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Winning in New Ways


It has been about 6 months since I have completed reading The Art of Learning. Josh’s story really got me thinking because his story is very similar to mine. My journey started off as an elementary school student with some big shoes to fill. I come from a family of athletes, swimmers to be exact. My grandfather competed in backstroke events at VMI, my parents met on the swim team at the University of Georgia, and my mother competed for Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. To make a long story short, I was born with the swimming gene.

However, the idea of competitiveness was something that I had to learn. When I first started swimming, I participated because I loved being in the water and goofing around with my friends. My parents have always believed in nurturing my love for the water, so we spent every summer up in Canada visiting relatives. My coaches always thought my parents were crazy because they never made me train while we were away. Those summers were the best gifts that my parents could have ever given me.

As I grew older, my parents understood that it was time to shorten our visits and become more focused on swimming, only at my request. Throughout high school, I became extremely dedicated to the sport and found success in my hard work. I became the Georgia State Champion in the 500 yard Freestyle and achieved All-American status. Later that year, I signed to compete at NC State in the distance freestyle events. I graduated from high school at the top of my swimming game and excited to compete at a NCAA division I level.

When I first got to school the training and schoolwork became much more difficult. I started training twice a day and started lifting weights, something that I had not done in high school. I also had to adapt to being coached by new people and getting to know my new teammates. With all of the added stress, my body had a difficult time keeping up. A few months into school, I caught pneumonia and had to take a few weeks off. I eased back into swimming around December and I knew that I was behind with the training. In order to get back into peak shape, I began training harder than ever, but my body still couldn’t keep up. One month later, I was in the emergency room with a severe respiratory infection. With the rest of my freshman season in the bucket, I was not off to a good start and my confidence knew it.

Going into my sophomore year, things did not get better. My body continued to succumb to respiratory problems and my coaches started to become frustrated. I, however, became my harshest critic. I couldn’t understand how I had gone from State Champion to not even being able to make the travel team. My confidence was at all all-time low and I began to hate swimming. It wasn’t fun anymore. It’s a crazy feeling, losing something that has always been your passion.

At the end of my sophomore season, I knew that it was time for me to retire from the sport. I was no longer excited about competing and I didn’t enjoy practice anymore. With my new-found freedom, I was excited to enjoy my last two years of college. I changed my major from Animal Science to Education and I was excited to explore my new life. At the beginning of my junior year I started to have different problems. I would show up to the gym to workout and would never enjoy myself. I hated being there because it reminded me of my swimming life. I didn’t feel good about myself because I was no longer in “good shape” and I was afraid of reaching hard levels because I didn’t want to get sick again. Exercise always reminded me of pain and I began to stay away from it all together.

At the end of my junior year, my professor handed my class The Art of Learning to read over the summer. She told us to read the book and just shoot her a quick email when we finished. As I was reading, I began to really relate to Josh’s story. He had managed to put all of my feelings into writing. He had chosen to leave something that had great meaning to him. Not only that but he had learned how to ignite passion into something new, how to make things exciting. After finishing the book in three days, I began a summer-long experiment: I was going to figure out how to like exercising again.

What I learned from Josh and my earlier days of swimming was that I needed to start slowly. I didn’t want to just throw myself into something because the overwhelming feeling would not be helpful. So I decided to take hour-long walks in the afternoons. No running, no intervals, no time standards; just walking. I would sometimes go by myself or with a few friends and I would just enjoy being outside. I did this for a few weeks and began to feel great because I was being healthier and it wasn’t too difficult. This was when I decided that I would make things more challenging, but not by too much. So I set a goal of being able to run one mile without stopping. I found that the challenge was difficult at the time but it began to get easier and easier. I was beginning to have fun with exercise again!

With the summer coming to an end, I was pleased with my results. I was able to run four miles without stopping and I began to practice yoga for stress-relief. However, when school began again things started to get harder. I wasn’t able to keep up with my strict summer regiment, but I never let things fall into shambles. The fall was a learning experience. I was doing well in the classroom and I still found time for exercise. I can honestly say that I did not train at NCAA division I level, but I did enough to satisfy myself and that is what I am excited to build upon. This past Thanksgiving I ran my first-ever four mile Turkey Trot and I finished with my chin held high. It was, and still is, a difficult journey that I am handling to this day.

The next question is, how does this enhance my teaching abilities? Although “teaching” is the name of my profession, “learning” and “understanding” are what the profession is all about. My experience with The Art of Learning has taught me that the concept of “learning” and “education” is an on-going journey. There will be good days and there will be bad days. What will you make of them? Learning to find comfort in exercise was something that has plagued me for a long time because of how overwhelmed I felt. When I was able to break it apart and take my time, I realized that I was able to really enjoy the activity and the whole experience. This approach is central to my educational philosophy now. Currently, I am a middle grades student teacher in an American Social Studies classroom. Instead of throwing big concepts at my students, I plan on starting small. When I am teaching I want them to find an aspect of history that they relate to so that they start to become more immersed on their own. When we start to hit on the larger topics and ideas, they will have a point of reference if they become confused or overwhelmed

All in all, I can say that this has been the most difficult piece that I have had to write in my four years of college because this story has made me who I am today. The Art of Learning is a book that will always be in the back of my mind when I am trying to understand and grow with my middle school students. By starting small and building upon new interests, my goal is to make my students into life-long learners.

Multitasking Virus in our Classrooms (Part II)

By Josh Waitzkin

I recently wrote an article about a heartbreaking new trend in our classrooms. In Universities throughout the US, students are surfing the internet, shopping online, Facebooking, and emailing while their professors speak to disengaged minds.

One can argue that kids have always passed notes, but this semester’s explosion of multi-tasking is on a terrifying scale and teachers nationwide are bereft. The Dean of the University of Chicago Law School just banned surfing during class. Harvard Business School was forced to cut off internet access. Columbia, Barnard and countless others are hustling for solutions, but students demand that their rights are not infringed upon.

You can read my account of this crisis and of the dangers of multitasking in this piece.  What I would like to do now is propose some actionable solutions to a cultural problem that extends far beyond our schools.

In my opinion, cutting off internet access in classrooms, while a good idea, is just addressing the symptom of a much broader disengagement. We have to get to the root of the problem by understanding why kids, and adults for that matter, are not deeply immersed in what they are doing.

What is getting in the way of presence? Alienation. From a very young age, kids are not being listened to and so they are turning off their minds. Horrible policies like No Child Left Behind, and the gauntlet of standardized tests our kids have to endure, are turning education into a forced march. Most of the professional world is an extension of the same problem. Everyone is being jammed into the same cookie cutter mold, and that is not how anyone will thrive. Below are some internal solutions to navigating an increasingly disconnected external environment.

1. Do what you love. This seems pretty obvious, but it’s incredible how few of us actually do it. Life is too short to bog ourselves down in a life that doesn’t inspire us. I believe that children, from a very young age, should be encouraged to pursue what they are passionate about. Most kids are drawn to something early—maybe it will be math, music, a sport, painting, dance, reading, chess, whatever. Once you see that spark of inspiration in your child’s eyes, encourage her to dive in. If we dig deeply into something, anything, at a young age, and we touch Quality, then that scent of Quality will be a beacon for us for the rest of our lives. We will know what it feels like. And we will know what it is like to love learning. Then, as adults, we should build our lives around what inspires us. It is common to box ourselves into a lucrative career that we hate, with the belief that the money will make us happy. Of course it will not. I have found that if we do what we love, and we do it passionately, the external will follow naturally.

2. Do it in a way you love and connect to. It is astonishing how this principle is ignored. All of us have different minds, and so our road to mastery will be unique. The art in the learning process emerges when we begin to tap into the unique nuance of our minds—when the walls are broken down between the conscious and unconscious minds, when creative inspiration directs our technical growth. There are some very simple questions we can ask ourselves to get moving in this direction. For example, am I primarily an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner? What about secondarily? I, for one, am a visual and kinesthetic processor. If I see ten phone numbers I can remember them, but if I hear one, it will be a challenge. Imagine if you have a teacher who is an auditory processor, speaking in his or her language to your child who has a visual mind. The disconnect will be huge. And your child might be incorrectly diagnosed with a learning disability.

But this is just one question. Are we charismatic, creative, aggressive, conservative, organized? Do we thrive in stormy conditions or when things are under control? Introspective sensitivity should be at the core of our learning process, so we can build games and loves around our strengths, and so we can address our weaknesses in a language that makes sense to us. This issue is very personal to me, as it precipitated the crisis that ended my chess career. I lost a life’s work because I did not listen to my gut, and it took me many years and a new discipline to return to my roots. We must be true to ourselves to thrive.

3. Give people a Choice and they become engaged. My mom told me a beautiful story a few nights ago. She learned to play chess from me and for the past fifteen years has run chess programs in schools in New York City and New Jersey. She’s the greatest teacher and mother I could ever dream of. In one of her kindergarten classes there is a little boy named Evan who drives all his teachers crazy. No matter what they are doing, he always wants to read a book. His school life has become defined by teachers taking books out of his hands, telling him to sit down and listen with the rest of the kids. This is unfortunately a typical response to an unusual mind.

So in my mom’s first few chess classes with Evan, she would be teaching a lesson on a demonstration board, or everyone would be playing chess games, and Evan would walk to the bookshelf, pick up a book, sit down and start reading. My mom’s solution: she smiled and gave Evan a chess book that covered similar material to what she was teaching. He immediately put down his other book, opened his eyes wide and started reading the chess book. The wonderful thing about the story is that after a few classes in which my mom embraced his mind and gave him a chess book to read, Evan started putting down the chess book and listening to her lessons. Then he started playing chess with the other kids instead of isolating himself. The next somewhat surprising step is that some other kids started asking for chess books too. The visual learners started to creep out of the woodwork, and the whole class now thrives because a teacher was willing to listen to them.

4. Release a fear of failure. This is a big issue. The constant testing in our schools, and the bottom-line language of our culture has kids terrified of failing. We’ve all heard the “I wasn’t trying” excuse. That is protecting the ego. And disengaging from any one thing by skipping along the surface of everything is another version of not trying. Many kids, by the way, have told me their attraction to video games is an escape from the pressures of the real world. They are safe from failing in that virtual reality. If we can relieve the fear of failure, then engagement will become a less terrifying experience.

Fortunately, this is not so difficult. Parents and teachers simply need to transition from result-oriented to process-oriented feedback. Tell a child you are proud of the work done instead of praising the result. Help them internalize what developmental psychologists call an incremental theory of intelligence—a perspective that associates the road to mastery with effort and overcoming adversity. The alternative, a fixed or entity theory associates success with an ingrained level of ability in a particular trait—thus the language “I’m smart at math.” This is a much more brittle approach because it does not embrace imperfection. Most valuable lessons come from learning from our errors, and if we associate messing up with being “dumb” then we can become paralyzed by a fear of failure. Think about it this way—if a well-intentioned parent tells a child that she is a winner, and that child associates success with being a winner, what happens when she inevitably loses? The winner becomes a loser. The developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has done very important research and writing in this field, and I have explored the dynamic in the context of my life in The Art of Learning.

5. Build positive routines.Cultivating new habits is the best way to get rid of bad ones. This is a simple truth with infinite application. We are creatures of habit, and so we should build positive routines into our lives. Exercise, honesty, process-oriented language, introspection, meditation, reading—anything we believe will help our growth can be put into a routine that will help us thrive. So if you are trying to get your child to stop playing video games, then I would suggest replacing the activity with something else that he or she loves to do but that is healthy—for example go outside and have a catch, read a book together, or go to a dance class during video game hours. Do this for 5 or 6 days in a row and the craving for reading or exercise will replace the craving for Nintendo.

Routines can also be built to help us enter states of deep concentration or connectedness. In my chess and martial arts careers, a moment without presence can have devastating effect, and building routines that I condense into triggers for the zone has been an integral part of my process.

6. Do one thing at a time. If we are tackling multi-tasking, we can replace the habit of doing 6 things at once with the routine of doing one thing at a time. Leo has written powerfully about the effectiveness of focusing on less, and I couldn’t agree more. Skipping along the surface will get us nowhere, and if we cultivate the muscle of digging deep, then it will grow. Not only will single-tasking increase effectiveness, but it will also open up our creativity in the learning process. We’ll start making connections we never dreamed of, because we’ll be touching the principles that operate everywhere.

Let’s take the martial arts as an example—most people want to start off by learning ten or fifteen fancy techniques that they’ve seen in movies or watched the advanced students apply. This will lead to years of wasted time and hollow learning. The more powerful approach is to spend days, weeks, even months on one relatively simple technique. What happens then is quite beautiful. You start to get a sense for what it feels like to do something well with your body. Your mechanics become unobstructed, you experience a smooth fluidity, you focus on subtle ripples of sensation. Once you reach this point of full body flow, you can turn your attention to other techniques and you will very quickly internalize them at a high level, because you know what Quality feels like—or in less abstract language, you have internalized axioms that govern all techniques. This same process applies to chess. Learn a principle deeply, and it will manifest everywhere. Whatever we are cultivating, depth beats breadth any day of the week.

7. Take Breaks. This is a terribly underappreciated tool, especially in the work place. When I begin to train a company, without exception I see too much linearity in the workday and creative process. People start the day buzzing with energy, but then after a few hours they are tired and perform at a much lower level. That’s when the hunt for coffee begins, there is a brief buzz, and the inevitable crash looms just around the corner.

There is no way we can focus intensely on something for many hours in a row without burning out. The human mind thrives in an oscillatory rhythm. We need to pulse between stress and recovery in order to think creatively over long periods of time. I learned this lesson in my chess career, trying to concentrate feverishly in world-class tournaments 8 hours a day for two weeks straight. After starting to train with the performance psychologists at the Human Performance Institute, I noticed that after an intense 13 minutes of thinking in a chess game, the quality of my process deteriorated slightly. So I started taking little breaks between chess moves or whenever my energy flagged—if extremely tired, I’d wash my face with cold water or even go outside and sprint 50 yards, which would flush my physiology and leave me energized. My endurance and creativity soared. A nap is a beautiful thing to fill up the tank. So is a quick 30 minute workout. A great way to improve mental recovery is with physical interval training. Have you or your child’s physical exercise follow the rhythm of stress and recovery, and your ability to take breaks and recover from mental strain will also improve dramatically.

A big obstacle in this battle against disengagement is guilt. We have so much to do and so little time, taking a break seems absurd—the same could be argued for doing what we love in a way we connect to, releasing perfectionism, giving ourselves some freedom to choose our way, building positive routines, and doing one thing at a time. Release the guilt! Four or six hours of high quality, inspired immersion will be infinitely more effective and satisfying than eight or ten hours of grinding your way through the day and getting locked into a mechanized, inside-the-box mode that ignores your true potential. For child and adult, learning or working should not be a forced march, and in order to engage deeply and creatively, we need to be as organic as possible by listening to our internal rhythms.

Reposted from zenhabits.net

Multitasking Virus in our Classrooms

By Josh Waitzkin

A few weeks ago, I returned to the classroom of Dennis Dalton, the most important college professor of my life. From the back of an amphitheater seating several hundred students, I realized how much things had evolved at Columbia and Barnard. The lecture hall was now equipped with a wireless sound system, webcams, video projectors, wireless internet. Students were using computers to record the lecture and to take notes. Heads were buried in screens, the tap tap of hundreds of keyboards like rain on the roof.

On this afternoon, April 16, 2008, Dalton was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world. Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom.

Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing. Brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana. But to be honest, on the educational front, multi-tasking feels to me like a symptom of a broader sense of alienation.

I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning. Throughout my youth, I had been a creative, aggressive chess player. I loved the battle, and wild, dynamic chess felt like an extension of my being. Then, in my late teens a coach urged me to play in the opposite style, his style of quiet, positional, cold-blooded prophylaxis. Instead of cultivating my natural strengths, he boxed me into the cookie cutter mold he knew. In time, I lost touch with my intuitive feeling for chess, and without an internal compass I foundered in the swells of fame and high-pressure competition.

I see myself in the eyes of so many kids today. Too many primary, elementary, and high schoolers are being boxed into the mold of conformity required by big classes, competition for grades, tests with multiple choice questions. The first grader who leaps to his feet when he figures out the math problem is diagnosed as ADHD and medicated to sit quietly with the class. Young learners have immense pressure to perform, to get good grades, but no one is listening to the nuance of their minds. They feel suppressed, they are suppressed, and by the time students get to college, they have become disconnected from the love of learning. Then they are asked to read 1000 pages in a week and skimming is the only solution. Many of the students who actually were engaged in the Gandhi lecture, the ones who wanted to learn more than to shop, were taking notes on their computers in a frenzy, researching events online while Dalton described them, typing every last word of the lecture. But Dalton had already supplied them with a detailed course packet with all the relevant dates and facts. His classroom is an environment for reflection, introspection, and letting resonant themes sink into your being. Unfortunately, to these college students the notion of delighting in the subtle ripples of learning is almost laughable. Who has the time?

The societal implications of this educational crisis are huge and the issue must be addressed creatively. We cannot afford to lose a generation to apathetic disengagement. Part of the responsibility lies in public policies like No Child Left Behind, the standardized tests that are turning education into a forced march, and a culture that bombards us with so much stimulation that it is difficult to know what to focus on. But part of the burden also lies with parents, teachers and coaches, and with students themselves. I recently tried to persuade two smart 11-year-olds to give up video games for three weeks. One agreed to the experiment, and to send me a description of how the process feels. The other simply couldn’t imagine life without the PSP, even for a day. Here was an eleven-year-old self-proclaimed incorrigible video game addict!

This story has a happy ending. In the final month of classes, Dennis Dalton discussed the issues of multi-tasking with his students, and many responded. Last week when I went back to hear the final lecture of Dalton’s Barnard career, there were only a few kids surfing the internet—nearly all the students seemed riveted. Many told me they were relieved to have turned off their computers and relaxed into listening. A number of my old classmates came, and afterwards we threw a party for our teacher. After four decades inspiring college minds, he has decided to nip apathy in the bud by teaching younger kids. He will start with high school, but Dennis Dalton, one of our culture’s greatest minds, dreams of teaching kindergarten.

Reposted from The Blog of Tim Ferriss