Josh Waitzkin was going head to head with the worlds greatest chess minds at the age of 6. Today his a world champion tai chi master. His bestselling book, The Art of Learning covers the blending of chess and martial arts principles to empower your life. Many business folks love the book, so I interivewed him just for FC!!
AB: The Art of Learning is an amazing book about personal transformation. Why do you think so many in the business world find it so empowering?
JW: Interesting question—maybe because the ideas of the book emerge from the trenches as opposed to an armchair. One thing about the business and investing world that I connect to very intimately is that there is little room to deny the harsh realities of your mistakes. A bad call can lose you many millions. On the chess board, a single subtle error can cost you a world championship. In a martial arts ring you can go from domination to a broken limb or unconsciousness in a blink. So we have to keep it real, and that is something I have cultivated in my life and tried to do in my book. I didn’t gloss over the bad times, the broken bones, the brutal losses, the heartbreak, because frankly I believe those moments were the most defining of my life. From what I gather, people have found the authenticity of the book to be moving, and I take that as a great compliment.
AB: Many chess lovers believe the game enriches their business acumen. Do you see a correlation?
JW: Yes, I absolutely see a correlation. There are the obvious connections such as the interplay of tactical and strategic thinking, the need for internal balance in external chaos, the absolute necessity of presence, the ability to come back from defeat, and so on. But frankly I think these are ideas that are critical on the path to mastering any discipline. I tend not to dwell on the parallels between chess and business, chess and the martial arts, or any two things for that matter, because the truth is that all pursuits are connected if we gain an eye for the thematic links. A large part of my book is the plunge into principles of learning and performance psychology that cross the boundaries of specific disciplines. In my case I moved from chess to the martial arts—the mental to the physical. That is a good launching point for my thesis because from the outside these two arenas could not be more different.
A central idea of my book is that all life experiences can enrich our professional lives, and our work experience can inform everything else. We just have to break down the artificial barriers we have created in our minds, and then the learning process becomes exponentially more dynamic. A critical step in making that happen is to gain a thematic eye so we can get creative in the process of reconnection. That is the beauty of what we are doing with the Hip Hop Chess Federation. Who would have thought that world-class hip hop artists, chess players, and martial artists would have such common ground? But once the dialogue starts rolling, the walls disintegrate, and people come out inspired with a whole new perspective on learning.
AB: I know you speak to many business leaders across the nation. What do they seek to gain from sitting with you?
JW: I think, if anything, I have a knack for unhindering creativity. Too many students, workers, children, athletes, investors, people have been boxed into cookie cutter molds that just don’t fit. This is a central flaw in our educational system. In order to succeed at a high level you have to learn and perform in a manner that is tapped into your unique nuance of character. If there is anything inorganic about your growth process—if you’ve swept anything under the rug in your introspective process, if you haven’t built your game around your natural strengths—then it will come out when the pressure and resistance is fierce enough to push you to the brink. Guaranteed. On the other hand, if you address your weaknesses as a way of life, if you acknowledge your natural rhythms and build a highly personalized game around them, then when the pressure is on you just keep flowing.
One of the main focuses of my training sessions is to help individuals find their unique voices in the learning process. We all have our strengths, our weaknesses, our styles of learning, our personalities. Developing introspective sensitivity to these issues is critical to long-term success. And once we are hitting on all cylinders, we can have a healthy working relationship with our intuition and that is where things really get dynamic.
One of the most important chapters of my book is the second to last, where I describe my training for the 2004 World Championships. I break down how in the months of training camp, I used creative leaps to raise my technical foundation, and so over time my entire repertoire was built around my own inspiration. Then, when everything was on the line, a hostile arena in Taiwan, powerhouse fighters trying to tear my head off, refs who would do everything possible to stop a foreigner from winning—I had an internal compass that fit me like a glove.
Much of learning is unlearning bad habits. If I can help release people from self-imposed shackles, I’ll have done well. And as you know, I speak from experience on this one. My chess career ended with a crisis that largely emerged from losing touch with my natural voice and style as an artist.
AB: Is The Art of Learning a book for people aspiring to be CEO's and board members or is it made for the entry level worker?
JW: I’m not sure what the distinction is. The entry level worker becomes the CEO. The principles that drive us to the top only become more essential and difficult to live by once we are in positions of power. This brings up an important point. People often live with a certain spirit during the climb, and then get all locked up once they have something to protect. You see this in martial arts schools all the time. A so-called "master" trains for years to reach a certain level, and then opens a school. His students start putting him on a pedestal and he grows fearful about shattering the perfectionist façade…so he stops training, stops sparring, stops learning, and starts to embody the opposite of what gave him Quality in the first place. Is there any more horrible strategy than the prevent defense? If CEO’s stop taking themselves on, if they lose their beginner’s mind and get brittle in the learning process, then their businesses fall apart. I didn’t write this book with any one audience in mind, and from what I gather it is helping people at many levels of many fields.
AB: Much of your book looks at taking highly adverse situations to take yourself to the next level. Can you give us an example of that?
JW: Absolutely, that rhythm has been a defining one in my life—a setback plants a seed that evolves into a defining strength. For example, in late 2001 I entered the super heavyweight division of a regional martial arts tournament. I was the middleweight Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands National Champion, and had to defend my title in seven weeks. I was around 170 pounds and often gave up a lot of weight in competition for the extra training. One could argue that entering this tournament 7 weeks before Nationals was a bit hubristic and I wouldn’t disagree.
Anyway, in the finals I was matched up against a 230 pound powerhouse, and in a wild flurry with a little under a minute left in the final round, my right hand shattered. I felt it break, and then time slowed down in my mind. It was a wild experience. On the video his hands are coming at me like bullets, but in my mind they were floating like clouds. I was able to easily win the match with one hand—and the experience became a beacon in my training. If I can slow down time in my mind when injured, how can I learn to do this at will? In the years that followed, I developed a method of training that systematically altered my perception of time—nothing mystical here. I describe it in a chapter called "Slowing Down Time." Anyone can do it—the process simply involves incrementally passing information from the conscious mind over to the unconscious so you can consciously focus on less and experience it in more frames than an opponent. Time feels slowed down which can be a tremendous competitive edge.
So that is one example of a setback inspiring me to new ideas, but there are many stories like this in my life. Just about every big win has its roots in a loss and lesson learned. My path has had nothing to do with perfection.
AB: Any last words?
JW: Yes, one thing. I’m in the process of opening up a nonprofit foundation, designed to help disadvantaged children, teens, and young adults get their footing in the learning process. I am tremendously passionate about the project. If anyone reading this works in or has connections to this field and believes the educational philosophy of my book The Art of Learning can make an impact on their group or school, please contact me on my website www.joshwaitzkin.com and I’ll do my best to help out with curriculum integration and by donating copies to teachers, families, and students. Thanks man. It’s been a pleasure.