Learning about Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin
In 1993, Paramount Pictures released Searching for Bobby Fischer, which depicts Joshua Waitzkin’s early chess success as he embarks on a journey to win his first National chess championship. This movie had the effect of weakening his love for the game as well as the learning process. His passion for learning was rejuvenated, however, after years of meditation, and reading philosophy and psychology. With this rekindling of the learning process, Waitzkin took up the martial art Tai Chi Chuan at the age of 21 and made rapid progress, winning the 2004 push hands world championship at the age of 27.
After reading Joshua’s most recent book The Art of Learning, I thought of a million topics I wanted to discuss with him–topics such as being labelled a “child prodigy”, blooming, creativity, and the learning process. Thankfully, since I was profiling Waitzkin for an article I was fortunate enough to get a chance to have such a conversation with him. I hope you find this discussion just as provocative and illuminating as I did.
The Child Prodigy
S. Why did you leave chess at the top of your game?
J. This is a complicated question that I wrote about very openly in my book. In short, I had lost the love. My relationship to the game had become externalized-by pressures from the film about my life, by losing touch with my natural voice as an artist, by mistakes I made in the growth process. At the very core of my relationship to learning is the idea that we should be as organic as possible. We need to cultivate a deeply refined introspective sense, and build our relationship to learning around our nuance of character. I stopped doing this and fell into crisis from a sense of alienation from an art I had loved so deeply. This is when I left chess behind, started meditating, studying philosophy and psychology, and ultimately moved towards Tai Chi Chuan.
S. Do you think being a child prodigy hurt your chess career in any way?
J. I have never considered myself a prodigy. Others have used that term, but I never bought in to it. From a young age it was always about embracing the battle, loving the game, and overcoming adversity. Growing up as a competitor in Washington Square Park helped me avoid the perils of perfectionism-it was a school of hard knocks, and those guys always kept me on my toes for complacency. On this theme, I think losing my first National Chess Championship was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because it helped me avoid many of the psychological traps you are hinting at. That year, between ages 8 and 9 was one of the most formative periods of my life. I had felt my mortality, came back strong, and went on to dominate the scholastic chess scene over the next 8 years. On some fundamental level, the notion of success in my being was defined by overcoming adversity-and it still is.
The truth is that throughout my careers in both chess and the martial arts, I often knew that my rivals were more naturally gifted than me-either with their mental machines or their bodies. But I have believed in my training, my approach to learning, and my ability to rise to the challenge under pressure.
S. In general, do you see any disadvantages to being labeled a child prodigy?
J. Yes, there are huge disadvantages if you buy into the label. The most perilous danger, in the language of Carol Dweck, is that we internalize an entity theory of intelligence. 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. For that reason, it is incredibly important for parents to make their feedback process related as opposed to praising or criticizing talent. Think about it-if you tell a kid that she is a winner, which a lot of well-intentioned parents do, then she learns that her winning is because of something ingrained in her. But if we win because we are a winner, then when we lose it must make us a loser.
S. If the movie of your life hadn’t been made, do you think you’d still be continuing on in chess?
J. That’s a great question. My mother would say no. I hope she is right but I’m not sure. I really loved the game so deeply, and it was a wildly intense, exciting, and spiritually rewarding process. The movie definitely had a large role in the existential crisis that locked me up and moved me away from chess. But that period of transition taught me some incredibly valuable life lessons that have defined my growth in other arenas-so just to be clear, although it caused me some pain, I would never take back that experience. My hunch is that I would have stayed in chess for much longer and would have gone much further-but I think ultimately I would have felt like a lion in a cage sitting at a chessboard my whole life.
S. Do you think if you took up chess at a later age, you could have been a world champion in chess?
J. I have no idea.
S. Do you think you will ever return to chess? And if you do, do you think you are still capable of being the world champion? Or have you missed your boat?
J. I don’t think I will ever go back to competitive chess. I’m on to new mountains. Since winning the 2004 Tai Chi Push Hands Worlds, which is where my book ends, I decided to be a beginner again, and took up the martial art Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a fiercely competitive and physically brutal sport. I am training full time and aiming for the 2010 and 11 World Championships-the biggest challenge of my life. I’ve also recently opened an educational nonprofit-the JW Foundation, www.jwfoundation.com , and am devoted to helping kids discover their shine in the learning process. My plate is pretty full beyond chess.
S. Were you a good student in school?
J. I was a cut up in classes that didn’t excite me, and I was passionate about what did.
S. Did you like learning new subjects in school? Are there any subjects you had trouble with? Or that you just didn’t like?
J. I never liked math much although I was pretty good at it. And I hated geography in 3rd grade.
S. What does the term “late bloomer” mean to you?
J. To be honest, I haven’t thought much about the term, but in my mind it implies that someone came into their own later in their life or process than most would consider typical for exceptional achievers. Of course this definition leaves a lot to be desired because I tend to consider the deeper aspects of the learning process to be most interesting, and they often take quite a bit of time, hard work, and suffering to penetrate.
S. Do you consider yourself a late bloomer in Tai Chi Chuan?
J. Well, I didn’t start studying Tai Chi Chuan until I was 21, so from a competitive athletic perspective, I was certainly a late starter-at a world-class level most of my rivals in Asia had trained full time since early childhood. I had a lot of ground to cover, and I did it essentially by taking my lessons learned in other arenas of life, chess to a large degree, and transferring them over into this new art. As for blooming, I’m still working on that.
S. In reading your book, it seems as though your major strength in Tai Chi Chuan is the way you put your mind into the game. You were able to beat players much stronger than you by “getting into their mind.” I find this fascinating. Why do you think you were so good at psyching people out? Was it because of your early chess experiences?
J. Sure, my chess experience taught me a lot about the psychology of competition. World-class chess players are incredibly brilliant people who have spent their lives figuring out ways to get it your head, to break you down. Usually every high level chess error is accompanied by a psychological break of sorts-to survive, you have to understand the inner game. I am always looking for where the psychological and the technical collide-that surely comes from my chess study. But frankly, I think I really got good at the psychological game after chess. Chess taught me how to be relentlessly introspective, how to unearth tells in myself and in opponents, but then I really took that foundation and put it into dynamic action in the martial arts. I work on being a heat seeking missile for dogma. If you unearth or instill a false assumption in an opponent, they are in a lot of trouble unless they feel you getting into their head and kick you out fast. Of course this eye for false constructs is an important tool in the learning process as well.
S. Do you think part of your ability to psych people out may have to do with your extraordinary intelligence compared to other players? You said something interesting in your book regarding your match with Buffalo. You say: “He was surely the greater athlete. But maybe I was the better thinker.” Is it possible that you were just smarter than Buffalo (even though he was stronger)?
J. I don’t think I have an extraordinary intelligence. Buffalo had cultivated his body his whole life, and he had that edge. I had cultivated my mind. My chance lay in making the mental game dominate a physical battle. At a high level of competition, success often hinges on who determines the field and tone of battle.
S. In your book you discuss Carol Dweck’s work on how perceptions of the fixed nature of ability can affect ability itself. I do think that Carol’s work is important and I appreciate you citing it in your book. I was wondering though: to what extent do you think so-called inborn ability determines success in learning a new craft like chess or Tai Chi Chuan?
J. I am a nurture over nature guy. While I would tend to disagree, some might argue that I was an extremely gifted chess player. Fair enough. But there is no way you could argue that I am an athlete of world-class talent. I am able to compete at the highest levels because I have cultivated an approach to learning and performance that maximizes my strengths, tackles my weaknesses through the prism of my strengths, dissolves crippling false constructs and divisive mental barriers, and allows me to express myself through my art in as unhindered a manner as possible.
S. How much do you think people can compensate for weak natural ability? It seems like a major component of your learning technique is learning how to play up your strengths, and exploit the weaknesses of others. Could you perhaps elaborate on this idea?
J. I tend to feel that there is something a bit self-destructive in believing you have to compensate for weak natural ability, because it implies that there is one ideal way to learn something and because of natural deficiencies we are forced to take a different, much longer road. On the contrary, I have found that people at the highest levels of Quality in virtually all pursuits are somewhat unusual minds-and their “brilliance” has usually evolved from working with their natural strengths. There is this terrible tendency in education to box all kids into the same mold-this is one of many problems with all these standardized tests. The paved road is often the dogmatic one (of course we cannot believe this dogmatically) and there is something wonderful about building a learning process around the uniqueness of your own inspirations.
S. I read your book and thought to myself, “Wow, Joshua gets it. He really mastered the art of learning.” Your writing is so good and your points are so well made that it seems by reading your book that what you’ve discovered can be taught to anyone (although, as you mention, customized to each individual’s unique style). I can’t help but notice though how fast you learn things, even in comparison to others who are attempting to learn (and I assume with equal determination). To what extent do you think raw IQ contributes to your fast learning ability? Research does show that those with a high IQ can learn nearly anything at a faster rate than others.
J. Thank you for the compliment, but my guess is that I wouldn’t have a terribly impressive IQ. And I don’t learn so fast, I just have a lot of passion and throw my heart and soul into things that move me. Learning happens to have been an art that moves me and that I have worked very hard to understand.
S. Have you ever had your IQ tested? Would you be open to me testing you sometime?
J. I haven’t. I guess I might be open to it, but I tend to find these standardized tests to be somewhat limiting. My greatest strength lies in finding hidden harmonies-discovering connections where others might see chaos or disconnect. That is a way of thinking that I have cultivated for many years. It is one that was not ingrained, and that most people could develop if they wanted to.
S. To what extent do you think your fast learning rate is due to your disciplined technique to learning?
J. I would say that the depth of my learning (and it has a long way to go) is a result of passion, hard work, an introspective honesty, and beyond all else, a love for the search.
S. How much do you think passion and devotion to learning contributed to your success?
J. It would be hard for me to overstate it.
S. In what ways did your chess skills help you with Tai Chi Chuan? What skills were transferable?
J. This is a deep question that was at the core of my inspiration for writing The Art of Learning. It will be hard to answer this quickly, but, in short, all of the skills were transferable. The two arts became one in my mind and it felt like I was transferring my sense of Quality from chess over into Tai Chi Chuan. And this had nothing to do with these particular disciplines-they couldn’t really be more different-the translation process can be applied to anything. At the core of my relationship to learning is breaking down the barriers in our minds that divide our disparate pursuits. These walls are false constructs. If we cultivate a thematic eye, then growth in one area of life will immediately inform our other pursuits.
In truth, this is a big reason I took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu‑I am currently taking the essence of my chess and Tai Chi understanding, and transferring it over to a third art. This receptivity to thematic interconnectedness is a muscle I hope to cultivate for the rest of my life.
S. In reading your book, I wondered if you could become world-class at anything. You discovered that there are many similarities between Chess and Tai Chi Chuan. And it’s clear that your abilities are well suited to whatever is common across these two domains. But to what extent do you think you could take your insights into learning and use them to become an expert in any field?
J. This is an interesting question. I think my ideas could be applied to just about any field, and I would have a lot of confidence taking on most arts. I think there are obviously some things that we are weakest at, and it would be absurd to spend a lifetime in those arenas-in my case, anything related to neatness–that said, our strengths can be applied to disciplines that might seem as unrelated as possible. Just to be clear, I don’t think my approach has anything to do with what happens to be common ground between chess and Tai Chi Chuan. The connections were in my process, and that process, or anyone’s personalized variation of it, could be applied across the board.
S. In your book you describe a moment in your match with Buffalo where you say: “I reached deeper than I knew I had and won the most dramatic point of my life.” You then say: “I saw parts of myself I didn’t know about.” Could you please elaborate? In other words, can you demystify “reaching deeper” for me? Do you think most of us are capable of more than we realize?
J. Yes, I do-no question about it. Growth only really comes at the point of resistance, but that is the moment that we tend to stop. Because it hurts. Whether we are confronting our psychological foibles or our physiological limits, it is much easier to turn back from the challenge than to push through the discomfort. I think digging deeply into ourselves, pushing our limits, is a muscle that can be cultivated like any other–incrementally. If we embrace these outer limits of our ability as something malleable that can expand with training, and if we embrace the discomfort of these moments of growth, then we start to love the richness of the self-discovery. The discomfort becomes exquisite. Learning becomes life.As for that moment against Buffalo, I had lived as a competitor for over 20 years and had no idea what I could really do when pushed so far past my “limit.” Fortunately I had trained to be able to meet the challenge, even if I had no idea how big the challenge would really be. We have remarkable reservoirs.
S. What does it mean to “feel space left behind”? You use that phrase a lot in your book, but I’m honestly not 100% clear on what it really means.
J. This is an idea that applies to most disciplines. Every movement, be it mental or physical, tends to both take space and leave something behind. We are conditioned to see what something does more than what it doesn’t do. This tendency is a construct. Dogma. Training yourself to see newly created emptiness can be quite powerful.
S. In your book you say: “The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised.” Can you please elaborate a bit on this?
J. Sure. I wrote those words reflecting back on the ups and downs of my competitive careers thus far and more specifically on the 2004 World Championships, the most brutal experience of my life. I have learned that in those rare moments of truth in our lives, we have to be willing to let go of the comfort of our knowledge, our preparation, our sense of control, and we have to flow with an improvisational spirit that embraces chaos, turns adversity to our advantage, and digs into our deepest reservoirs of energy and creativity. Our relationship to the learning process, in my opinion, should be one that prepares us for that freedom under pressure-or more truly, that liberates us to live every moment with that openness to unexpected beauty. Learning and peak performance aren’t about control or memorization or perfection-they are about something much deeper, something more essentially human.
S. What role do you think intuition and the unconscious plays in the learning process?
J. A tremendously important one. A huge part of my process involves breaking down the walls between the conscious and unconscious minds, so technical growth sparks creative leaps, and perhaps more importantly, creative leaps can inform the direction of technical growth. The chapter entitled Slowing Down Time and the second to last chapter of my book in which I was training for the 2004 World Championships really go into my system for cultivating the intuition. Opening up communication between these different components of our minds is another muscle that we can all develop if we understand how.
S. What role do you think flow plays in the learning process?
J. It plays a critical role. People often make the mistake of dividing the learning process from performance psychology in their minds-as if they can learn for a lifetime and then perform at their level of ability whenever necessary. I believe this is short-sighted from two perspectives. One, the ability to perform under pressure is an art of its own that must be cultivated as a way of life. And perhaps more importantly, if we are not deeply present in the day to day learning process, then we will not be learning at a high level. The ability to enter a state of flow is one that should be integral to every aspect of our life in learning. And again, it is not so hard as long as we take it on systematically.
S. Do you think you’d ever consider taking up breakdancing? I have enjoyed learning how to breakdance and think you’d be quite good at it!
J. Thanks man. No breakdancing for me yet. One thing at a time.
– Scott Barry Kaufman has published multiple journal articles and book chapters relating to intelligence and creativity and is the editor of two forthcoming books. Interview © 2008 by Scott Barry Kaufman.
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