Jiu-Jitsu Letter

The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning:

He didn’t present himself as omniscient, and he handled himself as more of a guide in my development than as an authority. If I disagreed with him, we would have a discussion, not a lecture.

Bruce slowed me down by asking questions. Whenever I made an important decision, good or bad, he would ask me to explain my thought process.

While the new knowledge was valuable, the most important factor in these first months of study was that Bruce nurtured my love for chess, and he never let technical material smother my innate feeling for the game.

…they wanted my relationship to the game to be about learning and passion first, and competition a distant second.

I was unhindered by internal conflict—a state of being that I have come to see as fundamental to the learning process.

Someone stuck with an entity theory of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell.

My whole career, my father and I searched out opponents who were a little stronger than me, so even as I dominated the scholastic circuit, losing was part of my regular experience. I believe this was important for maintaining a healthy perspective on the game.

While there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, fear of failure didn’t move me so much as an intense passion for the game.

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.

The game had become endlessly fascinating to me, and its implications stretched far beyond winning and losing—I was no longer primarily refining the skill of playing chess, but was discovering myself through chess. I saw the art as a movement closer and closer to an unattainable truth, as if I were traveling through a tunnel that continuously deepened and widened as I progressed. The more I knew about the game, the more I realized how much there was to know. I emerged from each good work session in slightly deeper awe of the mystery of chess, and with a building sense of humility. Increasingly, I felt more tender about my work than fierce. Art was truly becoming for art’s sake.

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.

I was wide open to the idea of getting tossed around—Push Hands class was humility training.

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.

…segments of the form over and over, honing certain techniques while refining my body mechanics and deepening my sense of relaxation. I focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving my hand out a few inches, then releasing it back, energizing outwards, connecting my feet to my fingertips with less and less obstruction. Practicing in this manner, I was able to sharpen my feeling for Tai Chi.

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

This method is similar to my early study of chess, where I explored endgame positions of reduced complexity—for example king and pawn against king, only three pieces on the board—in order to touch high-level principles such as the power of empty space, zugzwang (where any move of the opponent will destroy his position), tempo, or structural planning.

The next phase of my martial growth would involve turning the large into the small. My understanding of this process, in the spirit of my numbers to leave numbers method of chess study, is to touch the essence (for example, highly refined and deeply internalized body mechanics or feeling ) of a technique, and then to incrementally condense the external manifestation of the technique while keeping true to its essence. Over time expansiveness decreases while potency increases. I call this method “Making Smaller Circles.”

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.

Another angle on this issue is the unfortunate correlation for some between consistency and monotony. It is all too easy to get caught up in the routines of our lives and to lose creativity in the learning process. Even people who are completely devoted to cultivating a certain discipline often fall into a mental rut, a disengaged lifestyle that implies excellence can be obtained by going through the motions. We lose presence. Then an injury or some other kind of setback throws a wrench into the gears. We are forced to get imaginative.

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.

The secret is that everything is always 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.

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.

Tiger Woods, strolling to his next shot, with a relaxed focus in his eyes. Remember Michael Jordan sitting on the bench, a towel on his shoulders, letting it all go for a two-minute break before coming back in the game? Jordan was completely serene on the bench even though the Bulls desperately needed him on the court. He had the fastest recovery time of any athlete I’ve ever seen. Jim Harbaugh told me about the first time he noticed this pattern in himself. He’s a passionate guy, and liked to root on his defense when they were on the field. But after his first sessions at LGE he noticed a clear improvement in his play if he sat on the bench, relaxed, and didn’t even watch the other team’s offensive series. The more he could let things go, the sharper he was in the next drive.

So how do we step up when our moment suddenly arises? My answer is to redefine the question. Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life.

…you get into a frenzy anticipating the moment that will decide your destiny, then when it arrives you will be overwrought with excitement and tension.

To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on.

The only way to succeed is to acknowledge reality and funnel it, take the nerves and use them. We must be prepared for imperfection. If we rely on having no nerves, on not being thrown off by a big miss, or on the exact replication of a certain mindset, then when the pressure is high enough, or when the pain is too piercing to ignore, our ideal state will shatter.

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