Thursday, December 04, 2014

Releasing Obstructions

At the very top level Josh Waitzkin argues that learning becomes more about unlearning. After starting his life as a celebrity chess champion, he found his way toward the martial form of tai chi and became the world champion. He realised that what he was good at was the process of learning, independent of whatever the content is. In an interesting podcast discussion at the end of the audio version of 'The Art of Learning', Tim Ferris, author of the 4-hour series (Work Week, Body, Chef), and Josh discuss their different approaches. Tim focusses brutally on 80-20 cutting through the noise to get to the heart of what you need to do to learn something quickly. Josh focusses on the other end. How do you take someone who is great, and make them the best? How do you go from being number 10 in the world to winning. He argues that much of the very top level performance is about removing obstacles. By becoming an expert in something you have years and years of context and framing. Sometimes you have to convince yourself that some of the things you as an expert thought weren't possible, are possible.  In order to do this, you have to let go of obstructions and much of the improvement can come from simplifying what you are doing. Some of this simplicity is an illusion. Behind the scenes there are hours and hours of practice and conditioning. But once something has been conquered, it can look magical.

Josh focusses heavily on the mental side of learning as well. His chess background gives him a strategic approach to the martial arts. Interestingly, his strength in chess was his almost martial nature which made the progression of his career less surprising than it might appear on the outside. One area he talks about a lot is our ability to control our emotional swirls and mental addictions. In chess, he spoke about how you are constantly assessing situations and moves in terms of how the overall future position compares to the current one. After a mistake where you give up an advantage, the challenge is to be able to make those comparisons to the current even situation, not the past advantaged one. He says it is not the first mistake that is the problem, it is the downward spiral that results from making subsequent errors because you are comparing your situation to something that was, rather than something that is.

Beyond competitive situations, I think this applies more broadly to happiness in general. Our ability to accept what ever situation we are currently in and release the mental addiction to whatever was allows us to make the best decisions about what to do next. As an expert on your life, the past can be one of those obstruction you need to let go of in order to progress.
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