Wednesday, December 29, 2010

above all else

I bought a crazy book last night.

It's crazy not because of what it says but because of how it made me feel. It's Josh Waitzkin's The Art of Learning.

Waitzkin is a child prodigy chess player. He was playing and winning international chess tournaments in his teens and even younger. Then a documentary was made about him, based on his father's book Looking for Bobby Fisher, about Josh's young chess life. And Josh got a taste of celebrity:

But there were problems. After the movie came out I couldn't go to a tournament without being surrounded by fans asking for autographs. Instead of focusing on chess positions, I was pulled into an image of myself as a celebrity. Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at a chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and spiritually calming. It centered me. Chess was my friend. Then, suddenly, the came became alien and disquieting.

He goes on:

My game began to unravel. I began to think about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought. The Grandmasters, my elders, were ignored and scowled at me. Some treated me like a pariah. I had won eight national championships, and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.

And then, the money shot:

At a young age, I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time. I missed just being a student of the game, but there was no escaping the spotlight. I found myself dreading chess, miserable before leaving for tournaments. I played without inspiration and was invited to appear on television shows. I smiled.

In some ways, it's a familiar theme and a familiar story: is this all there is to fame? His observations thus far are keen, sincere, and heartfelt, but it's what happened next that makes Waitzman's story so electifying. He discovered T'ai-Chi, and began to study it, and after a time, he had a remarkable realization:

This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied trechniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious. From the outside T'ai-Chi and chess couldn't be more different, but they began to converge in my mind. I started to translate my chess ideas into T'ai-Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying T'ai-Chi. Once I was giving a forty board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai-Chi. I wasn't calculating with chess notation or thinking about open variations...I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts. This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess

Waitzkin went on to compete and win international tournaments in push hands, the martial arts form of T'ai Chi. This was an incredible story: a young man who becomes a beginner again to rediscover the joy of learning, and then goes on to master a totally unrelated field.

There is so much to talk about, even in this first chapter, that it kind of makes me crazy, as I said earlier. I feel like jumping around and shrieking, in a completely crazy way. You will be hearing more about Waitzkin on this blog, believe me. My students will find his book on their curriculum list. But I will close this initial discussion with the following:

A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else.

This is something I often want to express to students, but I hold back, because coming from someone who makes his living as a teacher, it can sound self-serving. But an actor who has stopped learning has probably stopped acting. A high-performing athlete does not train to be able to stop training: the training continues throughout her career, and ultimately, the training is the source of the true satisfaction. The siren's song of performing in front of an audience is strong, and not necessarily to be resisted. But the pursuit of greater skill is not something that should be abandoned, well, ever.

Take it from the champ:

What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess -- what I am best at is the art of learning.

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