What Josh Waitzkin can teach us about lifehacking

As part of the “presence in deep work” theme I’m pursuing this month, I read “The Art of Learning”, by Josh Waitzkin.

Josh Waitzkin is a chess and Tai Chi champion whose views about learning (due to his accomplishments) are worthy of interest, but subject to the caveat that most successful people are no better than anyone else at accounting for their success.

I’ve reached this sad realization after years of reading self-improvements books, which I love and continue to mine as a source of wisdom.  I believe that self-help authors are trying to do something that intellectuals should do but don’t: help the rest of us get better.

(Intellectuals don’t do it, why?  Because it’s too much trouble and they get paid for doing research that the government and corporate sectors want.)

But the ore in self-help books is thin ore; it’s the tar sands of Athabasca: lot of junk to wade through to get to the nuggets of useful stuff.  And that is because our brain is a gland that secretes the impression that we’re always right.  So self-help accounts by successful people are larded with… self-congratulation.

I almost put down Waitzkin’s book several times for this reason.  The first part, although there are some hints of interesting thoughts on learning, are essentially a series of braggy vignettes about how touch a competitor he is, how vexed he has been by numerous tournaments and rivals and challenges, and how he has surmounted them all with a steely will and (and here’s the good part) a mindful approach to learning from his mistakes.

Which is what rescues the book.

He actually goes back when he has screwed up and tries to figure out:

  1. What went wrong
  2. How he contributed to it
  3. What he can do in the future to not make the same mistake again

These are extremely powerful steps.

I tried to put them to work on my rewriting of my novel, which is up to 2 hours/day now and gaining momentum.

What I have been doing with novel rewriting is sitting in front of the ms on the computer and sometimes paying attention to it, sometimes engaging in distractions, and never really working from a plan or an agenda.  The Muse rules, right?

Starting this Tuesday I began a different regime, based on what was going wrong with the existing process.

The night before I’m going to write, I address a question to my unconscious, something from the book.  Picking the right question is a problem, but I’ve been lucky  in the last 3 sessions.

Last night, for example, the question was “Why was Elspeth jealous?”  She’s a character in the part I’m working on now.

When I wake up, I freewrite for ten minutes about the question first thing in the morning.  It’s gold; the stuff that comes out is enormously helpful for figuring out the problem.

I saw at once this morning that Elspeth was not in fact jealous but was both envious and angry, envious because she wishes she were like the hero and angry because she also has disdain for the hero.  Good stuff that made the writing session much better.

It’s a variant of what I’ve always done: load up my mind with a problem and take a long walk.  But applying it to the current situation will be a big help to me.

Hopefully I can continue to make continuous improvements using the three questions that Waitzkin uses.

Your thoughts?

 

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