Thursday, March 15, 2007

Melinda Doolittle and the Mark of Greatness

My greatest interest as a psychologist--going all the way back to the days when I was a sophomore at Duke University sitting on a beach in Florida reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead--has been the phenomenon of greatness. By greatness I mean exemplary, elite levels of performance that stand head and shoulders above mere competence. When I wrote my most recent book, Enhancing Trader Performance, it wasn't simply to describe the ways of becoming more successful in the financial markets. Rather, I tried to capture the essence of what it means to be great at what you do.

The good performer performs well. Great performances, however, flow through the performer. It is as if a different self is at work. I've had those moments as a writer when I'll sit in front of a blank sheet of paper with a blank mind and suddenly begin writing...and writing...and writing. A few minutes later I'll look at what I've written in complete and total surprise, as if someone else has written it. "That's really good!" I'll think. But it's not like praising my own work. It's acknowledging the work that has just flowed through me.

Ed Seykota recognized this of the best traders. The good ones have talent, but for the great ones, the talent has them. It's the same with great artists and athletes. The talent takes over and the person becomes a vessel for the performance. The ability to channel performances through oneself: that is the mark of greatness.

All of which brings us to current American Idol participant Melinda Doolittle. For those of you who don't follow Idol closely, please take a look at Melinda's initial audition. She is quite nervous, and she is clearly uncomfortable taking center stage. (Her prior work has been as a backup singer). Every week since then, she absorbs the praise of judges with a look of disbelief. You can see that she doesn't quite buy it herself; she would be the last one to think of herself as great. When Simon gives her the positive feedback following her audition, you can see her normal personality: somewhat effacing, modest, and shyly engaging.

Then watch her on stage as she sings. It's as if a different person emerges. As the performance progresses, it completely takes over the normal Melinda. Then, shortly after the song is finished and she faces the judges, she returns to her usual self. This past week, Paula Abdul asked her what she was thinking when she was singing and, somewhat mystified, Melinda responded that she couldn't remember anything. It was, Paula suggested jokingly, an "out of body experience".

But Paula was right. Greatness is out of body, it is out of the normal self. It occurs when skills have become so developed that they are automatized. Think of the speed and reflexes of the young Muhammad Ali; the many times Michael Jordan would take over a basketball court; or--as I described in my book--the ballerina who, when photographed, performed the same leap precisely the same way each time.

When I come up with a trade idea, it may work and it may not. But when I've been watching the market for quite a while and an idea presents itself to me, it is almost always a winner. It is like Melinda's singing: so out of body that the ancient Greeks attributed the inspiration to divine forces: the Muses.

You may or may not like American Idol. But watch Melinda. It's not often that you see the mark of greatness in such bold relief. When you see what is possible, nothing less will suffice: the important thing in life is to find that arena of performance in which your talents and skills have you. Then you're not merely working a job or even a career: you're doing what you're meant to be doing.

Like Melinda.