Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Success book Reviews: Josh Waitzkin "The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin, is, of course, the subject of the Hollywood film Searching for Bobby Fischer, and was an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. But I certainly didn’t know he want on to become a World Champion Tai Chi competitor. His book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance is a rare prize: a portrait of how a high performer views the art of high performance, written by the expert himself. Often, the master of a discipline is not as good at teaching it as performing it, so we are really luck to have both a superb performer and a superb explicator in the same person.

There are dozens of lessons to be learned from this excellent book about personal success and achievement. I’ll just pick a few here.

From the book:
“I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice…he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field."

Waitzkin is articulating a key tenet of performance improvement: accurate recording of unsuccessful (and successful) actions, and a spiral method for improving the ouputs, hopefully permanently, as a result of the review. Jam’s D. Murphy’s great book “Flawless Execution"
mentions a key practice that fighter pilots use: the after-mission debrief. If someone makes the same mistake twice, of course, fighter pilots could die…so it’s crucial to eliminate mistakes.

This general concept is no different when one examines the Toyota Production Method. To make great cars well, the process needs to be examined by each worker, bolt by bolt, on a daily basis.
The reward here is, of course, not just elimination of errors, but the relentless improvement in your mastery of the discipline.

In my own statement of Major Definite Aim I find I am continually adding more and more statements of the methods I use, and those I avoid. This process allows me to slowly “sculpt” my actions, and take tighter and tighter aim at my goal.

Another concept Waitzkin discusses , he names Investment in Loss.

On the way to greatness, performance is going to fluctuate. Be willing to perform sub-optimally in the process of increasing your results at another point. Be willing to look bad. Think of Tiger Woods, persistently re-working his swing. Or, consider Sandy Weill, one-time chairman of Citibank. He was willing to “look bad”, and walk out on American Express , and re-start his career at the bottom in order to shine later on. He was willing to spend in the desert” before coming back from obscurity

Another concept Waitzkin brings up, recovery time, holds true throughout many facets of human achievement, and is not limited to sports. For instance Ben Stein makes the point that you should never be expected to “shrug off” big setbacks to your goals, but, rather, you should take some time to let the emotional wounds heal.

The general rule that performance “regresses to the mean” is also applicable here. No journey toward any goal makes purely linear progress. Emotionally, we wish that every day could be “above average”…something that is patently unattainable. But, Waitzkin and Stein tell us, we don’t have plod through the bad patches like robots. We can ease off, make the difficult times as comfortable as can be, and then come back stronger than ever. If we pick large goals, then the journey is going to be a “marathon”, not a ”sprint”, so we have to pace ourselves.

Watzkin’s Chapter on Making Smaller Circles should be read by everyone who wants to “start at the top and work up”, a phrase I love, penned by Harvey MacKay. Waitzkin built up his Tai Chi skills by very careful attention to individual components, practicing very small , separated Tai Chi movements for hours or weeks, rather than practicing complicated combinations. Similarly, he would think through chess positions with only three pieces on the board, studying the subtle combinations generated by those few pieces, and then gradually incorporate this knowledge into his overall game. Similarly, a student of the virtuoso composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff marveled at how slowly the master practiced the pieces he was working on. This slow practice, was, of course, the key to his phenomenally incisive playing on the concert stage. There is more than muscle memory involved here. Often, the components of a larger methodology are elegant statements in themselves, and pack a lot of subtlety into a small component. In my trading systems, I have found fruitful paths in subtle variations of my existing systems, because, as I got to know them better, I could draw out more potential.

It is instructive to meditate on very simple concepts that, in their subtlety, can lead to amazing ramifications. Of course, one of the most awe-inspiring is the “on/off”, “one/zero” motif of all digital computing. And look what an incredible world it has built. What could seem more simple than 1/0, on/off, yes/no, and yet we may never see the end of variations built on this deepest of symbolic simplicities. “One/Zero” is of course, the key tenet of logic As Aristote says…”A thing cannot be and not be at the same time”... the centerpiece of all rationality, and also at the core of the very machines we use. Truly…small circles an yield great results.

These points are only a few of the many contained in this fascinating book. They mesh well with the points in many of the other books and sources mentioned in this blog. The light of success shines through many prisms.

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