What are your Piano Scales?

piano keys

In Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World recently penned by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, Cowen suggests a simple interview question that I’ve been obsessed with ever since I read it several weeks ago:

“What is it you do to practice that is analogous to how a pianist practices scales?”

The answer that immediately came to mind was from much earlier in my career as a budding developer and equities trader in the 2000s: I switched to a computer keyboard without labels on the keys. This change forced me to become a better and faster typist because I was wasting time glancing at the keyboard to find a key. This decision has paid off: the efficiency gains have compounded over the years by, I believe, permanently tilting my productivity curve upwards.

Although I still use the keyboard, that response no longer seems sufficient. Now that I’m managing developers and not writing a ton of code, what are my current “piano scales” that I practice to get better at leading teams? It’s a puzzling question for my present role.

As my obsession persisted, I started presenting Tyler’s question to various folks that I interact with regularly to see how they answer it. I started by giving my team of developers a few days to prepare before we discussed it in our weekly meeting. I asked my good friend Dallas, a successful high-end custom jeweler; the eccentric CEO that I report to at Trade-Ideas; the co-founder and trading coach of a proprietary trading firm; a partner in the private equity space; the lead engineer at a sports technology company; and, of course, I asked Tyler Cowen himself. The responses were as varied as they were interesting.

Tyler Cowen

In classic fashion, Tyler Cowen responded to my email within a couple of hours. “Writing every day. Debating arguments every day. Shooting basketball when the weather allows!” Having followed Tyler’s work for some time I could have guessed the first two, but shooting baskets was a surprise. He said basketball was physical activity and a way to clear his head, but “it also teaches me that I can be doing something for a long time and still be bad at it!”

Dallas Pridgen

I was particularly looking forward to hearing Dallas’ response. Although he downplays his success, Dallas Pridgen Jewelry is well known and he often is commissioned to make custom pieces for movie productions where a trinket plays an important role in the plot. His response to the question was immediate and confident: “I don’t do anything like that: I just do it.” At first, I thought he was skirting the question – surely he practiced countless hours over the years to master his craft. The more I talked to him and thought about the unique projects he’s told me about over the years, I realized that the real value that Dallas provides is not the literal metalworking in making a piece of jewelry – it’s his original design for each piece that uniquely commemorates a moment or relationship. The “piano scales” for Dallas’ work is the process itself and the experience of designing each project continually expands his capacity for future designs.

Joan Mabe

My wife is a vigorously competitive person having coached herself to a long career as a professional runner culminating in an Olympic team. She’s now a prominent high school coach in Chapel Hill with multiple state titles. I was particularly interested in her unique “piano scales” during her time as a competitive runner. She quickly responded with “a running log with the red miles highlighted.” What she described was very different than the modern, automated process of tracking runs with a GPS watch on Strava. Each day she kept precise details of all aspects of her hard workout days and easy recovery runs. The “red miles” were the intentionally hard miles – an interval workout or race – and were tallied separately. The real meat of the log, though, was recording how her body responded to the red miles, constantly gauging the tradeoff between maximal fitness and injury. She credits her extreme attention to her body’s reaction to workouts to her long, injury-free, successful running career.

The Development Staff at Trade-Ideas

Programming software lends itself well to the piano scales question so I was looking forward to this discussion at our team meeting. Phil, the most senior developer in the group, described doing small programming tasks using newer languages that he wanted to be more proficient with. He regularly creates small demos for no other purpose than his own practice and learning. For example, he created a Javascript demo of a ball bouncing around in a room in three dimensions. Another developer, Tim, enjoys “pair programming” where one developer partners with another to share screens and simultaneously code in the same file. Seeing how another proficient developer tackles a technical problem is often very enlightening and the learning goes both ways even when one programmer in the pair is significantly less experienced. Ron, an experienced developer, regularly enters programming contests online to keep his skills current and sharp.

Todd Bolon

My friend Todd is a partner at a private equity firm. He took an uncharacteristically long time to respond to my email – further evidence of the difficulty of the question.

“I think I don’t like to practice – I like to learn by doing and will do the minimum of practice (e.g., school) to get where I want to be.  Maybe that has influenced where I have gone with my career – things that you can get good at by doing is where I ended up.”

Although Todd has deep technical experience, he has long since leveled up to consulting with leaders of companies who are managing technical organizations. This is several layers removed from a specific craft that would lend itself to improvement by the direct, deliberate practice of piano scales.

Mike Bellafiore

Mike is the founder of SMB Capital, a successful proprietary trading firm in NYC. I know from my years as an automated strategy trader that if there is ONE group that has internalized deliberate practice as a requirement for success, it’s traders. Having mentored many traders over the years in his firm, Mike made an interesting observation:

“The scales probably should be different based on experience. Experienced traders would have a shorter list of scales that take less time. Newer traders would need to do more thorough scales and more of them until they build more skill.”

I can confirm this idea as I think back on my improvement arc as a trader over the years. I’ve kept a thorough trading journal to keep score of my trading strategies for years and it’s been critical for success. Mike also rattled off several other routine practices he recommends for new traders: pre-market prep, a daily report card, categorizing trades by style, mindfulness training, optimizing workflows with technology, and collaborating with other traders.

Brett Steenbarger

Brett is a long-time trader and trading coach and has worked with some of the biggest names on the street. He’s written several popular books on trading performance, all of which easily made the cut for keeping as I culled my bookshelf recently (it was a high bar!). For traders, he recommends reviewing the trading day with not just a simple summary but a bar-by-bar replay. Similar to a football team reviewing game film, he suggests recording your screen and replaying it after hours. You’ll discover things you didn’t notice in the heat of the moment and you’ll start to understand ways you can improve that just aren’t possible without this extremely detailed approach.

Hans Weber

Hans is the VP of Research and Development at SMT, a sports technology company in Durham, NC. Although it took him a while to respond, his answer resonated with me. He makes a point at least twice a year to sit alongside each person involved in the company’s product flow. As he does this he’ll mentor people, see how interactions with clients might be changing, and understand how various workflows are working and if there are opportunities to improve them. Becoming truly in tune with all the pain points in the organization allows him to create ways for R&D to make things more efficient and enjoyable for everyone in the company.

Anonymous CIO

I asked a CIO of a large software development firm in the Research Triangle. She leads an organization of over 1000 software developers. When I asked her about her piano scales, she paused for a few seconds to think of an answer. She decisively responded that the most important part of managing a large organization is listening and having empathy. Having realized this early on, she focuses on this skill every day to cultivate and improve it in herself and the people that work for her.

What Should MINE Be?

I love this question because, like me, so many feel like they should have an immediate and ideal answer but the more you think about it the more puzzling it becomes. Asking others has helped me examine my own systems of improvement in different ways than I otherwise would have.

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