Vision Improvement

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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.

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7 Responses to “Vision Improvement”

  1. ScottTrader says:

    If you want a a good .99 cent solution, and have an iphone, then “flight Control” game is probably as good as the expensive intelligym software for this type of training. I landed 547 planes earlier this week and boy did that accomplishment make me happy : )

  2. djcoyle says:

    Good suggestion — I’m downloading it now. (Look out, world — my next blog entries are going to be visionary!)

  3. ScottTrader says:

    Ha! Have fun. It’s a really devious game! Once you get up into +100 plus landings, the planes will speed up at times and scatter wildly if not on a set course by you. Plus, once the game senses that it’s got you on the ropes it will send it many planes very quickly.

    The game will sure heat up your pre-frontal cortex : )

  4. Daniel Bowers says:

    This entry strongly reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink. It talks about our subconscious talents of perception, starting with a true story of art experts who instantly detected a fake “ancient Greek” sculpture in split seconds, even though the scientific tests were fooled.

  5. Daniel,

    You frequently discuss things from the frame of childhood experiences that shaped later success, and it makes good sense biologically, but at how great of a disadvantage are those in older age brackets when myelin synthesis is less expeditious?

    Regards,
    Carson Boddicker

  6. djcoyle says:

    Good question (for most of us, it’s THE question). I think the answer has a couple dimensions.
    1) It depends on the skill. Many “simple” skills — which we can think of as straightforward circuits for hitting a golf ball or leaping on ice skates — are a lot easier to build when we’re younge. So if you are aiming to be world-class, the rule is quite clear: start early, or you’re behind. Other, more complex skills, like writing, or designing, or social skills, or anything we’d think of as “wisdom” — which we can think of as vast, interconnected network-like circuits — get better with time.
    2) That said, there are occasional encouraging exceptions. The golfer Y.A. Yang, for instance, who started at 18. Which raises a question: how much are those limits imposed by biology, and how much by the uphill psychology of starting “later”?
    3) Most of us don’t want to be world-class. We just want to get better than we are. And when it comes to getting better, we’re all on the same path.

  7. Ron says:

    Re: Aging and Myelin Synthesis
    Perception and attention are huge. I’m not convinced that the so-called limits to learning later in life have to do with a reduced physiological capability. I believe social and contextual factors are just as important or more important. Youth generally have more leisure time to actually devote to such things as sports and artistic pursuits, as compared to adults with their family responsibilities, work, community, etc. I think we also have to consider the opportunities for deep practice vs going through the motions, and the frequency of opportunity to practice. With kids, it is often long and frequent, while we adults often limit our involvement to weekly or Monday, Wednesday Friday (at best). Then there is the question of how intense the experience is. Many of us have to decompress or wind down in the first couple of days of a vacation to actually be present and leave the office behind. So what impact is that having on our attention and acquisition of a new skil during a normal working weekl? Maybe kids don’t face this barrier to the same extent. Or maybe they are better at getting into the zone through their more frequent practice. The point here is that ther is probably some threshold intensity that has to be reached to trigger the myelin response. Also, I think that mental practice is probably a significant factor. When my daughter was younger, she was very successful in competitive dance. In addition to formal sessions focused on specific corrections twice a week, she was also supposed to dedicate herself to at least a half hour of daily practice. We couldn’t get her to practice faithfully on her own at home, but then we would always hear her hopping and the little feet moving in rythem when she was in the bathroom upstairs, and eventually any time she was in a line up or waiting for someone or something. She could not keep the feet still! The point being she was practicing mentally and visually many times a day. Even when we as adults commit to learning a skill, I doubt that most of us are constantly mentally rehearsing it throughout the day, and transferring it to a willing and attentive sub-consicous that isn’t preoccupied with a million other things. There are lots of examples of people learning new skills later in life, and subject to health and accessibility to the necessary resources, I suspect that many dedicated retired folks will pick up the skill much faster than they would have in middle age prior to retirement. This would make a good study with certain novel skills and three different age groups with appropriate controls to match the groups on other factors. I’m optimistic that given sufficient opportunity, attention, motivation, corections and and practice, we too can aquire new skills and talents at a pace that will surprise us.

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