Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Zulu Principle

More Thoughts on Expertise
by GM Nigel Davies

I think I have a solution, something I ‘knew’ about before but the memory of which got buried beneath the rust. The problem with achieving mere ‘expertise’ is that it doesn’t necessarily give you an edge, an area of your game or field where you are a world leader. Some ‘experts’ got their reputations by being a leader at one time, but didn’t maintain this edge. Others got their reputations by being reputed to be leaders, but in fact they just talked a good game. I liked Larsen’s honesty in ‘How to Open a Chess Game’ that he was never the ‘expert’ he was reputed to be in openings like Alekhine’s Defence. But he was the only GM who was playing them, so relatively speaking he was the best.

This is not my idea, in fact I know of three sources in the chess world and one in investment. Tony Miles once advised me that it didn’t matter too much what someone played as long as they knew more than anyone else. This echoed Lev Alburt’s advice in ‘Test and Improve Your Chess’ in which he advised studying a few positions in great depth. It’s even there in Kotov’s ‘Think Like a Grandmaster’ in which we are advised to know ’something about everything and everything about one thing’ in the openings.

In the field of investment Jim Slater’s ‘Zulu Principle’ was based around knowing more than anyone else about a particular company, but there’s no reason it should be restricted just to that. There are plenty of niche areas and approaches in markets, but the ‘trick’ is to know one of them better than anybody rather than be able to do nothing more than be able to hold a conversation about them. Of course if you do know them better than anyone then it’s probably wise to keep your mouth shut. Knowledge shared can mean an edge gone, unless of course you share with those who will help you to maintain and improve your edge.
So now I realize my mistake, I’m an ‘expert’ without an edge on a gradually descending plateau. How can I get off? Well to be a leader it’s not enough to read books.

Tom Ryan counters:
With all due respect I suggest you are confusing expertise with competitiveness. Last night for example while swimming, despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter -I am just swimming for my health, but you know how these things go - I did notice this guy two lanes over who was lapping me while I was chopping away for 2000m. Subconsciously you always wind up trying to synchronize yourself with the faster swimmer in those situations but I couldn’t keep up with him. When I got up out of the water at the end of my workout I found that I was swimming mentally against a 22 year old. Now I may be an “expert” in freestyle after 30 years but that doesn’t mean I can compete with a 22 year old who is in great shape. I could do two sessions a day in the pool for six months and still never out swim that guy, I am in my mid-40s for pete’s sake! FOC Ming Vandenberg tried to get me to race her in the pool two years ago and I just laughed, as if I could stuff myself silly at Tony’s place, then eat like a horse at Vic and Susan’s for two days and go out with FOC Tim Melvin and Wiz on Saturday night then the next day jump in the pool and race someone 25 years my junior. How would we handicap that one? But compared to you, in the pool I am the “expert”.

On the other side of the equation, we have all experienced people who are competitive, but yet, are not experts. For example in martial arts it is possible, and I have seen, people who perform well in competition, at least in the initial rounds, because they have honed a small “bag of tricks”. But of course once the trick is observed and they run up against someone who has more knowledge and skill they lose, because they have nothing to fall back on.
Not being a chess GM, I can’t comment on aging and competitiveness in chess. However the problem with the analogies between chess and trading is that chess is a head-to-head competition, whereas trading is a statistical game against a huge field of players where you have to be better than a certain % of the field, not every single other person. And in trading you can walk away when you are one piece up, whereas in chess the only way out is to withdraw or win. 0 or 1. There is a lot of money in trading between the 0 and the 1. Trading is not a single elimination tournament, well it needn’t be anyway unless you get carried away with margin. Good discussion!

GM Davies clarifies:
Maybe I am ‘confusing’ or ‘melding’ the two, but are you very sure I’m wrong to do so in fields such as chess and short term futures trading? The number of people who are ’successful’ (i.e. win money overall) is so small that most experts, by your broader definition, will be losers. I also disagree with your definition of chess success being defined as a simple win/loss - it is similar to trading in that there are a certain number of prizes and you need to finish in the top few places to get one of them. Then deduct the frictional costs of getting to the tournament and you need to be really good to have a chance to make money overall.
How does one get really good? This is where I maintain that the goal must be to do ’something’ better than anyone else as a way of bootstrapping oneself above the mere ‘experts’.

Tom Ryan adds:
I think the more relevant point which you have already alluded to is that in a competitive environment you have to find, and constantly be searching for ways (plural) of staying sharp and developing your ‘edge’ or your ‘focus’ or your ’shape’. That’s a tough one although I think there is certainly value in practice, practice and more practice. But that’s not exactly the same as being knowledgeable above and beyond others in a subject. For example, we have all manner of really bright, smart, engineers and geologists on the Spec List who are experts on various facets of the work, statistical analysis of data, 3-d modeling etc., but who can’t pull it all together to make a decision about where to drill or what slope angle to use or how far apart the pillars should be.

In the posts between you, me and Spec List member Scott that didn’t make it to the this website, I was trying to make a distinction between ‘expertise’ and ‘mastery’…sure its syntax but it’s a subtle and I think important difference. Expert is sort of a relational context whereas mastery goes beyond and supersedes that. Really, anyone who knows more than me in a certain field and who can impart that wisdom to me so that my game improves, that person is an expert to me…even if they are not to you. But that doesn’t mean they have mastered anything. To me mastery is where something gets to the point where the art/skill just simply becomes a part of you - there is no longer any notion of doing/not doing, achieve/not achieve, as there is no peak to stand on top of. You just walk the path and keep walking and keep walking and keep … It just simply internalizes to the point that it’s part of who you are.

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