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Josh Waitzkin’s story is a fascinating one, culminating in a book that surpasses any other writing in its insight into how a world champion is made.
Everyone in the chess world knew the name Josh Waitzkin by the time he earned the Chess Master designation at the age of twelve, somewhere in the middle of his eight national championship titles. Notoriety in the chess world then morphed into pop culture fame five years later with the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was based on Waitzkin’s life.
In seeking an escape from the inner turmoil caused by his child celebrity status, Josh stumbled upon the Tao Te Ching, and was drawn by the Buddhist and Taoist philosophies of inner tranquility. Pressing further into Tai Chi, he found that the methods he used in chess to convert techniques and theory into subconscious memory also worked in Tai Chi, and leveraged that knowledge into a Tai Chi career that overshadowed even his brilliant chess record, with 13 national championships.
The journey from king of the chess nerds to martial arts legend is astounding in itself, but the real story here is that Josh subsequently accomplished what few have done. In studying philosophy at Columbia, he began to unearth the foundation of the highest levels of learning, retracing his steps and breaking down a process that typically can only be grasped intuitively. The result is a book that explains in clear and practical terms what every grandmaster of every craft has known, but few have so eloquently expressed.
Josh sums up his method as “the study of form to leave form”; in other words, practicing technical methods with the express purpose of handing them over to the subconscious mind to become part of your intuition, or flow. This book is an outline of the incremental steps you can use to get there – a systematic, rather than haphazard, approach to learning.
My apologies for the length and density of this summary; this book is filled to the brim with the complexities of the secrets of world-class performance, and there was simply no way to maintain the integrity of the content in bullet-point lists. Good luck.
Part I: The Foundation
Chapter 1: Innocent Moves & Chapter 2: Losing to Win
Josh starts with a little more detail about his own story: a six-year-old who walked up to an old man with a chess board in the park, and took to chess so intuitively that he almost beat the guy in his first game. After a few months of Josh hustling the hustlers in the park, a chess master by the name of Bruce Padolfini heard about the young prodigy and offered to become his teacher.
Bruce had actually announced the famous 1972 metaphorical Cold War chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Boris Spassky. Josh’s father would later write the book Searching for Bobby Fischer, which led to the movie of the same name, inspired by his son’s life.
With a combination of Bruce’s technical coaching and street-style practice in the park, Josh became the highest-ranked player for his age in the country by the time he was eight. His meteoric rise was interrupted by a loss in the final round of the national championships, but after spending a vacation on the ocean and gaining some perspective on his shattered invincibility, Josh came back to win the first of his eight national championships.
Chapter 3: Two Approaches to Learning
Josh contends that the way most people learn, especially highly motivated people, is terribly wrong. To find the right approach to learning, there are two important questions: what are the factors that differentiate the few who make it to the top, and since most people never achieve that lofty goal, what is the point of trying?
Dr. Carol Dweck is famous for distinguishing between two mindsets of intelligence: “entity” and “incremental.” Many people are raised to believe the entity theory of intelligence, which is the belief that skill is an “ingrained and unalterable level of ability.” They use language like, “I’m a good writer,” or “I’m bad at math.”
In contrast, people who have internalized the incremental theory of intelligence say things like, “I did well because I put in the time,” or “I should have worked harder at this.” They understand that any concept can be grasped and mastered incrementally. (Dr. Dweck’s research is presented in more detail in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. )
When children associate success with effort, they develop what Waitzkin calls a “mastery-oriented response.” Children who see themselves as smart, dumb, good, or bad have a “learned helplessness orientation.”
In one experiment, researchers first identified each child’s theory of intelligence, then gave the group a series of math problems – first easy questions, which everyone solved, then problems that were above their level of ability.
The third round of questions was then as easy as the first. However, while the children with the incremental theory of intelligence dealt easily with the last round of questions, many children with the entity theory of intelligence struggled.
This experiment, sadly, is readily observable in real life, and the phenomenon can be just as damaging to the child who thinks he is smart as it is to the child who thinks he’s dumb. Highly intelligent people who unwittingly maintain their entity theory of intelligence are compelled to maintain the illusion of perfection. One of two things happens: either they begin to avoid doing anything that might challenge them, or at some point, they face a concept or subject matter that they can’t master immediately.
In the former case, they never challenge themselves, and simply stop learning. In the latter case, they crumble under the pressure they have built up for themselves and often have difficulty rebounding.
Well-intentioned parents often set their children up for failure by telling them things like, “You’re so good at reading!” or, “It’s OK, the math just isn’t your thing.” The child implicitly learns to link success and failure with ingrained ability.
To help their children develop an incremental theory of intelligence, parents can say things like, “You’re getting really good at reading! Keep up the good work!” or, “It’s OK, we just need to study a little harder, and you’ll do great on the next math test.” The good news is that it only takes a few minutes for children to develop an incremental approach for a specific situation. If children are given mastery-oriented instructions for a certain project, they will approach the project in precisely that manner.
“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.”
It is the span of discomfort between safe places that we grow.
“In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.”
A core part of the art of learning is being able to keep this perspective in the middle of the struggle.
The difference between entity and incremental theories of intelligence underlies the reason Josh increased in skill so quickly. Most young chess players begin their learning at the beginning of the chess game, learning complex opening variations so they can quickly crush their opponents with superior tactics and win the game and the glory. In contrast, Josh’s teacher began his training with only a king against a king and one pawn, moving to other individual pieces before working their way up.
While Josh learned the principles surrounding each individual piece, his rivals were learning how to win quickly and easily win with complicated strategies. The focus was on the glory of winning games and winning them in only a few moves. This is possible in the younger leagues of chess, but once players get a little older, their opponents are too skilled and the nature of the game changes. The young player is then left without a strong fundamental understanding. Unfortunately, coaches in the younger leagues are incentivized to win, and win now, not to build a solid foundation.
Chapter 4: Loving the Game
In this chapter, Josh discusses three foundational components of excellence. First, world-class performance requires that the individual develop a style that expresses the core of their being. Josh’s nature was to revel in chaos, so he expressed this core aspect of his personality in the styles he pursued on the chessboard. Because of his training, Josh was able to guide the game away from the structure his opponents preferred to a more chaotic situation where he could use his grasp of the fundamentals to win while his rival ran out of fancy strategies.
Secondly, there is a delicate interaction between celebrating success and falling prey to a results-oriented mindset. Someone who cares only about winning is setting themselves up for failure. However, this is not an excuse to pretend you don’t care about the results and avoid challenging yourself; short-term goals and competition are useful and necessary tools. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a win, so long as the spotlight is kept on the process. Josh puts it beautifully: “When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience.”
This chapter’s third point about excellence is similarly pithy:
“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”
Josh attributes his success to a constant state of leaping into the unknown, residing daily at the point of resistance. Of course, portions of the learning process will also be characterized by plateaus, when you are internalizing the information necessary for the next leap. Learning is a cycle between these two points, and stagnating at the midpoint leads only to mediocrity.
It is worth mentioning that in outlining these three foundational components of excellence, Josh also briefly touches on two other realities of world-class performance.
First, he emphasizes how he made it a practice to play against adults, which built skills that other kids didn’t have – so when he faced off against someone his own age, he had an advantage from having played in a different world. Secondly, he mentions how he often felt a state of complete normalcy in competition, even after making history by becoming a Chess Master a few days after he turned thirteen, five months earlier than Bobby Fischer:
“I’ll never forget walking out of the playing hall of the 1990 Elementary School National Championships after winning the title game. There were over 1,500 competitors at the event, all the strongest young players from around the country. I had just won the whole thing… and everything felt normal. I stood in the convention hall looking around. There was no euphoria, no opening of the heavens. The world was the same as it had been a few days before.”
Refer to The Mundanity of Excellence by Daniel F. Chambliss for more on the significance of these two factors.
Chapter 5: The Soft Zone – “Lose Yourself”
Josh transitions from describing the foundations of performance to outlining the learning process by telling the story of being in Calicut, India in 1993, representing the U.S. in the Under-21 World Championship. He describes his mental state as “disjointed, out of whack, not yet settled into the rhythm of the tournament… I had no flow, no inspired ideas, the pieces were alien, the position strange.”
Josh had been staring at the chessboard with no moves for twenty minutes. Then, he began to settle into a state of flow, letting his subconscious and intuition take over. Many of us will recognize the mental state that he describes:
“The mind moves with the speed of an electrical current, complex problems are breezed through with an intuitive clarity, you get deeper and deeper into the soul of the chess position, time falls away, the concept of “I” is gone, all that exists is blissful engagement, pure presence, absolute flow.”
Suddenly, as Josh was immersed in this kind of mental state, there was an earthquake – a literal shaking of the ground where the lights went out, and people began rushing to the building exits. What happened next sounds a bit other-worldly:
“I knew what was happening, but I experienced it from within the chess position. There was a surreal synergy of me and no me, pure thought and the awareness of a thinker – I wasn’t me looking at the chess position, but I was aware of myself and the shaking world from within the serenity of pure engagement – and then I solved the chess problem. Somehow the earthquake and the dying lights spurred me to revelation. I had crystallization of thought, resurfaced, and vacated the trembling playing room. When I returned and play resumed, I immediately made my move and went on to win the game.”
It was this incident that spurred Josh’s personal investigation of performance psychology, and led to a profound understanding of the three-step process that can be applied in any field to reach outlier-level performance:
- Learning to flow with whatever comes, undistracted by random, unexpected events. (This is where 99.9% of the population struggles, and stagnates.)
- Learning to actually use those events to your advantage.
- Learning to be completely self-sufficient by creating your own earthquakes – so your “mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.”
Sports psychologists have a term for the first step in this process: the “soft zone.” The soft zone is a quiet, intensely focused presence that is based on “intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” instead of “a submissive world or overpowering force.”
To illustrate, Josh talks about a personal mental problem he developed, where a catchy song he heard would stick in his head and interrupt his train of thought during a chess game: “The more I tried to block out the distraction, the louder it would get in my head.” Most top-level performers have experienced a similar issue.
The problem continued until finally, Josh started blasting music on his stereo while studying chess, playing everything from monk chants to Bon Jovi. He taught himself to integrate the distraction into his creative thought processes, rather than fight it. In a similar way, when certain opponents were methodically cheating, Josh learned that “the solution… does not lie in denying our emotions, but in learning to use them to our advantage.”
Foreshadowing a recurring theme in later chapters, Josh emphasizes, “Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously… Seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.”
Chapter 6: The Downward Spiral
The second step in the process, learning to use unfavorable events to your advantage, can be difficult. Often, a first mistake alone isn’t disastrous but becomes so after the psychological effect spirals into more errors. As an illustration of the workings of this phenomenon, Josh presents the scenario of a chess player who has obtained an advantage over his opponent and nurtured that advantage, spending the game constantly searching for a way to turn the advantage into a win. When this player then makes a small error that allows his opponent to equalize the position, it is hardly a disaster – the players are now on equal footing.
What often happens, however, is that the player is still psychologically committed to his dominant position. He has been calculating every move based on whether it will provide an advantage over his current position, so when he now looks at a potential move that will keep him in an equivalent position, he mentally rejects it as inferior. Looking exclusively for positions that will provide an advantage restricts the number of possible moves, putting the player at a severe disadvantage.
“One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error.
The difference between winning and losing is often minuscule, but rather than interpreting that fact solely as a caution against missing the details, world-class performers leverage small errors into brilliant new creations. Rather than holding to psychological dependence on absolute perfection, they are comfortable with and even thrive in uncertainty, escaping the downward spiral and instead of turning those moments into inspirations. Josh begins to detail the process for doing so in the next chapter.
Chapter 7: Changing Voice
To lay the groundwork for understanding the third step in the process, Josh presents another anecdote from later in his chess career. It was in eastern Europe shortly after high school that he began to develop an understanding of one of the most crucial concepts in this book: form to leave form, or numbers to leave numbers.
At several points throughout each tournament, he would find himself in a position that he didn’t quite understand, or that led to an error. Later, he would focus his study entirely on these few positions where his intuition had failed him. The process is important, so I’ll give you his exact description of those studies:
“At first my mind was like a runner on a cold winter morning – stiff, unhappy about the coming jog, dreary. Then I began to move, recalling my attacking ideas in the struggle and how nothing had fully connected. I tried to pick apart my opponent’s position and discovered new layers of his defensive resources, all the while my mind thawing, integrating the evolving structural dynamics it had not quite understood before.
Overtime… I settled into the rhythm of analysis, soaked in countless patterns of evolving sophistication… Like a runner in stride, my thinking became unhindered, free-flowing, faster and faster as I lost myself in the position. Sometimes the study would take six hours… sometimes thirty… I felt like I was living, breathing, sleeping in that maze, and then as if from nowhere, all the complications dissolved and I understood…
I couldn’t explain this new knowledge with variations or words. It felt more elemental… My chess intuition had deepened. This was the study of numbers to leave numbers.”
To put it in plain English, he had studied the technical information – the numbers, principles, patterns, variations, techniques, and ideas – to a degree sufficient to convert it to intuition, or “natural intelligence.” When he found a gap in his natural intelligence, he returned to the numbers in order to convert that section of his knowledge to intuition.
During his time in Slovenia, Josh also began to realize how his chess games mirrored his personal life; being fundamentally homesick, his whole approach to chess was consumed by clinging to the past, which hurt him when the nature of the game he was playing changed from technical to abstract, for example. By working on his ability to embrace change both in life and on the board, Josh was able to address that weakness much more quickly.
This one anecdote is an insight into Josh’s entire approach to learning. Parallel learning – or devoting your time to learning skills that apply to multiple areas – is a useful efficiency technique to learn more in less time, but it is also more than that; it is a way to overlap the various areas of your life, recognizing the principles that connect them and learning to smoothly navigate those connections.
Josh leveraged this realization to lead the game into situations in which his opponent would be uncomfortable. Opponents whose behavior in the hallways indicated impatience, intuitiveness, or a desire for control would be met with games that required the opposite approach. By acting on this principle, he had found another way to dictate the tone of the battle to his advantage.
Chapter 8: Breaking Stallions
Another key component in “creating your own earthquakes” is the mindset applied to improvement. A person does not become an outlier by gritting their teeth and grinding it out. The ideal approach is:
“cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.”
How, exactly, do you practice that? First, Josh returns to the necessity of operating in a manner that is consistent with the core of your being:
“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… 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.”
Josh illustrates this point with an interesting anecdote about mentorship. He had been training with two different mentors, considered by many to be the two best chess players in the world. Yuri Razuvaev taught by first digging into the core of his student’s style, then designing his training to strengthen the student’s own approach. In contrast, Mark Dvoretsky broke his students down by crushing them with his superior abilities, then built them back up again into a mirror image of his own style.
While Dvoretsky was clearly one of the best chess players in the world, Josh’s entire playing style and nature was one of the chaotic attacks. Dvoretsky played like an anaconda, preempting his opponent’s attacks and squeezing him out until he had nowhere to go. For Josh to abandon everything that made him great would be a grave mistake.
That said, Josh still had to learn Dvoretsky’s playing style to compete at the highest levels – but Yuri Razuvaev pointed out what Josh calls “a delicate and rather mystical-feeling idea.” He needed to learn from someone of his own nature who had integrated the Dvoretsky strategies into their own game. If a rock guitarist wanted to learn classical music, he would learn much better from a former rock guitarist who turned to classical music than he would from a lifelong classical composer, even one who was a genius.
This is a deeper understanding of the principle of improving by focusing on increasing your strengths rather than minimizing your weakness, as discussed in the summary of Chapter 2 of Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. Improving your strengths can lead to huge leaps of progress, rather than the incremental improvement that comes from trying to fix weakness because improving your strengths builds on your natural voice and your already existing neural networks.
Writing about the results of staying true to your disposition and personal strengths, Josh says:
“When we feed the subconscious, it will discover connections between what may appear to be disparate realities. The path to artistic insight in one direction often involves a deep study of another – the intuition makes uncanny connections that lead to a crystallization of fragmented notions.”
As an illustration of this process in his own mind, Josh draws a parallel between human learning and the two ways to tame a horse, one of his mother’s favorite pastimes. The first is to restrain the horse and “freak it out,” driving it crazy with noise until it submits to control by a rope and a pole, and then saddle it and ride it until it gives up – in other words, the Dvoretsky method.
Josh’s mother preferred a method more similar to Yuri’s. From the time the horse was very young, she pets it, fed it, groomed it, and so on, always getting the horse used to her touch. By the time she mounted it, there was nothing for the horse to fight. Instead of breaking the horse’s spirit, she synchronized the animal’s desire with her own. A horse that has been trained in this way has something that the broken horse does not. It not only yields more easily and responds more fluidly, but it also brings its own unique character and spirit into the ride.
When you try to fit a student into a mold, you rob him of the intuition he has built. That might be suitable for a complete beginner, but for a student who has built up a level of skill, it not only sets them back but also destroys their own natural voice, which hampers their progress and prevents them from realizing their potential.
Josh finishes the chapter with some commentary on the balance between creativity and practical awareness:
“In my mind, the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of greyness – of the in-between. There is a careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you meltdown. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if stretched too thin, they will snap.
Part II: My Second Art
Josh’s reading of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and The Dharma Bums began a journey into the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, which soon led to Laotse’s Tao Te Ching. Taoism taught a focus on “the underlying essence as opposed to the external manifestations, searching for the flow that lay at the heart of, and transcended, the technical.” In other words, form to leave form.
This journey brought Josh to the studio of William C. C. Chen. Chen was one of the greatest living masters of Tai Chi, the physical expression of Taoism. He could read the human body like a chess master reads a chessboard, pinpointing the most minuscule spot of tension in his students. After months of careful, attentive practice, Josh was then invited to begin classes for Push Hands, the martial application of Tai Chi.
Chapter 10: Investment in Loss
The underlying principle of Push Hands might sound familiar: “not to clash with the opponent but to blend with his energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness.” It is natural to push back and meet force with force, but to master Push Hands, you must make an “investment in loss” by getting beat up until you learn not to make that mistake.
Josh writes, “I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice – both technical and psychological – he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field.” While it is impossible to maintain a perfect track record in this regard, the goal should be to constantly be on the lookout for “themes of error,” both technical and psychological.
Master Chen eventually paired Josh up with a six-foot-two, 200-pound martial artist named Evan who had been training in Tai Chi for eight years. Evan’s experience meant that Josh was technically outmatched, and his size meant that Josh was constantly being pummeled.
After many months, Josh began to learn how to absorb the blows. As he became more relaxed, his opponent’s moves appeared to slow down. One day, all of a sudden Josh found that Evan no longer even presented a challenge. Not being willing to invest in loss himself, Evan avoided sparring from Josh from that point onward and missed out on the opportunity to learn from Josh’s improvement.
There is a recurring cycle in the process of learning: one phase of full-throttle action, and one of in-flux, broken-down growth. Many people refuse to invest in loss during these growth stages, and as a result, never upgrade their game. An otherwise talented boxer who has difficulty with the left jab will never progress if he isn’t willing to put himself in the beginner’s mindset and get beat up as he addresses that aspect of his skill. Sometimes a Tiger Woods has to step back, completely break down his golf swing, and start from ground zero to reconstruct his game if he wants to get to the next level.
This is challenging not only because it is mentally difficult, but also because there are often other people who are expecting you to perform at a certain level. To surmount this obstacle, we must be willing to let others see us fail, and have the intestinal fortitude to make a lifelong practice of being comfortable with risking that disappointment.
Chapter 11: Making Smaller Circles
The distinguishing factor in the pursuit of excellence is depth over breadth – to “plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.” Immersed in the busy modern world, many people are completely unfamiliar with the focus required to do so, but the path to greatness is to truly and completely master the essentials at the deepest level possible, rather than amass a range of ancillary abilities.
In some martial arts, students are rated by the number of flowery choreographed movements they have memorized. They are “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value.” In contrast, Josh’s approach to improvement in Tai Chi was to incrementally refine the simplest of movements, such as pushing his hand six inches through the air. He learned to feel the tension in his body through this motion, spending month after month to eliminate every last iota of stiffness.
By repeating the small movements until he developed the feeling (i.e., left form), he would internalize the principle of the movement that would apply to other areas in the Tai Chi system. By practicing the movement during the day and testing it in class that evening, Josh also put into place a feedback loop that would quickly dispose of any movements that didn’t actually work.
Only after approaching learning in this way should you then begin to apply that internalized principle to your full range of tools and techniques. Once you are ready, however, the key is what Josh calls “making smaller circles.” Now that you have the feeling in place, you begin to “incrementally condense the external manifestation of the technique while keeping true to its essence.”
In the context of martial arts, you might apply this principle to improving your standard straight punch. First, identify the components of the technique: the punch starts with the left foot pushing against the ground, the moves up through the left leg, diagonally across the torso to the shoulder, triceps, and lastly to the fist. Then, practice the entire move in slow motion, again and again until it becomes a thoughtless, fluid transition of energy from the ground to knuckles. Only then should you begin incrementally speeding up, using a punching bag, and increasing the power of your punch.
This is hardly news, but it is essential in order to move on to the next step of the process to become truly world-class. Now that you’ve fully internalized the body mechanics of the punch, begin removing the ancillary portions of the movement – make the wind-up of your hips a little smaller, begin the punch a little closer to the target, and so on. Monitor yourself with the feeling of the punch, and ensure that you make smaller circles in a gradual way so that your body can barely feel the difference.
Boxing greats like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson did this so well that they knocked people out without even looking like they threw a straight punch, and world-class performers in any field are able to apply the same technique in any field. They have isolated the principle from the form, and as a result, are able to wield the principle in new and powerful ways.
While we might have a tendency to seek additions to our repertoires because it feels like more tangible learning, “subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned… The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest. It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.”
“Depth beats breadth any day of the week because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”
Chapter 12: Using Adversity
Adversity shouldn’t just be viewed as the inevitable appearance of roadblocks to be dealt with and conquered; it is a useful and important part of Josh’s learning system. For one thing, setbacks are a good opportunity to restore the balance between performing and increasing our ability to perform.
It is a widely observable tragedy that high performers have great difficulty maintaining this balance. Josh writes:
“The importance of undulating between external and internal training (or concrete and abstract; technical and intuitive) applies to all disciplines, and unfortunately the internal tends to be neglected.”
When Josh broke his right hand only seven weeks before the national Tai Chi championships, his doctor told him there was no chance he could compete. Resolved to go against doctor’s orders, Josh began training with only his left hand and found that he had been relying on his right hand for many things that he now had to teach his left hand to do. He also found that his left arm began instinctively covering things that he never considered possible, such as blocking his opponent’s other hand with an elbow.
In martial arts, if you can control two of your opponent’s limbs with only one of your own, the fight is practically over. This reflects a larger principle. In any type of contest, if your opponent is spending more energy to fend off an attack that you are spending to initiate it, you have a major advantage. Every arena of competition includes technical skills that make this possible.
Josh also fought off muscle atrophy during his recovery through the intense and focused use of visualization. During every workout using his uninjured left arm, he visualized the stress passing to his right arm in its cast.
While current scientific understanding can’t fully explain this phenomenon, it has been consistently demonstrated that the mind can direct the body to certain results. The cast came off four days before the competition, and Josh’s arm had barely atrophied. With his newfound skills and fully functioning arm, he became the national champion.
Most people view injuries and other setbacks as conditions from which to recover, but if you want to be among the best, you must “take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to [your] advantage.” (Refer to Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way for more on developing this mindset and skill.)
There are certainly times when recovery and healing are necessary, but you can always use those times for undistracted improvement of other areas of your game – mentally, internally, etc. You should always come back from a setback stronger than you were before it occurred.
The next level is to purposely create an imitation of these times; for example, a right-handed basketball player might purposely play left-handed for a period of time. Every adversity then becomes a source of inspiration to which you can return later to improve your abilities.
Chapter 13: Slowing Down Time
We’ve all heard stories of people who accomplished seemingly superhuman feats in a catastrophic situation, and perhaps we’ve experienced moments ourselves when time seemed to stand still as our senses were heightened in a moment of danger or great significance. We also probably all have the experience of searching in vain for a certain answer, moving on to something unrelated, then returning and suddenly having the answer.
It doesn’t occur to most of us that we could develop the ability to replicate both of these situations at will, but in this chapter, Josh shares the secret to consistent superhuman performance and regular flashes of creative inspiration.
The structure of the learning process so far has been this:
- Develop a solid grasp of the fundamentals
- Expand and refine your skills, guided by your individual disposition, while keeping in touch with the core of your discipline
The result of this framework will be “a network of deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central, personal locus point.” Intuition and the key to replicating those moments of seemingly inexplicable deeds is the ability to navigate that network and use it to stimulate creative insight.
There are two important concepts here: chunking and carved neural pathways. Chunking refers to the brain’s tendency to handle huge quantities of information by organizing it into various chunks of patterns. (See Chapter 1 of the summary of The Power of Habit for more on how the brain “chunks” information. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell devotes quite a few pages to this, as well.)
In one experiment, researchers put chess players in front of chessboards to test their ability to remember the positions on the board. Expert players could easily recall positions that came from games played by other experts because they recognized certain patterns and “chunked” the game accordingly. When presented with boards having random positioning, however, they had nothing to chunk and often performed worse than less skilled players at the memory challenge.
The concept of carved neural pathways refers to the system of chunks and relationships between chunks. (See Charlie Munger’s latticework of mental models for another way of thinking about Josh’s “chunks.”) In the context of chess, a beginner is easily overwhelmed by all the iterations of every move possible for all 32 pieces on the board, and learning is slow. Because Josh started by learning to chunk the array of each piece’s moves in isolation, his subconscious mind quickly learned to instantly associate each piece with its value and possible movements.
From there, a player is able to begin learning the relationships of those chunks to each other. Because each chunk has first been relegated to the subconscious, the brain is able to process the equivalent of thousands of calculations, and a network of chunks begins to develop. The player develops larger, more complex chunks by combining the simpler ones – king, queen, and bishop against king, rook, and night, for example – and developing chunks from the relationships.
At the highest levels, the player is also chunking the exceptions to the rules that become apparent from these ever-increasing layers of complexity. These players have an ability to be intensely present at the moment, relaxing their conscious mind to a degree that lets the subconscious do its work, and it is this state of mind that is key to top-level performance. The idea is to let the subconscious play the primary role, without losing the connection to the conscious mind that keeps it in check.
For a demonstration of how this occurs, take a moment to keep looking at these words, but allow your peripheral vision to take over. Then, refocus on these words, but maintain the same awareness of your peripheral vision. In a similar way, highly skilled people can let the subconscious operate freely while the conscious simultaneously sort out the details.
At the highest levels of competition, much of the game revolves around protecting against the unexpected and bringing things back into familiar neural pathways. The conscious mind has only a fraction of the processing power of the subconscious, which often results in a situation where one contestant only experiences an instantaneous blur, while the other has executed a series of moves, each subconsciously chosen from dozens of options, calibrated based on the opponent’s minuscule reactions.
In those situations where time appears to stand still, information is simply being more efficiently transmitted to the subconscious. In a life-or-death situation, the brain is simply focusing on a very small amount of information, blocking out all other inputs as irrelevant, but we can artificially generate this phenomenon by forming networks of chunks in a specific area.
Because all that information is now going to the subconscious, the capacity of the conscious mind is then freed to focus very narrowly, and as a result, the perception of time is slowed down, just like in a life-or-death situation – except that rather than ignoring all other information, we have relegated it to the subconscious.
Someone who has developed the subconscious in this way can operate in hundreds of frames for every one frame that an untrained person can perceive. As a result, the trained mind can operate in segments of time that are smaller than what the untrained mind is capable of experiencing.
Chapter 14: The Illusion of the Mystical
At the highest levels, “reading and ultimately controlling intention” is the key to leading the contest into places where the neural pathways are familiar to you.
In competition, Josh would make no effort to hide his “tells,” with the express purpose of letting his opponent figure out what they were. Then, in a critical moment, he would purposely exhibit a misleading tell, leading his opponent astray.
This is an example of what Josh calls “mental programming,” or a system in which you “observe and provoke a pattern of action/reaction” in the opponent, then use the predictive power this gives you to achieve victory. As you move to higher levels of competition, “making smaller circles” and “slowing down time” becomes more necessary in order to prevent your opponent from noticing the mental programming.
A skilled opponent will often detect mental programming, so most high-level competitions – from the boardroom to the field – revolve around the competitors neutralizing each other’s programming and searching for new tells to exploit. If you’re not aware of any such game being played, it likely means that the other party is operating in a world you don’t understand. Proceed with caution.
Part III: Bringing It All Together
Chapter 15: The Power of Presence & Chapter 16: Searching for the Zone
The difference between the great and mediocre is the ability to be at peace with ever-increasing tension. In order to exhibit grace under pressure, we must first learn to be deeply present in the day-to-day.
Sustainable peak performance comes from a pattern of stress and recovery. Many high performers have a tendency to go full speed at all times, but top performers are those who have learned to routinely incorporate recovery. The recovery itself is a crucial skill; the better we are at recovery, the better we will perform.
There are many ways to undulate between exertion and relaxation in our daily lives. When you start to struggle with focus, take a deep breath, go for a quick walk, or take a moment for meditation.
Possessing the ability to alternate in this way will help you be more resilient, as well as allow bursts of creativity from your subconscious when you take a moment to force your conscious mind to relinquish control.
The good news is that the more you practice cycles of rest, the less you will need to take. Athletes often use interval training to improve their physical recovery abilities. They might turn up the resistance on a stationary bike until their heart rate hits a certain threshold, then turn the resistance back down until their heart rate drops below a chosen floor. In time, their cardiovascular conditioning will result in a long time before the max heart rate and a shorter time for the recovery. Mental conditioning often works the same way.
If you haven’t yet made an effort to develop this ability, Josh recommends you take a few months to make it your focus, and then move on to the next step.
Chapter 17: Building Your Trigger
We often instill terrible habits in our children by telling them to “focus” and chastising them when they begin to daydream. As a result, they learn to associate a break in focus on failure. The pattern that results is a habit of focusing with every ounce of strength we can muster until the inevitable, forceful crash.
A better strategy is to recognize that sustained peak performance is only possible when it is punctuated by periods of rest, and to focus instead on maximizing our ability to switch from rest to explosive effort when the time comes.
A key part of this strategy is learning to love waiting. Countless people live their lives waiting for their big break or expecting that their true calling will materialize and become apparent at some undefined point in the future. (Oliver Emberton’s article on this self-deception is both hilarious and eye-opening.)
Instead, our waiting must be (somewhat paradoxically) infused with engagement. Josh puts it this way:
“I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday – the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness – is where success, let alone happiness, emerges.”
Grace under pressure comes from establishing certain habits in the day-to-day that stay in place in high-stakes situations, which results in the maintenance of normalcy through those events.
Josh used a similar principle in his work as a performance coach for a high-level finance executive. The executive was having difficulty achieving sustained performance and frequently found himself distracted in situations that required focus.
Josh asked him when he felt “closest to serene focus,” and found that it was when he was playing catch with his twelve-year-old son. Many people have certain activities that fill this role, but they are often dismissed as unproductive time spent just “taking a break.”
Josh then worked with the executive to construct a multi-step routine consisting of other activities he simply enjoyed – music, meditation, stretching, and eating. Before he went out to play catch with his son, the executive began drinking a certain fruit and soy shake. Immediately following the shake, he practiced the same meditation technique for 15 minutes, then did a ten-minute stretch, and finally listened to Bob Dylan for ten minutes before going outside to play catch.
After the executive had completed the prescribed routine every day for a month, Josh instructed him to instead perform the same routine before an important meeting that required focus. It was a huge success – the executive had formed a psychological and physiological connection between the routine and the state of mind he had when playing catch with his son.
Of course, it’s not very helpful to require 45 minutes to get in the zone. The next step was to incrementally condense the routine in steps that reduced the time but maintained the same effect. First, the executive ate a normal breakfast instead of the shake, did the meditation and stretching, then listened to Bob Dylan during his drive to work.
After a few days, he decreased the meditation time by three minutes. A few days later, he decreased the stretching time by two minutes, and a few days after that, he was able to skip the meal without any loss of the routine’s effectiveness. He continued to compress the time allotments once every few days until the 45-minute routine took only 12 minutes. He could have kept going, step by step until it was only a quick stretch, a moment of meditative stillness, and a quick thought about the song.
For your own routine, the key is to string any four or five activities you enjoy right before the activity that best puts you in a state of serene, relaxed focus, and practice doing so for a sufficient number of days that the connection is formed.
You will lose some effectiveness with the highly condensed version of your routine, but the point is to have a malleable routine that gives you the ability to get in the best mindset possible using whatever time is available to you. You’ll probably also possess an advantage in any competition, knowing that you can achieve your mindset instantly while your competitors will likely have to struggle with unpredictability.
Finally, the ability to find a presence at a moment’s notice can have a huge impact on our day-to-day lives. Presence, or the continual appreciation of ordinary things – rainwater on the pavement, a leaf, a housecat – is as much a tool for living life as it is one for increasing performance.
Chapter 18: Making Sandals
Emotions are an undeniable part of who we are as humans, but it is very easy to let them influence us in a way that leads to mistakes. Many people deal with the unpredictable force of emotions by pushing them down with a steely resolve when it comes time to perform, which can be just as unproductive as letting emotions run wild.
A better way to deal with emotions is to acknowledge them and use them. To walk a thorny road, you don’t need to pave the entire road; just make sandals.
Elite performers “use emotion, observing their moment and then channeling everything into a deeper focus that generates uniquely flavored creativity. This is an interesting, resilient approach based on flexibility and subtle introspective awareness.”
Recall the three steps necessary to develop elite performance:
- Flowing with distraction
- Using the distraction as inspiration
- Learning to re-create those situations without external distraction
To flow with emotions, we first have to acknowledge where they are coming from. Anger, for example, often comes from fear, which in turn is often the result of someone bending the rules or otherwise acting in a way that we didn’t predict.
When Josh realized he had a problem becoming angry at competitors who cheated, he asked his training partners to replicate the illegal moves so he would have practice dealing with them. Rather than being indignant about the cheating, he accepted it as part of reality and prepared for it. By addressing the root cause of the emotion, he was able to flow with the emotion.
Basketball legend Michael Jordan was a classic example of progressing to the second step and using anger as inspiration by purposely “trash talking” defenders on the court. The smart defenders learned not to talk back, because if they did, it fed Jordan’s competitive anger, goading him to new levels of basketball domination.
World Champion chess player Tigran Petrosian relied on this process so much that his entire game was designed around it. He spent the first part of every day before a match sitting quietly, observing his mood at the finest level of detail, and then built a game plan based on that mood. His strategy would not only synchronize with his personality; it would harmonize with his daily mood.
Once you stop being controlled by your emotions and start using each one to your advantage, you might notice that certain emotions inspire you more than others. If happiness, anger, confidence, or fear inspires your best performance, you might want to build your trigger process to set up that particular mood.
Josh sums up the process in this way:
“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. Some of us will be most creative when ebullient, others when morose… Then… build condensed triggers so you can pull from your deepest reservoirs of creative inspiration at will.”
Chapter 19: Bringing It All Together
The results of this process are readily apparent at the highest levels of any field. Josh writes, “In my 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… The real art of learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency when our work becomes an expression of our essence.
At the highest levels of any kind of competitive discipline, everyone is great. At this point, the decisive factor is rarely who knows more, but who dictates the tone of the battle. For this reason, almost without exception, champions are specialists whose styles emerge from a profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in that direction.”
Champions have mastered the technical so fully that their entire game consists of freely flowing intuition. Those who progress even further are able to create a feedback loop by which they observe the results of the intuition in order to deconstruct it with their conscious mind and deliver improved instructions to their subconscious. (Elon Musk calls this “the single best piece of advice”: “having a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”)
The processes that lead to this condition are complex and fluid, and The Art of Learning has accordingly been weaving those concepts in and out of each chapter. If your head is spinning at this point (as mine was), you’ll probably appreciate a conversion of the third step of the learning process into a high-level checklist format:
- Lay a solid foundation by studying positions of reduced complexity.
- Apply those principles to increasingly complex situations.
- Make smaller circles: Take a single technique and practice it until you feel its essence, then condense it incrementally while maintaining its full effectiveness.
- Slow down time: Focus on a group of techniques to build “chunks” that allow your subconscious mind to take over, allowing your conscious mind to hone in with tremendous precision.
- Use your ability to make smaller circles and slow down time to leverage nuances unseen by others to control the intention of your opponent.
- Once you understand the process, apply it to other areas.
The fact that Josh Waitzkin has applied the learning process to become the world champion in two entirely distinct disciplines is a clear validation of his methods. I’m unaware of any other performer of his caliber who has offered such a detailed, informative, and precise breakdown of the type of learning process that leads to world-class performance.
If you aren’t blown away by The Art of Learning, you might not have quite grasped it yet – you’ll have to forgive me for any failure to convey Josh’s message. This is a dense and profound book, and if you did actually understand everything in your first read, your IQ is probably at least two standard deviations above mine.
The book is truly esoteric, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to re-read this summary – or even better, read the book. Still, those who want to truly appreciate the revelations within will probably want a little more context.
Early childhood fame made Josh averse to the spotlight, and the interviews and other sources available online are typically higher-level summaries of the Art of Learning, so unfortunately for us, this book is one of the few available insights into the knowledge he possesses.
What did you learn from The Art of Learning? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.
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