I was introduced to the teachings of Josh Waitzkin originally in Tools of Titans, and subsequently in 3 Tim Ferriss podcasts where Josh was interviewed (my notes on two of these interviews here).
Josh is the most versatile learner I’ve ever read about or listened to, applying learning principles to master three seemingly disparate disciplines: chess (International Master); Tai Chi Push Hands (World Champion); and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (black belt training under Marcelo Garcia). The Art of Learning, published in 2008, covers Josh's process through the first of those two. A lot of ground is covered - my book notes are below.
The learning principle that resonated with me the most is that of total and complete presence. Josh’s chess game stepped up when he learned to successfully cultivate mindfulness to stay at the razor’s edge of the present moment and to be one with flow of the game.
Within competitive dynamics, one example of a common challenge is 'sunk cost fallacy': you have an advantage over an opponent, but then lose your ground & the playing field levels. Human tendency is to cling to the comfort of the former position and seek to regain it, but the way we do this is often by employing increasingly reckless maneuvers. I distinctly remember tennis games of my youth slipping away from me when I exhibited this behavior. Of course the best response is to let go completely & stay in the flow of the game.
Here’s Josh describing this phenomenon in one of his interviews:
Let’s say the position changes, you move from having a slight advantage to a slight disadvantage. But you’re emotionally still connected...attached to having the slight advantage. Then what’s sort of happening is you’re stopping. Your dynamic quality is becoming static. But the timeline of the position is continuing, the game is continuing. And what’s going to happen then is you’re going to subtly reject positions that you should accept. And you’re going to stretch for positions or evaluations that you can’t really reach. And you’re going to fall into a downward spiral. So that’s the onset of a cognitive bias. In that case, the cognitive bias would relate to, the emotional clinging to a past evaluation.
This phenomenon has broad applicability in everyday interactions as well.
Last week I attended a group discussion with about 20 people. Someone made a remark that I thought in my head ‘I have a great response to this!’, and was suddenly snapped out of the present moment looking for the space to slot in my thought. I was clinging to the past - the discussion had moved on - rather than staying in the flow, and as a result became distracted & missed a few minutes of dialogue. In that moment I was less present, & less effective.
This can occur in interactions all the time - we spend time thinking about rebuttals or points to make to satisfy our egos, rather than staying in the flow of the moment and listening.
Cognitive biases around ego and sunk costs affect us in so many aspects of our lives. So often spoken or written words are influenced by what I feel I should be saying, rather than what is in its purest sense authentically flowing out of me. Learning to be present and unraveling these biases is a crucial step in harmonizing the external and the internal.
"In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre"
Top performance in any discipline ends up more about mental training than physical or intellectual. This is where games are won and lost, where elite performers shine. Staying present is the ultimate tool at the top of any game, as Josh says, to "cultivate the ability to sense the most subtle ripples of human experience”.
The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.
The lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.
The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.
I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information - but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.
The great Abstract Expressionist painters…came to their revolutionary ideas through precise realist training. Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion. He studied form to leave form.
Just as the yin-yang symbol possesses a kernel of light in the dark, and of dark in the light, creative leaps are grounded in a technical foundation.
There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down.
Phaedrus liberates the girl from her writer’s block by changing the assignment. He asks her to write about the front of the opera house outside her classroom on a small street in a small neighborhood of that same dull town.
The theme is depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.
You start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art.
Armed with an understanding of how intuition operates, we can train ourselves to have remarkably potent perceptual and physical abilities in our disciplines of focus. The key, of course, is practice.
In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.
Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line.
The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.
At LGE they had discovered that there is a clear physiological connection when it comes to recovery—cardiovascular interval training can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion. What is more, physical flushing and mental clarity are very much intertwined.
Interconnectedness - all experiences become richly intertwined by our new vision, and then new connections begin to emerge. Rainwater streaming on a city pavement will teach a pianist how to flow. A leaf gliding easily with the wind will teach a controller how to let go. A housecat will teach me how to move. All moments become each moment. This book is about learning and performance, but it is also about my life. Presence has taught me how to live.
Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their initial gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration.
First, we cultivate The Soft Zone, we sit with our emotions, observe them, work with them, learn how to let them float away if they are rocking our boat, and how to use them when they are fueling our creativity.
Then we turn our weaknesses into strengths until there is no denial of our natural eruptions and nerves sharpen our game, fear alerts us, anger funnels into focus. Next we discover what emotional states trigger our greatest performances. This is truly a personal question.
Then Make Sandals, become your own earthquake, Spike Lee, or tailing fastball.
In Making Smaller Circles we take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Then we gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power, until we are left with an extremely potent and nearly invisible arsenal. In Slowing Down Time, we again focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. After training in this manner, we can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down. In The Illusion of the Mystical, we use our cultivation of the last two principles to control the intention of the opponent—and again, we do this by zooming in on very small details to which others are completely oblivious.
Champions are specialists whose styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths
We have our knowledge. It becomes deeply internalized until we can access it without thinking about it. Then we have a leap that uses what we know to go one or two steps further.
Imagine that you are building a pyramid of knowledge. Every level is constructed of technical information and principles that explain that information and condense it into chunks.
At a high level, principles can be internalized to the point that they are barely recognizable even to the most skilled observers.
Investing in Loss - giving up your current mindset & advantage, losing to win, getting pushed around for a little while so you can learn new lessons
Soft Zone - learning to flow with whatever comes
Making Sandals - to walk a thorny road, we may cover every inch with leather or we can make sandals. learning to recreate ideal settings for inspiration internally, not dependent on the external environment
Slowing Down Time - if your unconscious understanding of a discipline of choice has become sufficiently advanced, and you have learned to trust your physical and intuitive intelligence to handle the technical components of the moment, then your conscious mind can zoom in on very small amounts of data
Making Smaller Circles - condensing complex information into smaller and smaller chunks
Illusion of the Mystical - using slowing down time and making smaller circles to control the intention of the opponent by zooming in on very small details to which others are completely oblivious