjoy the process of overcoming them. That’s what makes our journey in the markets so very rewarding!
In the end, it is never about the money you earn, but the lessons you learn and obstacles you overcome that will determine your success. The only question that remains for you is this – what obstacles are in your way today and, more importantly, what steps are you going to take right now to work on overcoming them?