Vision Improvement

Vision is the greatest of talents, because it looks so much like magic. We see it in sports, when a basketball player surprises an entire arena by delivering a last-second pass to a waiting teammate. Or in business when a smart investor spots a tiny, vital pattern and leverages it to a massive advantage. Vision dwarfs other talents like accuracy, persistence, and strength because it operates on a higher plane. It changes the game by creating new opportunities where none existed.

When we see someone demonstrate great vision, we usually chalk it up to some innate quality. You have it or you don’t. Wayne Gretzky and Warren Buffett have it — they look at the world and they find a gap to exploit. (And I, who am equally unspectacular at hockey and investing, apparently don’t.)

But is that true? Are we stuck with the vision we’ve got? Or is it possible to improve?

One intriguing answer comes from new branch of sports science called perceptual training. These are scientists who spend their days putting special goggles on athletes with world-class anticipation and comparing them to normal folks, in order to see what’s different.

Their findings are fascinating, and consists of two simple facts:  it’s not about reflexes (it turns out pros and amateurs have roughly the same reaction times). Rather,  it’s about reading cues. The best athletes are skilled at decoding a set of signals that allow them to anticipate what’s going to happen. As this story in Wired puts it, regarding tennis:

What separated the pros from everyone else was the ability to pull directional information out of the early stages of a swing and therefore to predict a split second earlier where to head…. This means that an expert, who doesn’t have to wait until contact, has twice as long to move, plant his feet, and swing.

What’s more, the research shows this skill is learnable. Tennis players who spent a single day learning to read cues improved their success rate by 5 percent — quite a significant number for a few hours’ work. And like any newly built neural circuit, it soon gets stashed in the unconscious. As researcher Dr. Damien Farrow puts it, “they don’t even know that they’re doing it.”

This idea — that vision is learnable — makes a lot of sense. When you look closely at the biographies of people with great vision, you see a similar pattern. When Wayne Gretzky watched hockey on television as a kid, he used paper and pencil to make a record of where the puck went  in the course of a game — a perceptual map. When he was older, he practiced alone with a set of rubber cones, imagining the game and making passes to invisible teammates. He built his perceptual circuitry, bit by bit (just as Warren Buffett did by reading thousands of annual reports). This is why many good coaches, including John Calipari of Kentucky, have added perceptual training (like this program) into their programs.

I was thinking about Gretzky and Buffett the other night as I was reading The Big Short, the compelling new book by Michael Lewis. It’s the story of a handful of investors who, unlike everyone else in the world, actually anticipated the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. At a time when 99.99 percent of investors zigged, they zagged. They had vision, they made the right move, and they made billions of dollars as a result.

What gave these guys the vision?  Two answers. First, their backgrounds had provided Gretzky-style training. These were not normal childhoods: one investor’s idea of youthful fun was combing the Talmud for errors; another was an obsessive loner who far preferred numbers to people. Second, they had the ability to read large meaning into small cues. When they encountered a tiny but vital data point — like the Mexican strawberry picker who had obtained a loan to buy a $750,000 home — they knew what it meant for the larger picture. And they acted.

Obviously there are differences between making a brilliant hockey pass and earning billions in the stock market. But I think there are some similarities, too. Specifically, three lessons:

  • Define the perceptual component of a skill, and train it separately. One reason so few people have good vision is that they lump it in with all other skills. By breaking it out and working on it by itself, you enable yourself to train that decision-making circuit exactly as you would any skill.
  • Make long gazes, not short glances. In their research on rugby players, experimenters found that better players tended to look longer at potential targets. Interestingly, Lewis’s investors did the same thing. Instead of trying to take in every tiny piece of data, they stared deeply at a few and found out what they really meant.
  • Keep track of results. This seems titanically obvious, but it’s the kind of obvious thing that most people don’t actually do. Developing vision is about trying to predict the future. If you don’t record the data — how each of your predictions turned out — you won’t have the feedback it takes to improve.