If you want to perform like a champion, get your advice from a champion.
Wunderkind Josh Waitzkin won U.S. and international championships in both chess and “Push Hands Tai Chi Chuan,” a martial arts form of the familiar Asian exercise. In his engrossing book, The Art of Learning, Waitzkin explains what he has learned from years of preparation and participation in these two seemingly very different, though both highly competitive, activities.
Much of his book details his progress from chess prodigy to chess master and then from martial arts novice to martial arts master. Along the way, he came to understand their similarities and the lessons they hold for learning new skills. The oneness of the universe implies that knowing something profoundly well gives insight into many other things, as Waitzkin avers in harmony with many philosophers, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western.
How does his story relate to our own lives? At work, and sometimes after-hours, we may need to perform at near peak levels, just as top-flight competitors must. Careful attention to myriad small details, the minutia of the activity, is often what separated champ from chump, victor from vanquished. Unfortunately, distractions both internal and external must be overcome while we are trying to excel.
How are we to handle distractions? Waitzkin advises that we learn, first, to bend with the breeze, rather than fight it. To do so, we may need to practice performing under difficult conditions. Better than resisting is harnessing the distraction: go with the flow, play off it, use it to stimulate us, such as reacting to unfair treatment by redoubling our efforts and by improving ourselves, shoring up any weaknesses such bad situations may reveal.
Which do you think is more important, talent or effort? Experiments with students have shown that students who thought talent trumps effort did better when they thought the challenge was aligned with their talents and did worse when they thought it was not. No big surprise there. As stated by industrialist Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.” However, such students responded to failure by doing even more poorly on follow-up tests. They had put a ceiling on themselves, and then, discouraged by failure, they lowered that ceiling.
Students who thought that effort trumps talent responded to failure by working harder and doing better on follow-up tests. “Every knock is a boost.”
Certainly, innate ability has got to be taken into account. Waitzkin and other prodigies stand out initially because of talent and it makes sense to focus on developing it. While we can shore up our weaknesses, they are not the logical places to put our major efforts. Rather, finding what we like to do and what we already show an aptitude for should be our guide. Thus, through talent and practice, my wife (Tina Su Cooper) became exceptionally proficient on the piano, graduating from the Eastman School of Music, whereas, having less talent and expending less effort, I “contributed” to concert music history by being our high school orchestra’s third best tuba player…out of three.
Some things are true whether we are aiming for the heights or mere adequacy. In learning, it is best to start with the basics, the fundamental pieces. The would-be musician does scales; the beginning ballplayer throws and catches; the neophyte writer learns grammar; the young ballerina must repeat the basic moves until perfected, until they can be ignored. The challenge is to endure the dull and boring to learn the skill. Performing the simplest forms of the desired activity itself can offset this, if it can be done without picking up bad habits: We play simple musical compositions, engage in practice/scrimmage games, write for the school newspaper.
Even if you know a lot about the subject, Waitzkin found, it is often advisable to recapture the “beginner’s mind,” as we cannot learn what we are sure we already know. We must clear out error to make way for truth. We must at times get back to the basics, the fundamentals.
We are not born with minds that are blank slates, but rather with an array of strengths and weaknesses, features and flaws, gifts and disabilities. Education proceeds best when the approach of the teacher is well suited to the innate style of the student. Waitzkin notes there are many paths to greatness. While not “all roads lead to Rome,” many do. Appropriately selecting your field and carefully selecting your teacher greatly influence your probability of success. The right teacher accelerated Waitzkin’s progress in chess, a subsequent one contributed to his loss of interest in the game.
To become a professional, for example in music or sports, it has been argued [e.g., by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers] that something like 10,000 hours of practice are needed. This suggests a decade of preparation and participation in a pastime such as competitive chess would require that 20 hours a week be fitted into one’s training schedule. Waitzkin’s description of his life from ages 8 to 18 makes this perhaps even a low estimate for his succeeding in becoming the U.S. chess champion in each of his age categories.
Assuming one had Waitzkin’s talent, would it be wise to expend this level of effort? Society likely benefits from the example of excellence or from the output of the activity, such as art, music, or literature. From the individual’s perspective, however, I believe one should optimize the life, not a portion of it. Despite his victories and interesting travels and fascinating acquaintances, Waitzkin was probably not living his best life, as is reflected in his switching his primary focus away from chess to tai chi chuan in his late teens.
Josh Waitzkin found fame to be empty, celebrity a worthless distraction. Our happiness depends more on what we think of ourselves than on what others think of us. A true artist in two fields, he was fascinated by the activities themselves, and he used his unusually deep knowledge of them to gain competitive advantage in national and international competitions.
How does one cash in on being a national chess or martial arts champion? How do you follow up on such success once you are an adult? Waitzkin has maintained his interest in chess and in the martial arts and has extended what he has learned to helping people succeed at other activities. He runs an educational foundation and serves as a life coach / consultant to those seeking to optimize performance.
Waitzkin has developed techniques for helping his students find their “zones,” states of mind from which prime results flow almost effortlessly and unconsciously. Practicing these techniques, eventually abbreviating them, allows one to reach one’s zone frequently and conveniently, thus boosting productivity.
Yes, if you want to perform like a champion, get your advice from a champion. However, if you want to live your life to the fullest, get your advice from a philosopher…or your mother. Waitzkin’s book is dedicated to his “hero” mother, Bonnie Waitzkin, not his hard-driving father; it was she who—as depicted in the movie about young Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer—ejected his chess teacher from their apartment, objecting to the harsh and narrow lessons being taught her son.
Josh Waitzkin himself has wisely adjusted his own priorities and emphasizes the well-being of his family.
As one knowledgeable and perceptive critic noted, The Art of Learning combines compelling autobiography, profound insights, and truly practical advice.
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer and writing coach. The first book he authored, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, as are two memoirs he co-authored, The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and two memoirs he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His writing-editing-coaching site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com.