Ego-Boxing

Cliff Asness at AQR has an amazing skill that I’d like to name “ego-boxing.”

Some people have delicate egos that easily bruise. If they so much as get looked at sideways, they’re all but headed for the hospital for treatment. That’s not Asness.

Asness doesn’t just want to put his ego in play, he wants it to take shots. Head shots, body shots, shots that make you say, “not in the face!” Asness is in the game for the fight itself.

For that, I greatly admire him.

If you’ve ever seen / heard him talk, you know just how smart, funny, and opinionated he can be. What perhaps separates him from your average genius though, is his professional treatment of his ego.

Recently, two papers published within his own firm directly challenged some of the ideas that he himself has been a vocal proponent of for years. He proceeded to highlight them in his own blog celebrating the work.

My favorite thing about science is that it rejects certainty. The only truth is that anything and everything is certain to be wrong to some degree. Don’t ask me why I find that so comforting.

As is the great tradition of science, if you can accept that nothing really is sacred, then you can be an ego-boxer. You have to be willing and able to take a hit, and you have to be willing and able to punch back. Beyond that, you also have to be driven to learn and improve along the way. Often times that training includes learning lessons the hard way too.

It’s not for the faint of heart to put your life’s work on the line for the best and brightest to attempt to destroy day in and day out, but that is seemingly his mission in life. With a Ph.D. to non-Ph.D. ratio of 54% at AQR, there’s a lot of good boxers in that gym.

What is perhaps most envious, is that the environment allows them to watch logic evolve in front of their eyes. By constantly challenging each other, in a non-academic (not exclusively at least) / practitioner setting, there are real world stakes on the table. They’re not just fighting in their gym, they’re taking on the world.

Maybe it’s the humbling nature of markets, maybe it’s just his personality, but Asness has become one of those rare finance individuals who transcends topics and how we all think about them. Whatever it may be, being able to watch him ego-box at the highest level is a gift for us all to watch.

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