“I notice that my opponent is always on the go
Won’t go slow, so’s not to focus, and I notice
He’ll hitch a ride with any guide, as long as
They go fast from whence he came
– But he’s no good at being uncomfortable, so
He can’t stop staying exactly the same.” – Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
Walking is a pleasure, I try for at least an hour a day (assisted by my trusty fitbit). Sometimes it is practical – A to B but often it is just the pleasure of wandering and drinking in the ebb and flow of the city – the shift of place, of feel, of time. Cities for me are a bit of a love, harsh yet familiar and beautiful.
While strolling (as that is my preferred pace) I may put on some music and think through a particular issue; sometimes try and be in the world. Otherwise I use the time to learn. For this I use the (still mindblowing) medium of podcasts.
The other week as I wandered from home in Bermondsey through Southwark Park to my current morning haven of Canada Water library. I listened to the inimitable Tim Ferriss’ podcast with a man who was wholly unfamiliar to me, Josh Waitzkin.
It was a whoa moment! Like someone handed me properly corrected spectacles after an age of slightly blurry ones.
I bought his book ‘The Art of Learning’ and read it with pleasure (exam procrastination 1 passing CFA 0). Josh, through discussion of his life of competitive chess then tai chi chuan push hands, breaks down the essence of top tier peak performance – how to perform with consistency at the very top level. And he does this with razor sharp clarity. Like all superior books it feels a gift and privilege to share time in his head.
In my reading, this is a book about something more than outcomes or even the learning process although it has plenty to say on those. The growing awareness of mindfulness and presence is a good thing but it is often discussed with valuable elements ignored. Josh doesn’t leave them out:
“I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information—but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.”
This is a theme on which I am very keen (although most look at me blankly when I start blathering so I mostly restrain my blather to these pages.)
Some principles: Micro to Macro, Presence and Feedback
In this piece I want to highlight a few passages of interest. I see doing and being in two levels – there are the broad strokes, getting the base right. If you want to want to grow crops, plant in good soil rather than in sand. Simple and most of the work is done just with that one decision. This is my world, I am good at this. This is the bedrock of the Elif Fund and I guess of me as a human being. This will secure us a life. It is comfort, food and shelter and is much neglected (imo). There is a second element, and this is the detail of the doing. Which crops to plant, how, when, what are best combinations? We can satisfice this, the soil is good so whatever I plant will be good enough. But if we look with a keen eye there is presence in the minutiae that refers back to the whole. Done well and with diligence this leads to a deeper practice, one that not only enhances results but will enrich life and self. We build deep connection and pleasure. Waitzkin sets it out as follows:
“The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. … When nothing exciting is going on, we might get bored, distracted, separated from the moment. So we look for new entertainment, surf channels, flip through magazines. If caught in these rhythms, we are like tiny current-bound surface fish, floating along a two-dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below.”
This is a discussion of harmony and presence that is, oh so, active. He continues:
“In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.”
This may be obvious in external competition but less so in other domains, he delves into this by inverting the frame to set up the same point:
“While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives.”
Our treatment of feedback in development and experiencing the ‘good life’ is absolutely critical. This flow is continual while our awareness of it is at best intermittent and our consideration of its quality far less than that. Geometrically more so in the internal domain. Without awareness we have little connection to the process of living, or any chance of control of our life. Waitzkin encapsulates this, quite beautifully, by dropping in the piece de resistance, the element of creativity:
“On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art, and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line.”
The Lotus Effect and Scorecards
Working on openness and creative presence has been an area of practice for me. When I sit to meditate there can be this experience he describes but drop some stones in the pond and that presence becomes muddled. This is where Waitzkin becomes really interesting, he seems to be one who can retain reflective and constructive presence under incredible duress, in fact he thrives in this state. He discusses this first through the question of mindset and being invigorated by challenges rather than subdued; and then at a deeper level on habituating oneself to maintain clarity and presence despite confounding factors or suboptimal conditions.
First on mindset while discussing youth chess players:
“Many kids like this are quite talented, so they excel at first because of good genes—but then they hit a roadblock. As chess struggles become more intense and opponents put up serious resistance, they start to lose interest in the game. They try to avoid challenges, but eventually the real world finds them. Their confidence is fragile. Losing is always a crisis instead of an opportunity for growth—if they were a winner because they won, this new losing must make them a loser.”
This speaks very much to the idea of inner and outer scorecards. For Waitzkin the joy was mastery and learning and the object that allowed him to develop this was competition, he mirrors Tim Gallwey in this message. This is a struggle for many (cough me), we don’t have the awareness and egolessness not to be confounded. We lose balance when put out, and instead our focus shifts to relief of the discomfort. The result is to be stopped in our tracks. Stymied. Stuck. Here is an alternative:
“When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down. Another angle on this issue is the unfortunate correlation for some between consistency and monotony. It is all too easy to get caught up in the routines of our lives and to lose creativity in the learning process. Even people who are completely devoted to cultivating a certain discipline often fall into a mental rut, a disengaged lifestyle that implies excellence can be obtained by going through the motions. We lose presence.”
The Investors Mindset and Avoiding Spirals
Investing is a strange activity. Not being a trader the way I engage is not intense in a conventional sense, it does not require honed reactions or minute to minute alertness. It is nonetheless taxing, there is a constant and endless background tension of being engaged against the unknown. This tension can rise to the fore with surprising rapidity and intensity and that can be challenging.
If our success is predicated on consistency there is the requirement for clarity and right process at all times. During successful periods or after long and grinding periods of poor outcomes. An experience of constant and unbroken negative feedback can be exhausting and become internalised in ugly ways. This is despite the fact that loss and failure are an essential and unavoidable element of the business. This passage will be familiar to all investors, it isn’t just actions but thoughts to which this applies:
“One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction”
He also maps out an lovely benefit of being able to expunge the tensions and problems of what has gone before:
“As we get better and better at releasing tension and coming back with a full tank of gas in our everyday activities, both physical and mental, we will gain confidence in our abilities to move back and forth between concentration, adrenaline flow, physical exertion (any kind of stress), and relaxation. I can’t tell you how liberating it is to know that relaxation is just a blink away from full awareness.”
Waitzkin focuses on two particular environments – chess and martial arts. They are closed environments for the most part. Life and investment aren’t closed, in those we have to adapt to our lack of control, or ability to forecast outcomes with great certainty. Nonetheless the tenets he espouses are always relevant, always applicable.
You can read many writers that tell you if you believe and be true to yourself then success will come. As if you don’t need to develop the skill and put in the blood and sweat that goes with that process. Insidious stuff. You can also read others that tell you exactly the skills and the hard work required but take no account of how that fits with the person. You stamp the external scorecard but never sleep in peace. Doubly insidious.
This book fuses those strands and like all good fusion comes out with something that obliterates such distinctions and with it their limits. Thank you Josh for the kicks, let me sign off with words from another who says it all, Maya Angelou:
“Surviving is important. Thriving is elegant.”
*German word for “compulsion to move.” Zugzwang is a term used in chess when it’s your turn to move a piece, but regardless of where you move, you will be at a disadvantage. In other words Zugzwang is when you need to move, but you don’t want to because of the terrible conditions. – Urban Dictionary
The Tim Ferriss Interview
Interview with Josh