Sonshi.com: In your book, “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance,” you shared your life experiences and lessons learned. Do you find that you are learning new methods and philosophies as you acquired knowledge in the martial arts (Tai Chi and Jiu-Jitsu) and writing — or do you simply see a common link in those endeavors to chess?
Waitzkin: Both. I am learning new ideas and refining my methods every day. Early in my martial arts life, I had this exciting experience of transferring my chess ideas over into a physical discipline. The two arts became one in my mind and it felt like I was taking my level of Quality from one discipline and just transferring it over to another.
There was one moment in particular when I was giving a 40 board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis, and I realized about halfway in that I wasn’t thinking in chess language. I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding the energetic wave of the game like I had been doing in Tai Chi Push Hands practice for the past two years. I was winning chess games without playing chess. It was this experience that first inspired me to write my book.
To be honest, I don’t think the link is between any two or three pursuits. It is not something specific to chess, Tai Chi, and Jiu-Jitsu. There is a thematic interconnectedness of all disciplines, and if we get good at sensing and working with those connections, the learning process can become incredibly exciting. Of course, that is very abstract and much of what I tried to do in The Art of Learning is to break down my experience into a systematic methodology—but not a cookie cutter mold. A key first step is to develop a working relationship with your intuition, so your learning process is led by your uniquely nuanced creative leaps. Our minds are all different and I believe cultivating a keen introspective sensitivity is absolutely essential in discovering our potential.
Sonshi.com: You mentioned having a beginner’s mind. Would you elaborate on this wonderfully intriguing idea?
Waitzkin: Of course. This is an old Buddhist idea with tremendous potency. We must maintain a malleable mindset that allows up to embrace new ideas and admit our mistakes as a way of life. All growth is born out of struggle and error, and closing our minds to our imperfections is paralyzing.
It is easy to have a beginner’s mind when we are a beginner—the real challenge comes when we have become successful, people stroke our egos, we have a reputation to defend. Time and again people get locked up in the learning process by the need to look like they have all the answers. The martial arts world is riddled with this problem. People train with great intensity for many years. Then they open up a school. Their students call them “Master” and put them up on a pedestal. Suddenly this teacher stops training because he does not want to expose his weakness to his students. He puts on a robe, puffs out his chest, and walks around the school telling people what to do. Years pass and this man is living in direct opposition to what made him great in the first place. The societal tragedy of this phenomenon is that our highly trained minds could make such valuable contributions if they didn’t get locked up by ego. Think about how many academics spend all their time defending their little patch of intellectual territory instead of welcoming in and creating new ideas. The scientific world has been frozen for decades time and again by those who frantically try to defend the old manner of thinking because they have based their careers on it. The movement from Newtonian to Quantum Physics is a good example of this. A more current one is the decades of resistance to transitioning from a localized vision of the brain towards the thrilling new work on neural plasticity.
On both an individual and cultural level, I believe an open-mindedness to our fallibility can be incredibly liberating and a rich source of suppressed creativity.
Read the full interview here
Joshua Waitzkin is an American chess player, martial arts competitor, and author.