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Interview with Josh Waitzkin


In the race of life, all too often we tend to focus on the result or victory without first understanding the learning process that allows us to achieve it. Sun Tzu understood that process well. He emphasized the need for planning and training. Sun Tzu was an academician first and a warrior second; to him, the real war is fought in the temple, not on the battlefield.

Josh Waitzkin -- eight-time national chess champion, thirteen-time Tai Chi Chuan push hands national champion, and two-time Tai Chi Chuan push hands world champion -- also understands the learning process. To him, it is where chaos is allowed, even encouraged. It is where lessons are tailored to the student. It is where losses make you better. In essence, it is where you're not afraid to learn.

He is perhaps best known for his extraordinary childhood experience portrayed in the acclaimed 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Although the film centered around a child prodigy who excels in the game of chess, the underlying plot was simply a boy who loves chess. His wins and competition were often overshadowed by his enormous passion for the game. As an adult, Mr. Waitzkin restores this passion with the help of Eastern philosophy, and found new challenges in Tai Chi Chuan, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and recently the JW Foundation. His aim is still to become successful, but he knows better than to ignore the art of learning.

In his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, Josh Waitzkin recounts his experiences and shares his insights and approaches on how you can learn and excel in your own life's passion. Read more about him and the book at Below is our interview with Mr. Waitzkin. You first learned about chess at the young age of six and became International Master just ten years later. Most of our readers here would describe you as a prodigy, but you have expressed that the word prodigy is inadequate; there were much hard work and struggle involved. What drove your remarkable passion for chess?

Waitzkin: I think what initially drove me was a deep love for the struggle at the heart of chess. I was a young kid and the art was an exciting window into an intensity I had never dreamed of. Also, I was lucky enough to have early teachers who encouraged me to express myself through the game. Chess became an extension of my being, a natural channel for play and growth and introspection. As a young player, I was remarkably true to myself. I liked to mix it up and create chaos on the board. Everyone called me Tiger. I was aggressive, loved the battle and was at my best when conditions got stormy. Most of my young rivals were focusing on results, feeling tremendous pressures from coaches and parents, and trying to control everything over the board. This tends to be a less resilient and inspired mindset. Did you find the skills or outlook you gained from first learning chess on the streets of New York City (Washington Square Park) helped you to outmaneuver those who only had classical training?

Waitzkin: Absolutely. Washington Square was a school of hard knocks. My first teachers were street players, guys who would hustle you, get in your head, break you down mentally before they did it over the board. I loved it in the park. Every day I would plop myself down across from a scary looking dude four times my size, and we would go to war—playing speed chess. When I lost, they would show me my mistakes. When I won, they would laugh and yell and slap me five. Those guys took me under their wings--we were a family.

To survive in the park you have to be a fighter. You have to be able to handle any kind of distraction. Honestly, I think those early lessons lay the foundation for my most intense world championship fights years later. I learned early that just about every error has a technical and psychological component, and if you get good at discovering those connections, you’ll be a step ahead of the competition. And of course as a kid, facing other 7, 8 and 9 year olds in National Championships felt like a piece of cake compared to what I dealt with every day in Washington Square. 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 half way 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. 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. One of the key concepts of Sun Tzu's The Art of War is to make decisions free of emotions. Sun Tzu never said emotions themselves are unhealthy; he simply wanted us to be aware that emotions can cause us to view our problems and situation in a distorted way and thus cause us to make poor decisions. Do you agree?

Waitzkin: Yes, I agree. Of course our emotions can rock our boat—but they can also inspire us. I spent years dealing with dirty opponents, first in chess and then in the martial arts. Chess rivals would kick me under the table in national championships, or they would confer with their coaches in Russian during the game. In those days I tried to block out my emotions, but I believe that was a brittle approach. If pushed far enough, I would crack.

In my martial arts life, I have cultivated the ability to channel any emotion into intensity. I think we are at our best when we work with our natural eruptions, use them as fuel for the fire. Then we can roll with anything life throws at us. But of course the first step of this process, as you said, is to observe emotion like we might watch a thought float away in meditation. First we learn to sit with it, then to use it. I believe in being as organic as possible in both learning and performance. What is your current focus (or most of your focus) on now? Is it in chess, the martial arts, writing -- or finding and starting something different?

Waitzkin: I am operating primarily on two fronts right now. I just opened an educational nonprofit foundation that I am very excited about. I believe our educational system is in a state of crisis and I am fully committed to doing everything I can to turn that around. People can check it out at We are doing really exciting projects with public school systems, urban youth groups, national gifted organizations, and lots of teacher and parent training. We’re also working with a group teaching chess and learning to Mayan children in the jungles of Belize, which I’m thrilled about.

And on my learning front, I am in the middle of my third mountain. After winning the 2004 Tai Chi Push Hands Worlds (which is where my book ends) I decided I wanted to be a beginner again, so I took on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I am aiming for the 2011 World Championships, which is probably the biggest challenge of my life as I’ll be 34 competing against 25 year olds who have been training full time in Brazil since they were three. Right now I’m transferring all my chess and Tai Chi ideas into Jiu Jitsu language. I train until I drop every night and am loving the ride. The paperback version of "The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance" will be out May 20. That's a year since your book was first published. Would you mind sharing with our readers one major new idea, approach, or lesson you learned since then (and perhaps put in your book in the next edition)?

Waitzkin: I guess if I had to say one thing, it would be that I have been seeing the learning process more and more through the lens of unlearning--akin to Lao Tzu’s uncarved block. I am working on becoming more and more unfettered in the growth process, and that tends to be a movement through complexity to simplicity.

[End of interview]

We highly recommend The Art of Learning -- a must-read book written by a person who truly understands optimal performance. You can also purchase his audiobook.

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