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Category: Loving the Game

Loving the Game of Making Music


There is a powerful memory, which always resurfaces when I am helping people make music. It is of my brother, my sister and myself, ages 7, 6 and 5, digging through a crate of Legos, working on whatever it is our minds were determined to build. In that serene setting we found ourselves making something a little less touchable.. It would be a wonderful, completely spontaneous and improvised song, comprised of tongue clicks, whoops, tiki-tikis, nhya-nhye-nhyes and a whole array of sounds from our imaginary languages. It was a sort of trance-like ritual of our little tribe and I can never tell how long this composition lasted. It was so enchanting that we had a hard time bringing it to an end. We laughed so hard as each tried to put a silly punctuation to it.

I’ve seen this exhilarating creativity many times, not only in children, but in grown-ups as well. And I mean solemn grown-ups, dealing with adversities, all of which seem to crumble away while making music, as if they stepped through a portal to their childhood curiosity and excitement. As a musician and a workshop facilitator, the principle Loving the Game resonates with me in a powerful way.

In my experiences with music education, I’ve had difficulty reconciling with the dryness of the learning process. Through all of it, I’ve come to believe that learners relate best to the great composers and their work if they themselves are encouraged to be artists.

What I do is guide groups to make their own music. The groups vary in age and musical experiences. My task is to guide them out of their sphere of knowledge, into an open place where it’s safe to “not know”. Here there is room for abstract thought, for silliness, for darkness, for music they are not required to analyze, label or explain.

A crucial aspect of the process is the absence of written music. The workshop is an aural experience, which creates a powerful connection to the artwork and to the other artists.

One approach is by starting off the process with abstract content that is within their grasp, like rhythms using assigned numbers per some visual parameters, introducing color coded groups of notes, discussing topics from other areas etc.

After the introduction of the abstract, the participants split up into smaller groups and are left with a somewhat open task. Their minds can now tinker with the material they’ve been introduced to. They are then discovering other building blocks of music and seeing how they work alone or together, then inverted, reversed, stretched out, squeezed, mangled etc.

While they are working on their pieces, my role is to ask questions, offer different points of view and carefully nudge them if needed. This is often the time to encourage them to follow through with some ‘crazy’ impulse, if they were having second thoughts. As they swing between the open, explorative realm and everyday social habits and fears, validation can give them a much needed boost to take their composition further than they might have thought possible.

It’s important to emphasize the uniqueness of each artist and help them understand there aren’t any bad ideas, though some work better with others. Much like my, siblings each of us contributing a layer to the chant, it can be magical when these unique voices/ideas find their way to fit together.

As the music makers enter this open space, a natural process has been activated. Now there is a sense of camaraderie among the group, people are supporting each other, teaching each other little bits of music, combining, trying out, changing and improving. Honestly, sometimes it’s mind-blowing how fast things can move in the open space.

It’s easy (and valuable) to get lost for a while in the endless ocean of musical possibilities. There might be a moment a group needs someone to “translate” their open ideas into clear tasks. I find short time constraints to be a wonderful challenge, especially now that the group is working together against the clock.
One of the most beautiful results of the creative process is the focus on quality and intention. Most of the time, it comes completely naturally, as the artists assume ‘ownership’ of their compositions. It’s a powerful thing to observe and the intensity of a performance is hard to describe. It can even be too intense, as I’ve gotten into serious trouble with some fourth graders when my phone went off during a recording of their piece.

There is a tremendous source of energy to be found in Loving the Game. I believe this to be a sustainable energy, which can keep the creative mind returning to the timeless realm, where presence and selflessness bring beautiful art into existence. Moreover, when the music making is a shared experience, it opens up a whole world of connections between the artists.

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.

The Art of Learning on Horseback


The principle that I truly identified with is “Loving the Game.” I’ve been passionate about horseback riding for a long time and I’ve probably worked harder at it than at anything else in my life because of my love for it. I’m so lucky to have found a pursuit I’m passionate about at a young age.

As an equestrian, The Art of Learning aided my progression as both a rider and a competitor. A few months ago, I was having trouble in competition. My horse and I would drop at least one rail every time we entered the show ring and, even more frequently than I was comfortable with, at home, in practice. Frankly, I was confused because I knew my horse had the physical ability, and yet, we could not have a clear round.


Horseback riding is essentially the mastery of very basic  concepts, as explained in the “Numbers to Leave Numbers”  chapter. The most complicated maneuvers come only after the basics have been perfected. After reading that chapter, I took myself back to the absolute basics.

I videotaped my riding and examined my horse’s jumping style along with my body motions as we approached and cleared the fences we took down. I found that the rails were coming down not as a result of my horse’s physical ability but as a result of my own incorrect position over the fences. I had been landing on his back before his rear legs had reached the highest point of the fence, thereby causing him to catch the rail. I began focusing on that one aspect of my riding until it was no longer an issue for us.

The “Power of Presence” is another principle that manifested itself in my riding. My trainer always expressed to me the importance of being, as she says, “in the zone”. But I had trouble concentrating inwardly in the midst of the chaos happening around me.

I had her read the chapter on presence and her reaction was to have me recite my every move out loud in order to shift my focus from what was going on around me to my horse and riding.

In time, I found that I could block out everything except my horse and our performance together. The advantages of being aware and alert in one’s surroundings during competition became even more evident to me. Now, before every competition, I resort to reading this one chapter so as to bring myself back to that calm presence I need to compete successfully.

Debate and The Art of Learning: A Reflection

Tian Yan 2

Guest Blogger: Tian Yan

This article is about how I apply the practice of debate and the ideas discussed in Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” to my own personal development. Like Josh, I’m writing as honestly as I can, and in doing so, am sharing with you the most personal aspects of my life—things I’ve not even told my closest friends.

My name is Tian Yan. I’m a final-year software engineering undergraduate from Malaysia.

Three years ago, I dropped out of a top-20-world-ranking university because I was failing my academic course. I returned to Malaysia and continued my education in the Asia Pacific University College of Technology and Innovation (UCTI).

For more than a year, I battled personal demons because I got kicked out from the university I worked so hard to enter. I was more disappointed in myself than other people were and I wasn’t sure if I could ever accomplish anything difficult again. Having to restart my education with much younger peers did not help matters.

But then I discovered debating.


A friend asked me to participate in an upcoming debate tournament. I was scared as hell because I had scars from debating back in high school. Fortunately, I quickly agreed to participate before my mind gave me excuses not to go. I needed to regain a sense of accomplishment.

I learned to love the game. We got killed in that first tournament, but I made many close friends who took me under their wings and taught me the foundational skills of debate.

In my second tournament, we broke through the quarter-finals as underdogs. A debate adjudicator thought we had potential and trained us for free in a one-day crash course.

In my third tournament, we gave it everything we had. Even though we had had only four months of debating, we managed to emerge in the octo-finals of the Asian British Parliamentary debating championship. I hadn’t felt so alive in a very long time.

More important, I always meet someone new in every tournament. When we compete against each other, it feels almost like a reunion. In his book, Josh says that “Experience is what you get when you don’t win.” I would add: “Friendships are what you get just for trying.”

I discovered Josh’s “The Art Of Learning” through an interview he did with Dave Lakahni and Dr. Ben Mack. When Josh shared his insights in winning world chess championships and Tai Chi Push Hands tournaments, they resonated with my own debating experience: How Josh found his love for chess and described the experience as “reconnecting with a lost memory”….How he turned down the offer to share the world championship title with a draw because it was not a meaningful win….And how he transfered his excellence from chess to Tai Chi, a sport outside his domain.

All that felt just like my experience with debating.

Like white chess pieces, the Government team has the strategic advantage over the Opposition team in deciding the first move.

As in Tai Chi, we tempt our opponents to overextend their case beyond the limits of their arguments and use their admissions to prove our own case in no definite order.

Like Josh, debaters create chaos in debates and trap our opponents with an unexpected attack.

After studying Josh’s ideas, debating took on a whole different meaning for me. I now see it as a vehicle for developing mental discipline and keeping my mind even and focused during critical moments. The practice influenced my debating philosophy and taught me to love my rival opponents, even the ones who played dirty. In Josh’s words:“Your opponent is your enemy, yet there is no one who knows you more intimately, no one who challenges you so profoundly and pushes you so relentlessly.”

Since we’re stuck without a coach, it can be intimidating to debate against world champions and other seasoned debaters. And so, part of our practice is to learn everything we can from every opportunity we get. The pressure I feel to win lies in the fact that my career started late. I’ve only six months left to debate and if I can accomplish something worthwhile, I will have no reason to believe I cannot master anything difficult again – even though I was a university drop-out once.

Yet, too many peop3d human with a red question markle enter debate tournaments not to win, but to “not to lose.” And that’s a shame because they never strive to win and therefore miss out on the cumulative benefits that can make them better. Unfortunately, some people see winning as the only option and can never accept their loss. And that’s a shame too because they don’t understand that losses are an important investment in self-discovery. That’s why we always remember our most humbling losses.

Finally, I learned to ask myself this question: “Does my debating make me a better person?” Being a debater does not mean I have the license to be rude and right all the time. Instead, the practice of debate has only gone to show me how the many months I spent in debate training failed to make me a better person. That’s why my passion for learning to debate better now includes teaching it to others – this makes me feel like a better person and fulfills my sense of accomplishment.

I challenge you to strive for a similar sense of achievement through your own pursuits.

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