“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.” – Josh Waitzkin #MondayMorningWakeUpCall
Few people can be the best in the world in one discipline. Even fewer can achieve this rare repute in 2 different disciplines. Josh Waitzkin is one such wonder who has become world class in 2 distinctly diverse disciplines, chess and Tai Chi.
Josh won the U.S. Junior Chess championship in 1993 and 1994. He is the only person to have won the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships in his career. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on his early life.
Added to his chess accolades he also holds several US national medals and a 2004 world champion title in the competitive sport of Taiji Push Hands (Taiji Tui Shou).
Josh however believes that what he is best at is not chess or Tai Chi – what he is the best at is The Art of Learning, and his book by the same name is the story of his method.
Here’s my interpretation and summary with excerpts of the key points to his method. Feel free to adopt, adapt and apply to become the best, or better than the rest of your circle of musicians, dancers, designers, actors, athletes, scientists, writers, philosophers and professionals, whichever your chosen discipline.
- LAY A FABULOUS FOUNDATION
Josh’s first lesson with Bruce, one of his earliest teachers, was anything but orthodox. They hardly studied chess, it was more about getting to know one another, to establish a genuine camaraderie.
Bruce’s core focus in the first months of study was that he nurtured Josh’s love for chess, and he never let technical material smother his innate feeling for the game.
Despite significant outside pressure, his parents and Bruce decided to keep Josh out of tournaments until he had been playing chess for a year or so, because they wanted his relationship to the game to be about learning and passion first, and a competition a distant second
- LOSE TO WIN
Entering the ‘Primary School National Chess Championship’ when Josh was 8, he was the ‘man to beat’. However, he lost in the finals to a little known rival and was devastated at coming so close to winning his first national championship and then letting it go.
His learning was that confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle.
He took a break and at a ripe young age of 8 questioned everything and decided to come back strong with a commitment to chess that was about much more than fun and glory. It was about love and pain and passion and pushing himself to overcome… and the following year he went on to become National Champion.
- DEVELOP THE CORRECT APPROACH TO LEARNING
The wrong approach: The entity theory of intelligence – Children who are “entity theorists”… that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to attribute their success or failure to ingrained and unalterable level of ability, see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Example, kids or people who are prone to saying “I am smart or talented at this”.
The right approach: The incremental theory of intelligence (learning theorists) – Children or people who are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder”. A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped and step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the zot (master)
Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, has shown that when challenged by difficult material, learning theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game, while entity theorists are more brittle and prone to quit. Hence the advice to parents and teachers (and even to yourselves) to praise the effort and not the outcome.
The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long term learning process.
- LOVE THE GAME
After Josh won his first National Championship, his chess life started gathering momentum. His passion for the game fueled a long ride of unhindered learning and inspired performance. From nine to seventeen, he was the top ranked player for his age in the country.
However, there were plateaus, numerous periods when his results leveled off while he internalized the information necessary for his next growth spurt, but he didn’t mind. Josh’s had a burning love for chess which helped him push through the rocky periods with a can-do attitude.
- ATTAIN YOUR SOFT ZONE: “LOSE YOURSELF”
Like all regular mortals, Josh had to deal with distractions in his game. This was compounded by the fact that from a very early age he had to stay focused under intense pressure on a game that could sometimes last as long as six to eight hours. A catchy tune could be enough to haunt him for days and throw him off balance.
In 1993, at sixteen, Josh had travelled to India to participate in the World Junior Chess Championship in Calicut. He was finding the surroundings difficult to acclimatize to and was struggling to find his flow in the first round match. Somewhere during the course of the match, he did find it and immediately after, there was an earthquake. While the earthquake shook everything, including his opponent, Josh experienced a surreal synergy, pure thought and awareness of a thinker. When play resumed he immediately made his move and went on to win the game.
The incident was the launching point of his serious investigation of the nuances of performance psychology. Staying calm amidst an earthquake had helped him reach and discover a higher state of consciousness. By systematically training yourself, you can do this at will.
The soft zone is the initial step along the path of achieving your state of creative flow. The nature of your state of concentration determines the phase of your reaction to the task at hand whether it be a piece of music, a legal brief, a financial document, driving a car, anything.
Through performance training, you first learn to flow with whatever distraction comes. Then you learn to use whatever distraction comes to your advantage. Finally you learn to be completely self-sufficient and create your own earthquakes, so your mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.
With systematic training you can learn to flow (lose yourself) with the distractions and embrace the difficulties that come your way, no longer letting them affect you detrimentally.
- BE COGNIZANT OF THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Games, deals and life battles are lost because of a shift in psychological advantage. The crucial trait that needs to be developed is regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error.
This is usually a hard lesson to grasp for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.
Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.
- FIND YOUR NATURAL VOICE
There was a period when Josh was training under a Russian Grandmaster who urged him to become more conservative stylistically. While Josh found this approach interesting, the effects of moving away from his natural voice (a creative, attacking player, who loved the wild side of chess) as a competitor disturbing. His strengths were moving out of reach and chess no longer felt like an extension of his being. This also resulted in his performance being uneven and, at times, self-defeating in competition
Josh believes 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.
In his experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities. He has found that in the intricate endeavors of competition, learning, and performance, there is more than one solution to virtually every meaningful problem. We are unique individuals who should put our own flair into everything we do.
- HAVE A BEGINNER’S MIND
Josh was at the zenith of his chess career when he left to pursue Tai Chi. The accolades he had earned in the chess arena meant nought in the Tai Chi arena. He was a beginner, a child learning to crawl all over again. Without the openness of a beginner’s mind to learn and an egoless attitude, it would have been impossible for him to scale the zenith in Tai Chi as well.
Even at the pinnacle, mastery is a constant learning experience. When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process.
- INVEST IN LOSS
Josh transitioned from a world class chess competitor to a novice Tai Chi artist. During his initial days of training he got smashed around particularly by another more experienced training partner, Evan. But soon a curious thing began to happen. First, as he got used to taking shots from Evan, he stopped fearing the impact. His body built up resistance to getting smashed, learned how to absorb blows, and he knew he could take what he had to offer. Then as he became more relaxed under fire, Evan seemed to slow down in his mind. He noticed himself sensing his attack before it began. He learned how to read his intention, and be out of the way before he pulled the trigger. As Josh got better and better at neutralizing Evans’ attacks, Josh began to notice and exploit weaknesses in Evans’ game, and sometimes he found himself peacefully watching Evans’ hands come toward him in slow motion.
Not much different from fighting life’s battles with the universe I guess.
Great professionals are willing to get burned, invest in loss, time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire… and of course, they don’t give up on the way to becoming The Greatest
- EMBRACE ADVERSITY
During the All Kung Fu Championships Finals in 2001 Josh had broken his hand. He didn’t show the injury, instead he fell into the rhythm with his opponent’s attacks and quietly fought with one arm. The National Championship was in 7 weeks. Against all odds of recovery, he trained with one hand during this period while his other hand recuperated before the championship which he went on to win
He says that in the finals, his broken hand made time slow down in his mind and he was able to reach the most heightened state of awareness in his life.
He says, “If I want to be the best, I have to take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to my advantage.” And “let setbacks deepen your resolve.” Throughout his career he sought out opponents who were a little stronger than him which made losing a part of his regular experience and helped maintain a healthy perspective even while he was winning all the championships
He says, “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.”
- MAKE SMALLER CIRCLES: DEPTH BEATS BREADTH
While honing his Tai Chi techniques, Josh focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving his hand a few inches, then releasing it back. Practicing in this manner he was able to sharpen his feeling for Tai Chi, he could translate it onto other parts of the form, and suddenly everything would start flowing at a higher level. The key was to recognize that the principles making one simple technique tick were the same fundamentals that fueled the whole expansive system of Tai Chi Chuan
The essence of this learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick
This principle applies to all fields. Players and professionals tend to get attached to fancy techniques and fail to recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned.
- SLOW DOWN TIME
Once Josh’s broken hand healed and the Nationals were over, the question on his mind was: how can I make time slow down without breaking a limb, recreate the control and experience of All Kung Fu Championships Final?
Focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. After training in this manner, you can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down and you can control the situation better to your advantage
- DICTATE THE TONE OF THE BATTLE
One of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline—whether we are speaking about sports, business negotiations, or even presidential debates—is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.
Cultivating the last 2 principles help to control the intention of the opponent by being able to zoom in on very small details to which the others are completely oblivious
Josh’s experimentation with intentionality began during his early chess years. Even as a seven-year old boy in scholastic tournaments, he sometimes lured his young opponents into blundering by 1) making a move that set a trap and then 2) immediately groaning and slapping his head. This over-the-top display would usually inspire a careless moment of overconfidence from his opponent which Josh would be quick to capitalize on. Over time, Josh gradually honed the art of mastering the ability to read his opponents by reading subtle nuances like breath patterns and blinks of the eye. The more you can understand a series of movements more deeply, in more frames, with more detail, the better you can manipulate your opponent’s intentions without him realizing what happened, thereby dictating the tone of battle.
- BE A MASTER TO YOUR EMOTIONS, NOT A SLAVE TO THEM
Anger. Fear. Desperation. Excitement. Happiness. Despair. Hope. Emotions are part of our lives. We would be fools to deny such a rich element of the human experience. But, when our emotions overwhelm us, we can get sloppy. If fear reduces us to tears, we might not act effectively in a genuinely dangerous situation. If we seethe when someone crosses us, we may make decisions we come to regret. If we get giddy when things are looking up, we will probably make some careless mistakes that turn our good situation upside down.
Josh often had to encounter opponents who would cheat, right from chess opponents who would try to distract him by going even as far as kicking him under the table or martial arts opponents who would play dirty. After losing the first few times to them he figured that getting angry was getting him nowhere. The first step was to recognize that the problem was his. That there would always be creeps in the world and he had to learn how to deal with them with a cool head. Getting pissed off would get him nowhere in life.
Once he recognized this he continually nurtured his mental resilience, arguably the most critical trait of a world class performer. He looked for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable, not by denying his emotions, but by learning to use them to his advantage.
Once you are no longer swept away by your emotions and can sit with them even when under pressure, you will probably notice that certain states of mind inspire you more than others. For some it may be happiness, for others it may be fear.
- CULTIVATE THE POWER OF PRESENCE
After intense periods of practice and competitions, especially during his chess years, Josh with his family, would often head off to the sea for a break, no matter what was happening in their lives. The boating life was a wonderful training ground for cultivating presence and the release of control. He learned at the sea that virtually all situations could be handled as long as presence of mind is maintained. On the other hand, if you lose your calm, when crisis hits seventy miles from land, or while swimming with big sharks, there is no safety net to catch you.
This also ties back in to mastering the ebb and flow of stress and recovery. The physiologists at LGE had discovered that in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line. This is why the eminent tennis players of their day, such as Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, had those strangely predictable routines of serenely picking their rackets between points, whether they won or lost the last exchange, while their rivals fumed at a bad call or pumped a fist in excitement.
The more you can let things go, the sharper you will be in the next drive.
In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire, is much what separates the best from the mediocre.
In the end…
We cannot calculate our important contests, adventures, and great loves to the end. The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain. Conditions might not be calm or reasonable. It may feel as though the whole world is stacked against us. This is when we have to perform better than we ever conceived of performing. Josh (and many other great minds like mine J) believe the key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration, to have laid the foundation for us to create under the wildest pressures we ever imagined.
Feel free to adopt, adapt and apply these tips and methods to your own professional and personal life to be better prepared.