Saturday, January 09, 2010

10,000 Hours of Practice

Many investors are impressed by Warren Buffett's ability to make an investment decision in 5 minutes. In a recent town hall meeting at Columbia University, a student asked which particular information does Buffett looks at to make an investment decision in 5 minutes. Buffett answered: "Well, it is basically 50 years of preparation and 5 minutes of investment decision."

And his answer struck me and brought me back to a chapter that I read in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book lies the ingredients for success. One of the ingredients is clocking 10,000 hours of practice just to attain a skill such that it functions as how your arms and legs do for you.

When we look at outliers like Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, or Roger Federer, it is so easy to assume they had it easy because they are cruising their way through competition and life. But the question is how did they get to where they are. All of them, in fact, devoted more than 10,000 hours of practice just to get the correct stroke, or basics, perfect. How many of us have the will and patience to do the same thing over and over again just to get a single subject perfect? And yet we envy them and think they had it easy, though it is undoubtable they have the innate talent for what they do. So even for the best in class need to put in tons of time and effort to get it right. How about the rest of us, the ordinary folks? All the more we should put in more time to get it right, even we can never get to the level of the outliers, but at least, we would end up in the top 10 or 20 percentile - to get an advantage over the others who don't devote time and effort who have the same innate capability.

Take for example, Berkshire's investment in the Coca Cola Co in 1988. Buffett has been a Cola drinker all his life - though he was a Pepsi drinker earlier in his life. He had been evaluating Coke all his life ever since he started buying 6-pack cans of coke and broke it up to sell for a dime each. For 50 years, he did not own a share of Coke - a period where he knows hell lots about what is tipping the advantage towards Coke's economic future. For instance, the advent of refrigeration caused a surge in Coke's sales volume in the 1960s. Beginning 1980s, with the opening up and growth of the Asian economies, Coke is bound to have a bigger share of the beverage market (international sales made up more than 50% of its operating profit today). It was only in 1988 that a sudden down shift in Coke's share price that Berkshire made a huge investment in Coke without much further evaluation because he knew all the factors that drove Coke's business and profit at the back of his hand with 50 years of knowledge. So that is basically the effect of "50 years of preparation and 5 minutes of investing decision."

Lack of patience is well evidenced when a young shareholder asked Charlie Munger how to follow in his footsteps to becoming rich. Munger responded: "We get these questions a lot from the enterprising young. It's a very intelligent question. You look at some old guy who's rich and you ask, 'How can I become like you, except faster?' Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day, at the end of the day - if you live long enough - most people get what they deserve."

In short, success is about continuous learning even after you get it right. The more you know, the less time you need to make a decision because you would have known most, if not all of the unnecessary information you would have looked at when you started and eliminate those from the decision process. Again, Munger pointed out that 10% of freight carries 90% of the weight. So to get to the level of making a decision in 5 minutes, we need to know which are the 10% of the freight and to arrive there, we need patience, and continuous practice and learning. In Munger's terms, building a latticework of mental models. So when someone tells you a short cut, there's no short cut. If it sounds too easy and good, it is most likely too good to be true.