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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 chessJoshua Waitzkin 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 The Art of LearningI 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.

On Bloom­ing

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.

On Learn­ing

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 KaufmanScott 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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Relat­ed arti­cles:

- Inter­view with James Zull: An ape can do this. Can we not?

- Learn­ing & The Brain: Inter­view with Robert Syl­west­er

- Teach­ing is the art of chang­ing the brain

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