by SEAN DELANEY –
Something that has always fascinated me is the concept of a Polymath or Renaissance Man, or a person who has many talents and knowledge in multiple domains. One of the modern day polymaths I’ve learned the most from is Josh Waitzkin. When it comes to touching excellence in multiple domains Josh is one of the best. Waitzkin was a National Chess Champion at the age of 9 and then took on the martial art Tai Chi Chuan and ultimately earned the title of World Champion. He since then has become a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blackbelt. How was he able to reach the pinnacle of three disciplines that on the surface seem so different? That’s what I plan on uncovering in this distillation of Josh Waitzkin.
This distillation will be uncovering the themes and principles that have guided Josh’s journey on the path to excellence in multiple domains. At the end I uncover the 20 Learning Principles Josh uses.
Josh is someone who is in search of wisdom, foundational principles and a better way of going through life. It’s a search, a journey that never ends and one we’re all on. Waitzkin doesn’t sit back and theorize about life, he goes all in. His knowledge and understanding is based on action not philosophizing. For Josh his real journey has always been the inner journey.
“When I think of Josh Waitzkin, I think of vitality. Love has driven his supernormal learning and achievements. When I seek words that best point to his character and values—passion, joy, introspection, intuition, integrity, authenticity, creativity, self-expression, and unlearning come to mind.”
“When I look at Josh in my mind’s eye, I see a young man wise beyond his years, very private yet very public, alive with energy yet deeply relaxed, supremely confident yet genuinely humble, intensely focused on his own journey yet abundantly contributing to the social good.”
Table of Contents
- Unobstructed Self Expression
- Thematic Learning
- Depth over Breadth
- Go towards Stress, Tension & Weaknesses
- Life works in Oscillation
“Those who succeed at the elite levels of any discipline have built relationships to learning around subtle introspective sensitivity. They understand how their minds work, and both cultivate strengths and take on weaknesses through their unique natural voice. They have learned to open communication between their conscious and unconscious minds, and construct repertoires around moments of creative inspiration. They have built triggers for their peak performance state, learned how to funnel emotion into deep focus, turned adversity to their advantage as a way of life—and they have done all of this in a manner and language that feels natural to them. That is how they seem so unobstructed, so fluid…they are just being themselves. Like children.”
“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. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way.”
“But there’s a confidence that he goes into things. And it’s the thing where you can walk into a room where no one believes in you but yourself. But your self-belief is so profound that you’re unstoppable. The way I relate to that, if you try to deconstruct it, is that that sense of inevitability of success comes from self-expression, from knowing that you’re playing your game and you’re playing your game better than anyone else in the world could. And you build everything around the uniqueness of who you are.”
Unobstructed Self Expression
“Everything I’ve done when I’ve been flying in my learning process, in my performance, psychology and my competitive energy, it’s been a form of self expression, love, and when I’ve been obstructed, it’s been trying to fit into a mold that wasn’t right for me.”
- To be truly elite you have to express who you are at the core through your art. 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. This is a similar theme of how Bruce Lee led his life. Bruce believed in honest self-expression in all that you do is of utmost importance. Josh has trained himself to be true to himself because that’s when he works best. He has an allergy to doing anything else.
- There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information—but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. 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.
“It’s the movement towards unobstructed self-expression. If you think about your creative process as a hose with a big crimp in it, if you release it, just unbelievable pressure can be released. And a lot of what I’m doing with people is trying to move them from very good to great or from great to truly elite, deeply individualized work. I’m helping them really find ways to express the core of their being through their art, which is as you know a big theme in my life from when I played chess at my highest level.”
- Ultimately you have to embrace your funk; embrace your eccentricity; embrace what makes you different and then build on it.
“I have built a lifestyle around being true to myself. Maybe a big reason is because my mom used to always tell me as a kid to follow my heart, follow my dreams. I never made decisions for money or for external things. I always trusted that if I was true to myself, these things would follow. And so my professional life, my foundation, my school, I only work with people who I feel are ethically aligned, who have a good energy, who I feel really good about intuitively.”
Living on the Other Side of Pain
“I’ve trained for many, many years at this principle of living on either side of pain: learning to turn what feels uncomfortable, learning to turn that place of mental resistance at the stretch point into something that I crave, that I love, that I enjoy.”
- To achieve excellence, a counterintuitive notion you have is: most people seek to avoid pain and discomfort. After you achieve some mastery, you learn to ignore the pain. You must seek it out and embrace it.
- Most people avoid the stretch points in life, so they’re mediocre. But it gives us opportunity if we live at our stretch point, there will be pain. Pain can be physical pain or mental resistance. We can change our relationship to discomfort so we hunger for the growth edge rather than hide from it. What if we love the risk, love our stretch point?
“I’m always looking for ways to push myself so I don’t stop craving the dynamic edge. We can train ourselves to do that, have a core habit like ice plunging, crave our resistance point and our growth curve goes through the roof.”
- Wouldn’t it be liberating to, in that moment of pain, to realize that it will lead to great insight? And going into it, put our hearts on the line but know that if it doesn’t work out, we will learn. People often take that and go too far, saying it doesn’t matter win/lose, and they don’t fully engage. You have to fully engage. But also have an understanding that disappointments provide the greatest insights.
- When we lay our hearts on the line, we feel pain most people don’t feel because they’re not all in. And when you’re all in, it opens deep reservoirs of the human experience.
“First you feel pain, the panic “get me out of here!”. But you must come to peace with that pain and learn to enjoy it. It’s learning to completely love chaos till the tension isn’t grinding on you. You’re not a tectonic plate moving toward eruption, you’re getting stronger as the tension builds, and that’s something that I think is beautiful to train at.”
- If you want to be a world-class performer, mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait. The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.
Embracing Failure & Pain
“These moments in my life were wracked with pain, but they were also defining gut-checks packed with potential. The setbacks taught me how to succeed. And what kept me on my path was a love for learning.”
Depth Over Breadth in the Learning Process
“My approach is one that prioritizes depth before breath. Almost everyone goes the other way, breadth first or go wide and then deep. Or maybe go wide and never go deep, which is actually what our culture tends to be moving toward – everyone’s distracted doing a million things at once.”
- 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. This has the potential to distinguish success from failure in the pursuit of excellence.
- In our world today everyone races to learn more and more, but nothing is done deeply. Things look pretty but they are superficial, without a sound body mechanic or principled foundation. Nothing is learned at a high level and what results are performers who are operating on a suspect foundation. It’s all superficial.
“If you do something with incredible depth, you develop this feel for quality. That’s what I want for my kids. I want them to explore quality and love and have them just feel how beautiful it is to do art deeply in a way that they are so passionate about.”
- “Let’s say we have three skills to learn. The typical approach is to take them all on at once. It is much more effective to plunge deeply into one, touch Quality, and then transfer that feeling of Quality over to the others. A martial artist, for example, should internalize one technique very deeply instead of trying to learn 10 or 15 superficially. This approach engages the unconscious, creative aspects of our minds, and we start making thematic connections which greatly accelerate growth. It is also important to point out that deep presence is required for a state of neural plasticity to be triggered—our brain does not remap effectively when we are skipping along the surface.”
- The key is to recognize that the principles making one simple technique tick were the same fundamentals that fueled the whole expansive system
- 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.
Principle of Quality
“It’s such a beautiful, incredible principle. Most people think they can wait around for the big moments to turn it on. But if you don’t cultivate turning it on as a way of life in the little moments – and there’s hundreds more times little moments than big – then there’s no chance in the big moments.”
- Josh learned the principle of quality from Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- Josh learned to touch quality during his days playing chess. “Quality for Waitzkin is both a process and an outcome. It is the process of learning to do something exceedingly well, or learning an exceedingly good way to do something. And it is the result that one savors or relishes. In martial arts, quality for Waitzkin also entailed mastering the fundamentals, which he would do by hours and hours of mindful practice, breaking down complex movements into their respective components, repeating each component slowly until he had internalized it (could do it without thinking), linking the components into one seamless movement, practicing the whole movement slowly, making subtle adjustments along the way, and gradually increasing the speed, power and effortlessness within the movement. Attention to detail. Going deep. Making smaller circles. Studying the micro to learn the macro. These are Waitzkinian constructs that appear and reappear in his narrative and this study, which capture something of the nature and importance of quality.”
- “When a beautiful chess combination unfolds, or a sweet martial move is unleashed with lightning speed and devastating results, quality is savored and deep fulfillment ensues. The emotional feedback drives the ongoing quest for quality or excellence, recognizing that the process is never-ending and exquisite. Once you’ve tasted quality in one element of your life you are always in search of it.”
- “Waitzkin was much inspired by Pirsig’s iconic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The two men’s understanding of Quality (with a capital Q in Pirsig’s work) has much in common. Waitzkin devotes the first section of his chapter “Making Smaller Circles” in The Art of Learning to a story in Zen and the Art, to illustrate the importance for Waitzkin of quality, and starting with reduced levels of complexity, in order to get the ball rolling, as it were. The story had a powerful effect on Waitzkin, for it showed him how creativity and quality can be manifested, once we get the clutter out of the way. A student who had to write an essay on her town just couldn’t get started. Phaedrus (the protagonist of quality in Pirsig’s classic) advised her to start by writing about a particular brick in a particular building, and that all would follow from there. It did. More than twenty inspired pages flowed out of the student, whose writing had previously been blocked. A metaphysics of quality lies at the heart of Waitzkin’s lifeworld. For Josh, quality is a verb and a noun, a subject and an object, a process and an outcome, an event, an experience. “Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects” (Pirsig, 1974/1999, p. 247). That is why, when we touch quality in our lives—and experts touch quality more often and more deeply than do non-experts—subject–object, agent–action dichotomies dissolve.”
- The little things are the big things because they’re a reflection of how you do anything is how you do everything.
Making Smaller Circles
“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.”
- A classic example of this could be Bruce Lee and his famous One Inch Punch. Lee has reached a level of quality where his punch packs so much potency even from one inch where others may take a foot to develop the same type of power.
“The key is to take small steps, so the body can barely feel the condensing practice. Each little refinement is monitored by the feeling of the punch, which I gained from months or years of training with the large, traditional motion. Slowly but surely, my body mechanics get more and more potent. My waist needs little movement to generate speed. My hand can barely move and still deliver a powerful blow.”
- “This is where Making Smaller Circles and slowing down time come into play. When working with highly skilled and mentally tough opponents, the psychological game gets increasingly subtle. The battle becomes about reading breath patterns and blinks of the eye, playing in frames the opponent is unaware of, invisible technical manipulation that slowly creates response patterns. If I understand a series of movements more deeply, in more frames, with more detail, then I can manipulate my opponent’s intention without him realizing what happened.”
“Lateral thinking or thematic thinking – the ability to take a lesson from one thing and transfer it over – I think is one of the most important disciplines that any of us can cultivate or ways of being.”
- One of Josh’s greatest strengths as a learner is his ability of Parallel Learning or Lateralization. He’s been able to understand the foundational building blocks across different domains and translate them from one another. This is how he’s gone from a world class chess champion to a world class martial artist.
“When you learn a technique, you’re learning one thing, when you’re learning a principle that embodies a technique, you might be learning a thousand things. And so designing a learning process around the meta. I’m working on internalizing certain core concepts, principles. The techniques fall within the tree beneath the principle. So meta training”
The Internal Spirit is the Best Teacher of Myself 20 Years From Now
This is a thematic practice as if yourself 20 years into the future is your teacher today.
“No one will know me better than myself 20 years from now. If my goal is unobstructed self-expression or self-actualization within an art, then the person who’s teaching me should be the person who knows me most deeply. And that’s my person 20 years from now. The person 20 years from now is also a helpful visualization in being the person who would understand what my false constructs are today, and yesterday, and a year from now. It’s very easy to get stuck in the mindset, “I didn’t know before but I know it today.”
- This visualization is designed to help you know what you don’t know.
“It’s so easy to think that we were in the dark yesterday but we’re in the light today, but we’re fucking in the dark today, too.”
- Avoid people who claim to not be in “the dark”, they don’t understand themselves enough if they claim that.
Finding a Teacher
The key to finding a teacher is finding someone who can truly understand us. The vast majority of teachers teach the way they learn. They have their way of learning and teach all their students to learn that way. By definition it will alienate 75% of the students. Teachers teach one way and most of their students are left behind. So find the teacher that listens first.
“When I train people, 99% of what I do is listening. Not just with dialogue, but study them, through my observation of them, reading their journals, their biometrics, dialogues with consultants I have them work with, psychologists. Get the insights from every place I can on the essence of what’s happening with that person. I just try to feel someone deeply.”
- Learning is toward unobstructed self-expression. That’s the goal. The core of who we are through our art. We need to find a teacher who will help us on that road to self-discovery.
- Often the most important thing to do is for the teacher to get out of the way. You want people to live at their stretch point, what they can barely reach. You need someone to embrace dynamic quality over static quality. Then it’s unbelievable what can happen. An ideal relationship between mentor and apprentice is a shared love for the art of what they’re doing together.
“At the razor’s edge of decision making or athletics or anything, the greatest insight is right next to a blunder. If you’re pushing yourself to your outer reaches as a way of life, you can dance on that edge with somebody.”
- You need a teacher who’s willing to go all in on you and allow you to go for those stretch points.
Finding a Teacher for a Child
- Look for a teacher who is going to study the student and feel the essence of his mind before throwing stuff at the student. No ego about it. A teacher like this needs a high enough technical mastery to be that flexible in their teaching style.
- Deep mastery, attunement, love of the journey, and someone who will teach the art in a way that will inspire a love of process as opposed to quick results. We want to learn about life through what we are studying. Not just learn about that thing.
- On the learning curve accurate feedback is critical. Depending on the time delay (short in sports long in investing) you may have to get creative in how to build in feedback loops.
- Mentors, truth tellers, and studying past behavior are critical resources for feedback. You have to be willing to receive feedback and that’s where a lot of people are unwilling to go because it’s hard.
“For a coach or a trainer to give you feedback, for you to let that feedback in, they have to know you very deeply. So there’s a lot of trainers, for example, who can’t get outside of their own conceptual scheme. So they tell you what you should do based on what they would do, or what would work for them, or what they would want to do if they were in your shoes at that moment.”
- Cultivating a close ecosystem of people who you can trust to be honest with you in their pushback is really important. You also need to be aware of people not understanding your authentic self expression and advising you in the wrong way. Feedback is critical but receiving the right feedback is more important than no feedback.
“In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important.”
- Intuition and the subconscious are recurring themes across great artists, athletes and investors but often aren’t talked about because of the stigma towards these concepts. Josh sheds light on the importance of intuition and the subconscious and how he’s used it to provide clarity and insights in his life.
“Most of us have also had the experience of meeting someone and having a powerfully good or bad feeling about them, without knowing why. I have found that, even if a few times it has taken years to pan out, these guiding instincts have been on the money. Along the same lines, in my chess days, nearly all of my revelatory moments emerged from the unconscious. My numbers to leave numbers approach to chess study was my way of having a working relationship with the unconscious parts of my mind. I would take in vast amounts of technical information that my brain somehow put together into bursts of insight that felt more like music or wind than mathematical combinations. Increasingly, I had the sense that the key to these leaps was interconnectedness—some part of my being was harmonizing all my relevant knowledge, making it gel into one potent eruption…”
Improve Seeking Out Better Competition
- You may never know what great talent looks like until you face it. This has been an essential component of my growth both in sports and business. Step into the arena with an elite competitor and you immediately are aware of how little you know or how unskilled you are.
“As I cultivated my strengths, I also had to take on the more abstract elements of high-level chess so I could compete effectively with more seasoned opponents. Just as muscles get stronger when they are pushed, good competitors tend to rise to the level of the opposition. The adult chess world toughened me up, made me introspective and always on the lookout for flaws to be improved on.”
The Soft Zone
“I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise. Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously.”
- “The initial step along this path is to attain what sports psychologists call The Soft Zone. Envision the Zone as your performance state. You are concentrating on the task at hand, whether it be a piece of music, a legal brief, a financial document, driving a car, anything. Then something happens. Maybe your spouse comes home, your baby wakes up and starts screaming, your boss calls you with an unreasonable demand, a truck has a blowout in front of you.The nature of your state of concentration will determine the first phase of your reaction—if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure. The alternative is for you to be quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed with a serene look on your face, but inside all the mental juices are churning. You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.”
- Another way of envisioning the importance of the Soft Zone is through an ancient Indian parable that has been quite instructive in my life for many years:
- A man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world.
“I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges.”
Josh approaches learning through the 4 stages of learning:
1. Unconscious incompetence – “I don’t know how bad I am”
2. Conscious incompetence – “This sucks. I know how bad I am”
*(most people quit here)
3. Conscious competence – “I can do this if I focus”
4. Unconscious competence – “I don’t remember the last 10 minutes of driving my car”
Why do most people quit at Conscious Incompetence? They don’t do the work to truly understand deeply enough. People are too busy to put in required time and use the time requirement as an excuse to put in that level of commitment. It’s an embarrassing stage if your ego is tied up with it so suspending the ego is a critical component to getting past the Conscious Incompetence stage. You want to reach a level of Unconscious Competence where your subconscious is doing the work without you thinking – like tying your shoes or driving a car.
In order to reach a high level understanding it’s about understanding what are the component parts and doing lots of reps in them so that you’re comfortable with them, then putting them all together. Josh’s learning process won’t look great in the first couple of days or couple of weeks but since he doesn’t get caught up in his ego he’s comfortable with that.
Our ego holds us back.
- Josh has spent the last few years learning how to Efoil. In EFoiling he’s observed there is a groupthink of “what looks cool” and when you’re concerned with that, you won’t try new things outside of that. An example is that people don’t want their Instagram Efoiling videos to have them in a helmet so if they aren’t ever practicing without a helmet they can’t try more dangerous moves to speed up their learning curve. If they’re only concerned with looking good on camera then they’ll never expose themselves to failure in a way that’s necessary to improve.
“Embracing, looking absurd in certain moments is a very interesting hack to what others might not be taking advantage of in the learning process”
- Deconstruct component parts ? internalize component parts ? go all in on chaos.
Focus / Presence
“If deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art, and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line. 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.”
“I learned this lesson in my late teens/early twenties trying to stay concentrated for 8 hours a day, two weeks at a time in world chess championships—I would burn out. When I started taking mini breaks, my endurance and quality of focus surged. Stress and recovery should be our rhythms, and physical interval training can be an excellent tool for improving mental recovery. One of many problems with multi-tasking is that the frenetic skipping leaves little room for relaxation, and thus our reservoir for energetic presence is constantly depleted.”
If you learn how to physiologically embody the experience that you’re watching someone else go through or that you’re thinking about then we can save ourselves a huge amount of pain instead of having to actually experience it. Your brain has trouble knowing the difference between actually lived experience and an intense visualization experience. This is an incredible superpower for rewiring our brain and it’s a muscle we can develop.
“Learning how to put yourself into an intense physiological state through visualization. For example, cold plunging, your body will go into an intense physiological state, you can attach a trigger to that, then you can go into that fight-or-flight state if you choose to. So for example, one of the things you do cold plunge is you get into, say, freezing water, and then you learn to breathe yourself—it takes a while initially, but then pretty quickly—into a state of calm. Your heart rate goes very fast, you’re hyperventilating a little, and you just chill it out and you’re in a calm state. You can also choose not to go there. You can choose to get in the water and not breathe to that state of calm, and then you can sit in that state of alarm and that can become a state that you could use as a trigger for certain visualizations.”
How Josh used Intense Visualization to heal his broken arm:
“There was also an intriguing physical component of my recovery. I wanted to compete in the Nationals, so bizarre though it may sound I resolved not to atrophy. At this point in my life I was very involved in the subtle internal dynamics of the body through Tai Chi meditation. I had an idea that I might be able to keep my right side strong by intense visualization practice. My method was as follows: I did a daily resistance workout routine on my left side, and after every set I visualized the workout passing to the muscles on the right. My arm was in a cast, so there was no actual motion possible—but I could feel the energy flowing into the unused muscles. I admit it was a shot in the dark, but it worked. My whole body felt strong, and when the doctor finally took off my cast he was stunned. Four days before the Nationals an X-ray showed that my bone was fully healed, and I had hardly atrophied at all. The doctor cleared me to compete. On Wednesday I did my first weight workout on my right side in seven weeks, on Friday I flew to San Diego, and on Saturday, slightly favoring my newly empowered left arm, I won the Nationals.”
Being at Peace in Chaos
Josh has trained himself to not only be comfortable in chaos but actually be at peace with it. One of the ways he’s trained being at peace in the chaos is putting his body in an “alarmed” state such as a meditation practice and cold plunges. I think that deconstructing it is really important.
Josh looks for ways he can train at this with what he calls “reps hidden in plain sight” or finding ways to train throughout everyday life.
“Because we ultimately don’t want to be meditating in a flower garden. We want to be able to meditate and have a meditative state throughout our lives – in a hurricane, in a thunderstorm, when sharks are attacking you – any moment.”
Don’t expect to reach this state instantaneously, it takes years.
“Learn how to do this in a controlled, un-stressful environment and then you can ratchet up over time to when you can use it in the most stressful of environments”
Three critical steps in a resilient performer’s evolving relationship to chaotic situations:
- First, we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection.
- Next, in our performance training, we learn to use that imperfection to our advantage—for example thinking to the beat of the music or using a shaking world as a catalyst for insight.
- The third step of this process, as it pertains to performance psychology, is to learn to create ripples in our consciousness, little jolts to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring.
Relaxation to Improve Performance
Being able to relax is a critical component of Josh’s ability to improve performance. As children, we might be told to “concentrate” by parents and teachers, and then be reprimanded if we look off into the stars. So the child learns to associate not focusing with being “bad.” The result is that we concentrate with everything we’ve got until we can’t withstand the pressure and have a meltdown.
“This tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive. Whenever I visit scholastic chess events today, I see coaches trying to make themselves feel useful or showing off for parents by teaching students long technical lessons immediately following a two-hour game and an hour before the next round. Let the kid rest! Fueling up is much more important than last-minute cramming—and at a higher level, the ability to recover will be pivotal.”
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. 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.”
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 real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.
Life Works in Oscillation
I have come to understand that these little breaks from the competitive intensity of my life have been and still are an integral part of my success.
“Most people in high-stress, decision-making industries are always operating at this kind of simmering six, as opposed to the undulation between deep relaxation and being at a 10”
In order to switch on intensely you need to switch off intensely. In order to focus 10/10 you need to relax at 0/10. Build in rest and recovery for all elements of life
You can learn to control your ability to function in high stress situations. You can build in a HIIT workout routine where you focus on getting your heart rate from peak to as low as possible as quickly as possible. This will translate to any high stress situation where now you’ll be in control.
“The fields of learning and performance are an exploration of greyness—of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if stretched too thin, they will snap. A competitor needs to be process-oriented, always looking for stronger opponents to spur growth, but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence. We have to release our current ideas to soak in new material, but not so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents. Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.”
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.
If you are at work and find yourself running out of mental stamina, take a break, wash your face, and come back renewed. It would be an excellent idea to spend a few minutes a day doing some simple meditation practice.
“The unconscious mind is a powerful tool, and learning how to relax under pressure is a key first step to tapping its potential”
Deep immersion then reflection:
“I think of the learning process as an undulation between periods of deep emotion and periods of surfacing and reflection. As a competitor, you’re deeply engaged in the battle. Then you surface and reflect. And you shouldn’t confuse the two. I’ve harnessed that undulation in my life. In my chess career, I’d have periods of playing 2–3 tournaments in a row, and I was deeply involved in the fight. The tournaments would be 9–10 days long. I’d travel, then I’d come back for an intensive month of study. I’ve been conscious about not letting one state interfere with the other.”
Creating a Trigger for Catalyzing Performance
“This is a problem I have seen in many inconsistent performers. They are frustrated and confused trying to find an inspiring catalyst for peak performance, as if the perfect motivational tool is hovering in the cosmos waiting for discovery. My method is to work backward and create the trigger. I have observed that virtually all people have one or two activities that move them in this manner, but they usually dismiss them as “just taking a break.”
If only they knew how valuable their breaks could be!.
- “The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes. Dennis was always present when playing ball with his son, so all we had to do was set up a routine that became linked to that state of mind (clearly it would have been impractical for Dennis to tow Jack around everywhere he went). Once the routine is internalized, it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge. Let me emphasize that your personal routine should be determined by your individual tastes. The next step of the process is to gradually alter the routine so that it is similar enough so as to have the same physiological effect, but slightly different so as to make the “trigger” both lower-maintenance and more flexible. The key is to make the changes incrementally, slowly, so it is more similar than different from the last version of the routine. This way the body and mind have the same physiological reaction even if the preparation is slightly shorter.”
- “But I did not leave it at that. I had learned that martial arts tournaments are, if anything, unpredictable. We don’t always have five minutes of peace and quiet before going to battle. Incrementally, I started shortening the amount of form I did before starting my training. I did a little less than the whole form, then 3/4 of it, 1/2, 1/4. Over the course of many months, utilizing the incremental approach of small changes, I trained myself to be completely prepared after a deep inhalation and release. I also learned to do the form in my mind without moving at all. The visualization proved almost as powerful as the real thing. This idea is not without precedent—recall the numbers to leave numbers, form to leave form, and Making Smaller Circles discussions in Part II. At a high level, principles can be internalized to the point that they are barely recognizable even to the most skilled observers.
The ideal for any performer is flexibility. If you have optimal conditions, then it is always great to take your time and go through an extended routine. If things are less organized, then be prepared with a flexible state of mind and a condensed routine.
It would be easy to read about the studies on entity vs. incremental theories of intelligence and come to the conclusion that a child should never win or lose. I don’t believe this is the case. If that child discovers any ambition to pursue excellence in a given field later in life, he or she may lack the toughness to handle inevitable obstacles. While a fixation on results is certainly unhealthy, short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy.
Too much sheltering from results can be stunting. The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be the greatest at what they do—we need to be psychologically prepared to face the unavoidable challenges along our way, and when it comes down to it, the only way to learn how to swim is by getting in the water.
- On the other hand, it is okay for a child (or an adult for that matter) to enjoy a win. A parent shouldn’t be an automaton, denying the obvious emotional moment to spout platitudes about the long-term learning process when her child is jumping up and down with excitement.
When we have worked hard and succeeded 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. It is drifting away even as we inhale. We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.
We need to put ourselves out there, give it our all, and reap the lesson, win or lose. The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest.
Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.
You would praise a kid for the process versus the outcome. And so you would say, “I’m so proud of how hard you worked at your math,” not, “You’re so smart at math.” Or if someone has a failure, the other side of it is not to say, “Don’t worry about it. You’re just not good at math. You’ll do something else.” It’s to say, “Well, how can we practice at this to get better?” and so we’re focusing on the process and not the outcome. That’s the fundamental principle.
Plateaus are those periods in our learning process where it feels like we’re not improving for an extended period of time. Periods where your result level off and you’re waiting for your next step in growth. Josh enjoys the plateaus because he knows on the other side of them is a massive spike in improvement. You just have to be comfortable with going through these periods.
Plateaus are where most people drop off. They’re long and arduous and the mental resilience to push through when little to no progress is being seen is essential. Learn to love the plateaus.
His Mom’s Greatest Gift
“I think this is maybe the greatest gift that my mom gave me is having a sense of agency in the world – the idea that having a sense that I can impact the world and that my compass really matters. So, when I grew up, I wasn’t “seen but not heard. When I was five and six, they were having adult conversations with friends and I was part of it. They wanted to hear my ideas and I felt that they mattered.”
“Go around” is a metaphor Josh uses with his son Jack when he faces an obstacle. “Jack, go around.” And he looked at me and then he went around. And then “go around,” became a language for us physically – if you can’t go one way, you go around to another way. But then it became a language for us in terms of solving puzzles and in terms of any time you run into an obstacle, go around. And then, working with the metaphor of “go around” opened up this way that we would just have dialogue around connecting things – taking away a principle from one thing and applying it to something else – and we’ve had a lot of fun with that.”
Journaling Routine: “Most Important Question”
The “Most Important Question” is a journaling routine Josh and his clients use where each working day they end with thinking,“What’s the most important question in what I’m doing right now?” Pose the question to the unconscious and then wake up first thing in the morning and brainstorm on it.
“And if we think about taking this and then turning it into a systematic training of the ability to be potent in the creative process, if we’re working on a given project and we’re reflecting on what’s the most important question here, and we’re journaling on it, and the brainstorm in the morning, we’re doing a lot of things to open the channel systematically between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We’re waking up in the morning and beginning our day proactively. But then, if you sit back after, say, a month and you look back at your, say, three, or four, or five journals, brainstorms, Q & As, on a given subject and you think about, ‘Okay, so, in the moment, this is what I thought was most potent but now I realize this, in fact, would have been most potent. What’s the gap?’ Deconstruct the gap between your understanding then and your understanding now and then design your training process around deconstructing that gap and training at what that gap revealed. It’s a really powerful way for individuals –uncover the misperceptions about what was most important. And so you’re training yourself, day in and day out, like water, to be an increasingly potent thinker. And this is manifesting scarcity in that we are forcing ourselves – no matter how many resources we have – to think about what is the most important question in what we’re working on right now.”
- Josh does his journaling on Evernote and he tags everything thematically which he thinks is critical for him.
What Almost Dying Can Teach You About Living
Josh almost drowned in a New York City pool after doing long breath holds during his swim workout (never do this). It resulted in Josh being unconscious at the bottom of the pool for 4 minutes before someone pulled him out. If it wasn’t for his training, the doctors said he would be brain dead.
“After that I just decided that I would devote my life to living as fully and deeply and beautifully as I possibly can, helping my loved ones live as fully and deeply and beautifully as they could and making as large and positive an impact on the world as I could. That was just all that mattered. We uprooted our life and changed everything. So I think that that mortality experience—I mean, that was the most powerful catalyst for that thinking.”
Some questions to help you frame your life if you haven’t experienced a near death incident:
- If you were going to die in two years in perfect health, left undone what would you most regret not doing?
- Pretend as though or imagine that you are going to die exactly two years from today. You will die in perfect health, just the clock will run out two years from today—you will die. What will you do in the next two years? What are the things that you would do?
Impact of Tao Te Ching
- Tao Te Ching provided a framework to help me sort out my complicated relationship to material ambition. It helped me figure out what was important apart from what we are told is important.
“I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off—no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury… Plunging off would be humiliating….A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness….This journey, from child back to child again, is at the very core of my understanding of success.”
20 Principles of Learning
Value process before results. True learning occurs through a process of hard and sustained effort and a nuanced understanding of each challenge, gain, and loss along the way. Therefore, it is more important to draw insights from every step we take rather than focus on any end reward or goal.
- Labels like “winner,” “loser,” “smart” or “dumb” ignore this fact and should be avoided. They lock our sense of ourselves in place, strip us of motivation, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep going and evolving.
Investment in Loss
We expand our minds and develop our capacities by allowing ourselves to confront hurdles, experience losses, and take a good hard look at them. Although stepping away from what is known and familiar and taking risks can be uncomfortable, doing so affords rich opportunities for learning. A willingness to lose and analyse the loss, as well as the unsettled feelings that accompany it, cultivates flexibility. This, in turn, allows us to move forward and gain additional wisdom, no matter what we may encounter along our path.
Children learning to crawl approach the surroundings with unstoppable curiosity and an eager, joyful sense of adventure. They have no concern for how they look or the judgments of others. What propels them forward is a general delight in all that is unfamiliar; an ability to be intrigued by the mundane; and a desire to probe the minutest details along their path, over and over again. The best learning results from this kind of openness—from being fully awake to the experience at hand, receptive to gaining even tiny insights from it and to refining one’s method in response. An inner willingness to adopt the nonresistant approach of a beginner and gradually perfect one’s knowledge manifests outwardly as forward movement and, over time, as graceful expertise.
“Periodically, I have had to take apart my game and go through a rough patch. In all disciplines, there are times when a performer is ready for action, and times when he or she is soft, in flux, broken-down or in a period of growth. Learners in this phase are inevitably vulnerable. It is important to have perspective on this and allow yourself protected periods for cultivation.”
Being able to handle life’s dirty tricks without losing one’s equanimity, interest, and joy is vital to learning and achievement. The ability to call on one’s knowledge and apply it well and completely is disrupted when we fall prey to emotional disturbances. Rather than deny or stifle emotions, we must work to gain an understanding of them, learn to make peace with them, and ultimately, channel them into higher levels of performance. By keeping our cool under trying conditions, we can arrive at precise conclusions and take positive and effective action at all times, especially during the most complicated and critical moments.
The Internal Solution
If we can prevent ourselves from being thrown by heightened emotions and instead learn to flow with them, the physiological responses they produce in us can help us defeat obstacles. To harness feelings for a defined purpose, we must first develop an understanding of and tolerance for inner turmoil. We should learn to observe our passions, understand their sources and their unique character. Then we will be able to transform them into creative inspiration for successful action. Once we have an in-depth awareness of our personality and the ways we react to external stimuli, we can use our minds to evoke a powerful internal physiological state at will and channel it to great advantage.
The power of presence. We enrich our experience of life by attuning ourselves to its subtlest aspects and delving deeply into its details. One cannot excel at a pursuit or experience its delights by bringing a skimming approach to it or handling related responsibilities in a shallow manner. To excel, our perspective must be that everything is on the line at all times and we must maximize each and every moment’s potential. To do so demands that we be fully present and engaged at every stage of our relationships, studies, and work—not just in the moments we think are critical but also in the moments leading up to them. And when there is no one to look in; no one to give feedback or cheer us on, a keen but relaxed focus will enable us to motivate and monitor ourselves.
The Soft Zone
Life is full of random, unexpected events and demands. It is vital that we gain awareness and understanding of our reactions to these intrusions in order to cultivate an ability to remain calm and collected when they arise. To maximize our ability to develop and draw on our knowledge base, we should not brace against disruptions and the emotions they stir, but rather adopt a nonresistant attitude. This allows us to absorb information, process it smoothly and quickly, take appropriate action, and grow from the experience; we become resilient in the way a flexible blade of grass can bend and sustain most any kind of assault. With a stiffened and strained approach to upheaval, however large or small, we cannot sustain focus and call on our full wisdom; we become brittle and lose our ability to clear the hurdles, like a dry stick snapping under pressure.
The Downward Spiral
When we cling to the troubling emotions that result from an obstacle or loss, we abandon the present for the past. In short order, we find ourselves using our personal resources to wage an internal war instead of using them to handle what is going on now and move forward. By focusing on a past problem it becomes easy to believe that things have taken a turn for the worse. In not being awake to the present, we magnify the original loss, allowing it to produce a ripple effect of additional problems. These, in turn, take us even further off a course of growth. We must stay cool under fire and fully in the present to glean the most we can from every experience and achieve success.
Stress and Recovery
The natural world embodies a rhythm of action and inaction that enables plants and animals to muster the energies they require for sustenance and growth. Bears enter caves and hibernate in the winter. Plants, too, enter a dormant phase during which biological processes occur that make it possible for them to reemerge in the spring. By alternating cycles of rest with activities that push us to the outer limits of our abilities, we strengthen the bond between mind and body in a way that fuels peak ability and high-level learning and performance. Because all aspects of our lives are interconnected, the practice of stress and recovery should be incorporated into everything we take on—all experiences will be enriched as a result. Effective methods include: meditation, stretching, deep breathing, play, even washing one’s face. By conditioning ourselves to move fluidly between intervals of tension and serenity, it becomes possible to condense the duration of recovery time needed for learning and exertion; we become more able to rally our powers of intuition and creativity and call on our knowledge and skills at a moment’s notice.
Building Your Trigger
Every one of us has one or more activities or experiences that can lead us toward serenity. To create your own catalyst for peak performance, first identify the one key activity that is most relaxing for you. Then shape a simple routine comprising this and four to five additional personal relaxation methods you know work for you. Practice this routine daily for one month during down time to entrench a calm state of mind. If you can only identify a single activity that leads you to serenity, shape a routine of simple activities to practice before or after your known relaxation producer. After a month of practice, the soothing psychological benefits of your key activity will have suffused the routine; you will be able to use the routine to produce a state of calmness even when the key activity is not a part of it. In both cases, the routine should be of your choosing but could, for instance, include a few minutes each of jogging, bathing, showering, walking, eating a snack, snuggling with a loved one, listening to a song, smelling something pleasing, or meditating. By the end of the month, you will have internalized a deeper sense of peace and reaped many physiological benefits. You can then use your routine as a prelude to a high-stress activity in order to enhance your psychological state and build a solid foundation for excelling—before critical moments at work, school and on the playing field. Gradually and incrementally condense the routine. In short order, you will be able to produce all its benefits by merely thinking about it or practicing a few seconds of it.
The Art of Introspection
The first step to artful teaching is tuning in to the essence of the student. It is critical that we appreciate each individual’s unique learning style and natural voice, and take these into account when instructing them. By allowing students to express themselves through their learning process and what they learn, we not only expand their capabilities but also their interest in forging ahead. Teachers have a very fine line to walk in preserving in their students a balance between passion and discipline, analysis and internalization of fact and technique. This balancing act demands that they neither offer false compliments nor dismiss seemingly wayward ideas—but rather prompt probing discussions of students’ ideas and methods and coach them in a manner that is in keeping with who they are. A sensitive, tailored teaching strategy accompanied by a clearly expressed expectation of achievement can make the difference between helping students’ minds carve themselves into maturity and stripping them of this ability as well as their joy. Teachers who position themselves more as guides to development than as omniscient authorities end up promoting in pupils a lifelong hunger for absorbing, processing, and applying knowledge effectively.
Loving the Game
As children, we have a natural love for discovery and new challenges. Learning and ambition are playful adventures rather than dizzying experiences fraught with a sense of danger; whenever we fall, we get right back up again. But, as we mature, we begin to attach a sense of risk and fear to learning and performance and seek the comfort of old knowledge and methods. To learn and perform at increasingly higher levels, especially under stressful circumstances, we must reconnect to the experiences of our youth—to those times when our natural approach to discovery was light-hearted and being a beginner and a learner was joyful. At the core of success lies the journey from childhood back to childhood again. It is by taking this journey that we can discover how to maintain a harmonious balance between our pursuits and our own unique disposition.
Breaking Down Walls
Themes that arise in one area of our personal lives will also surface in other areas—all aspects of life are interconnected. The ability to learn and perform in consistently effectual ways is therefore impacted by our general state of mind. It is vital that we unearth the psychological patterns and emotional responses that get in the way of our successes and take our weaknesses on. By bringing awareness to the threads connecting mind and action, we can break down the walls between the disparate parts of our lives that we have mentally built up and take corrective steps to transform all our weaknesses into strengths.
Developing the Internal Compass
To truly excel, we must cultivate access to intuition—the bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind that is the wellspring of our creativity. We can achieve this access by alternating deep and repetitive study at the highest possible level with periods of rest and relaxation. When we connect with our intuition, we are calling into service a part of our brain that can perceive the interconnections between vast amounts of technical knowledge and instantaneously harmonize them into a single creative solution.
The Middle Way: Navigating Grayness
To maximize learning and use the knowledge we gain to perform at a high level, we must be willing to engage in a process that pushes us to the outer edges of our abilities, yet does not stretch us so thinly that we run the risk of breaking down. Ideally, we will allow the bar to move a bit higher with each step we take along this balanced middle road—just enough to engage our capacities fully and let us experience some success. This approach can spur us on to additional growth and wins. In order to strike a balance between pushing ourselves forward and preserving a sense of wholeness, we must be willing to let go of our prior notions of adequacy and pursue a strategy of growth that upholds our unique learning styles as well as the passions that give expression to who we are.
Master the Fundamentals
It is most effective to launch into the learning process by studying a discipline’s most fundamental principles. A devotion to mastering the nuances of these basics builds the foundation required for more complex understanding; creative bursts of inspiration; and higher levels of achievement, which result from an interplay between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. By studying and deeply internalizing core concepts we develop our brain in ways that allow us to achieve a more penetrating understanding of not just one subject or practice but also all others we choose to undertake. As we immerse ourselves in doing what it takes to absorb and build on fundamentals, we experience first-hand the joy of learning and reinforce for ourselves its value. Allowing ourselves to grasp the intrinsic benefit of personal development through what we do to achieve it enhances our motivation and equips us to take learning further.
Learning the Macro from the Micro
We cannot hope to grasp the inherent joy and beauty of learning nor lead a life of serious accomplishment if we only skim the surfaces of subjects and acquaint ourselves with thin layers of knowledge. In order to excel, our approach to learning must emphasize depth over breadth. We have to resist the attraction to superficial stimulation that our media-driven society cultivates. The alternative is to dive deeply into small pools of information in order to explore and experience the operating principles of whatever we are learning. Once we grasp the essence of our subject through focused study of core principles, we can build on nuanced insights and, eventually, see a much bigger picture. The essence of this approach is to study the micro in order to learn what makes the macro tick.
Numbers to Leave Numbers
By studying discrete pieces of information thoroughly and practicing their application repetitively, they eventually shed their technical, nitty-gritty character. This happens because the process of digesting small chunks of knowledge over and over again shifts it from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind where it can connect with other chunks of internalized knowledge and manifest as the sudden burst of insight we experience as free-flowing intuition. This high level of knowledge integration is what we should aim for—it allows us to access what we have committed to learning in a fluid, precise, and improvisational manner.
Bringing It All Together
These are the steps to high-level learning and performance: Delve into the essential aspects of a small pool of basic information that is foundational to your chosen topic or field and do so in a manner that is in keeping with your unique learning style. Building on this base, devote yourself to exploring new, ever more advanced sets of information and techniques that lie at the outer edges of your ability or understanding. Alternate such periods of pushing yourself to your limit with periods of rest and relaxation that foster recovery and creativity. By approaching learning in this way, your internalized knowledge will lead to bursts of insight and discovery, which you can expand further by breaking down the mechanics that led to your achievements. Eventually, you will come to recognize the feeling that a refined and integrated body of knowledge produces in you and you will be able to target the re-creation of this feeling as you pursue new subject areas.
If I have learned anything over my first twenty-nine years, it is that we cannot calculate our important contests, adventures, and great loves to the end. The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain. Conditions might not be calm or reasonable. It may feel as though the whole world is stacked against us. This is when we have to perform better than we ever conceived of performing. I believe the key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration, to have laid the foundation for us to create under the wildest pressures we ever imagined. In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.