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Confidence in execution: humility in the debrief. Syed article in the Times

Hello Traders,

It’s been a funny old year hasn’t it? I just looked back on my diary for the year. Normally I do no travelling during the months of August and October – I give them over to summer break/harvesting for the former, and trading for the latter. However this year, for the first time, I spent both of those months travelling for work/clients/opportunity. Can I read anything into that? Is that a sign of something to come? Who knows, time will tell. However it does give some insight into my lack of posts in the last 3 months.

Anyway back to todays theme – I was fortunate to read a fascinating article in the Times last week by the wonderful Matthew Syed: Why Johnny Wilkinson realised his potential and Danny Cipriani didn’t.

Matthew is a wonderful writer and manages to focus on some fascinating aspects of human behaviour, through the lens of sporting competition. However many of those lessons are applicable to all avenues of life, including trading. I heartily recommend you read his column.

So does greatness come from arrogance or humility? That is the question posed in his piece. He then begins to provide a fascinating series of insights and anecdtoes based on professional sportsmen, their own success and failures and whether they were attributed to confidence or humility. What we discover, quite rightly, is that there is a time and a place for both in the performance cycle.

What we learn is that confidence is required when looking to execute our plans – to have the self-belief to deliver in key moments. However what is also required is humility in the post event review to address our mistakes and weakness.

That confidence comes from preparation – being dedicated to putting in the hard work, the deliberate practice before the game / mission / trading session.

The humility is saved for the post event review/ debrief where we should be open to addressing our strengths and weaknesses, and looking at how to develop in the future. In high-performance environments there is a culture of debriefing to improve performance – however in many normal day-to-day experiences/roles/organisations there is not, for several reasons.

The ‘performance cycle’ can have many definitions. My simple definition has always been Plan. Execute. Review. (Also the first three letter of the word performance should you forget.) Actually one of the key skills is having the self-awareness and mental dexterity to be able to know what part of the performance cycle you’re in. Whilst you think this would be easy to recognise Syed provides many examples of individuals who brought the wrong attitude to the wrong part of the cycle. Something I can confirm from my own experiences.

I have met, seen and experienced many fighter pilots, fighter controllers, sportsmen, salespeople, traders, entrepreneurs who were lazy in preparation, humbled in execution and arrogant in the debrief!

In the old days of the fighter-pilot business it used to be first one back to the bar, and the one with the loudest/most assertive voice would win the debrief, regardless of what may have happened in the exercise/operation. This did not always give the best insight into a team or individuals strength, weakness and performance!

I have seen with my own eyes where it actually dissolved into fisticuffs round the back of the building post-debrief. (I once heard a Tornado F3 pilot getting stoved-in by a couple of his mud-moving brethren for being a talentless arrogant prick. I had to agree with their assessment of his character. What I learned was that very often such individuals are so thick-headed, and so lacking in self-awareness, that they only way to get the message through to them is with a good portion of knuckle sandwich.)

Thankfully technology has developed to such a level that nowadays Air Forces are able to accurately replay a mission and derive the truth, and the training value. There is no hiding place. This can be humbling in the debrief when see that your actions may have contributed to failure of the mission, or the death of colleagues. I can talk from personal experience that it is a sobering event, and drives a period of self-reflection. And it’s how you respond to that which will determine your success or failure in the future.

When I worked in the City it used to drive me up the wall that the companies I worked for would never conduct any kind of review/debrief process after any project, promotion or loss of client etc. People always said they were too busy for a debrief and that business moved too fast to make a point of debriefing. It’s where I truly got to understand the saying “success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan” as individuals tried to steal credit and then ignore mistakes. And then they would wonder why the organisation would keep wasting time and resources making the same mistakes again and again! Grrrrrrrrr!

I have had the pleasure to work with traders who have demonstrated impeccable knowledge and respect for the performance cycle. It’s a joy to behold. Sadly I have also seen many who happily ignore it and just focus on executing their trading system- and then wonder why they struggle!

So what comes through from exposure to great performers and their ability to consistently deliver is this:

Dedication in preparation. Self-assurance in execution. Humility in the debrief.

That is the great message to take away for traders. Ask yourself: are you like that in your own trading?

Syed finishes with the idea that it is having the mental dexterity to switch between the phases of the performance cycle which may be the key to unlocking those sports peoples greatness. I think there is definitely something we can all learn from that.

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