My rating: 95/100
See Book Notes for other books I have read. If you like my notes, go buy it!
Tagline: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
One of the most difficult things to affect, and simultaneously most pivotal to affect, is mindset. This book puts me in the right mindset. Josh understands what is necessary in a practical sense for someone to become a top level performer. Even if you are not looking to win a gold medal at the next Olympics, this book can help put you in the right frame of mind to win at life.
My Book Summary
Techniques of top level performers:
- Take detailed notes of training, workouts, and competitions. Include the feeling or mindset at the time, performance at the highest levels is differentiated largely by psychology.
- Frame errors and mistakes not as excuses but as opportunities for learning and improvement.
- Do not allow one mistake to lead to bad mental states that cause further errors.
- Willing to lose over and over if it is a learning experience and leads to wins later.
- Complete mastery of the most basic, fundamental concepts. Practice these slowly, methodically, thoroughly, and repeatedly, speeding up only when the form is absolutely perfect.
- Start combining those fundamental concepts only after mastery, then forming connections between the concepts as a sort of neural network.
- Find ways to use injuries or natural disadvantages to create advantages. Likewise, artificially create disadvantages to practice difficult situations and build resilience, and to discover techniques not discovered by following the standard methods.
- Play psychological tricks and feints to dupe opponents into failing. Similarly, train against these tricks yourself.
- Rest harder and deeper than competitors. Train recovery periods to be as short as possible.
- Meticulous review of past games and trainings.
- Become expert in positions and techniques considered to be weak by others, lead others into it intentionally, and dominate the position and having the advantage.
In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initial become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.
Part I: The Foundation
Despite significant outside pressure, my parents and Bruce [his teacher] decided to keep me out of tournaments until I had been playing chess for a year or so, because they wanted my relationship to the game to be about learning and passion first, and competition a distant second.
Chapter 2: Losing to Win
Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle. We are too smart for ourselves in such moments.
I spent many afternoons studying chess in my room alone. Sometimes my dad tried to distract me, lure me away to play football or basketball, and I would have none of it.
Chapter 3: Two Approaches to Learning
Entity vs incremental theories of intelligence. Children who are “entity theorists” – that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner – are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning – let’s call them learning theorists– are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped – step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.
Results have nothing to do with intelligence level.
Some kids were told that solving certain problems would help them with their schoolwork in the future, and other kids were told that they would be judged based on their results. In other words, half the kids received “mastery oriented” instruction, and half the kids received “helplessness-producing” instruction. Needless to say, the kids who were temporarily mastery-oriented did much better on tests.
In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins – those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way.
If a young basketball player is taught that winning is the only thing that winners do, then he will crumble when he misses his first big shot. If a gymnast or ballet dancer is taught that her self-worth is entirely wrapped up in a perfectly skinny body that is always ready for performance, then how can she handle injuries or life after an inevitably short career?
Chapter 4: Loving the Game
One of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline … is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.
Chess was a constant challenge. My whole career, my father and I searched out opponents who were a little stronger than me, so even as I dominated the scholastic circuit, losing was part of my regular experience.
Chapter 5: The Soft Zone “Lose Yourself”
In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus. The initial step along this path is to attain what sports psychologists call The Soft Zone. Envision the Zone as your performance state.
This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane force winds.
One of the more interesting [psychological] tactics was implemented by a Russian boy whom I had trouble with for a period of months before I caught on to his game. He was a very strong player so our clashes were always tense, but for some reason I tended to make careless errors against him in the critical positions. … In the climactic moments of the struggle, when I had to buckle down and patiently work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process. This subtle tactic was highly effective and I later found out that it was an offspring of the Soviet study of hypnosis and mind control.
… when I got angry, I was thrown off my game. I tried to stay level-headed by this one rival of mine had no limits. He would push me to the point of utter exasperation and I would often self-destruct. I have come to believe that the solution to this type of situation does not lie in denying our emotions, but in learning to use them to our advantage. Instead of stifling myself, I needed to channel my mood into heightened focus.
This was a muscle I built up by training myself to be at peace with the unclear and tumultuous – and most of the training was in everyday life. For example, since my teens, when I play cards, say gin rummy, I rarely arrange my hand. I leave the melds all over the place and do the organization in my head.
Chapter 6: The Downward Spiral
I taught [students] the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error.
Sometimes all the kids needed was to take two or three deep breaths or splash cold water on their faces to snap out of bad states of mind. Other times, more dramatic actions were called for – if I felt dull during a difficult struggle, I would occasionally leave the playing hall and sprint fifty yards outside.
It was my habit to walk the two miles to P.S. 116 every Wednesday, planning my class and enjoying the city. One fall afternoon I was strolling east along 33rd Street, lost in thought and headed toward the school. Everyone who has grown up in Manhattan knows that it is important to look both ways before crossing the street. Cars run lights and bicyclists ride the wrong way down one-way streets. Drivers are used to narrowly avoiding bustling midtown crowds, and most New Yorkers are untroubled by the cacophony of sirens, blaring horns, and taxis speeding ten inches in front of our noses. Things usually flow nicely, but the margin for error is slim.
There I stood, within the maelstrom of the midtown rush, waiting for the light and thinking about the ideas that I would soon be discussing with my students. A pretty young woman stood a few feet away6 from me, wearing headphones and moving to the music. I noticed her because I could hear the drumbeat. She wore a grey knee-length skirt, a black sweater, and the typical Manhattan office worker’s white sneakers for the trek home. Suddenly she stepped right into the oncoming traffic. I guess she was confused by the chaotic one-way street, because I remember her looking the wrong was down Broadway. Immediately, as she stepped forward, looking right, a bicycle bore down on her from the left. The biker lurched away at the last second and gave her a solid by harmless bump. In my memory, time stops right here. This was the critical moment in the woman’s life. She could have walked away unscathed if she had just stepped back onto the pavement, but instead she turned and cursed the fast-pedaling bicyclist.
I can see her now, standing with her back to the traffic on 33rd and Broadway, screaming at the now-distant biker who had just performed a miracle to avoid smashing into her. The image is frozen in my mind. A taxicab was the next to speed around the corner. The woman was struck from behind and sent reeling ten feet into the air. She smashed into a lamppost and was knocked out and bleeding badly. The ambulance and police came and eventually I moved on to P.S. 116, hoping that she would survive.
As I walked into the school, dumbstruck by the severity of what I had just witnessed, I felt compelled to share a version of the story with my students. I left out the gravity of her injuries but I linked life and chess in a way that appeared to move them – this tragedy needn’t have happened. I explained how this woman’s first mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping into the street in front of traffic. Maybe wearing headphones put her in her own world, a little removed from the immediacy of the moment. Then the biker should have been a wake-up call. She wasn’t hurt, but instead of reacting with alertness, she was spooked into anger, irritated that her quiet had been shattered. Her reaction was a perfect parallel to the chess player’s downward spiral – after making an error, it is so easy to cling to the emotional comfort zone of what was, but there is also that unsettling sense that things have changed for the worse.
Chapter 7: Changing Voice
Numbers to leave numbers.
My note on this: I feel like it makes a lot more sense when you say “the study” of numbers to leave “studying” numbers behind.
It is important to understand that by numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form, I am describing a process in which technical information is integrated into what feels like natural intelligence. Sometimes there will literally be numbers. Other times there will be principles, patterns, variations, techniques, ideas. A good literal examples of this process, one that does in fact involve numbers, is a beginner’s very first chess lesson. All chess players learn that the pieces have numerical equivalents – bishops and knights are worth three pawns, a rook is five pawns, a queen is nine. Novices are counting in their heads or on their fingers before they make exchanges. In time, they will stop counting. The pieces will achieve a more flowing and integrated value system. They will move across the board like fields of force. What was once seen mathematically is now felt intuitively.
A fascinating offshoot of this method of analysis was that I began to see connections between the leaps of chess understanding and my changing vision of the world. During my study of the critical positions I noted the feeling I had during the actual chess game. I explained above how in the pressure of tournaments, the tension in the mind mounts with the tension in the position, and an error on the board usually parallels a psychological collapse of sorts. Almost invariably, there was a consistent psychological strain to my errors in a given tournament, and what I began to notice is that my problems on the chessboard usually were manifesting themselves in my life outside chess.
Chapter 8: Breaking Stallions
Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion. He studied it to leave form.
Part II: My Second Art
Chapter 9: Beginner’s Mind
Chapter 10: Investment In Loss
If aggression meets empty space it tends to defeat itself.
The problem is that we are conditioned to tense up and resist incoming or hostile force, so we have to learn an entirely new physiological response to aggression.
Lose to win. … Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process.
Chapter 11: Making Smaller Circles
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. When these societally induced tendencies translate into the learning process, they have devastating effect.
“Making Smaller Circles”
When hitting something instead of moving through empty space, I might start to get excited and throw my shoulder into the punch. This is a classic error. It breaks my structure and destroys the connection from foot to fingertip – many boxers make this mistake and come away with shoulder injuries. I want to punch without punching. No intention. My teacher William Chen sometimes teaches punching by telling students to pour a cup of tea. It’s a beautiful thing. Pouring tea creates the perfect punch, because people’s minds don’t get in the way.
The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest. It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.
Chapter 12: Using Adversity
First, we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection. I mentioned the image of a blade of grass bending to hurricane-force winds in contrast to a brittle twig snapping under pressure. Next, in our performance training, we learn to use that imperfection to our advantage – for example thinking to the beat of the music or using a shaking world as a catalyst for insight. The third step of this process, as it pertains to performance psychology, is to learn to create ripples in our consciousness, little jolts to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring.
Deep mastery of performance psychology involves the internal creation of inspiring conditions.
… I realized that whenever I could control two of his limbs with one of mine, I could easily use my unoccupied arm for free-pickings. Today, techniques around this idea are a staple in my competitive marital style. If even for a blink of an eye you can control two of the other guy’s limbs with one of yours, either with angle or timing or some sort of clinch, then the opponent is in grave danger. The free hand can take him apart. This principle applies to nearly all contact sports: basketball, football, soccer, wrestling, hockey, boxing, you name it. On the chessboard it is also relevant. Any moment that one piece can control, inhibit, or tie down two or more pieces, a potentially critical imbalance is created on the rest of the board.
There was also an intriguing physical component of my recovery. I wanted to compete in the Nationals, so bizzare though it may sound I resolved not to atrophy. At this point in my life I was very involved in the subtle internal dynamics of the body through Tai Chi meditation. I had an idea that I might be able to keep my right side strong by intense visualization practice. My method was as follows: I did a daily resistance workout routine on my left side, and after every set I visualized the workout passing to the muscles on the right. My arm was in a cast, so there was no actual motion possible – but I could feel the ennergy flowing into the unused muscles. I admit it was a shot in the dark, but it worked. My whole body felt strong, and when the doctor finally took off my cast he was stunned. Four days before the Nationals an X-ray showed that my bone was fully healed, and I had hardly atrophied at all. The doctor cleared me to compete. On Wednesday I did my first weight workout on my right side in seven weeks, on Friday I flew to San Diego, and on Saturday, slightly favoring my newly empowered left arm, I won the Nationals.
If I were to stop training whenever something hurt, I would spend my whole year on the couch. Almost without exception, I am back on the mats the next day, figuring out how to use my new situation to heighten elements of my game.
Let setbacks deepen your resolve.
Ultimately we should learn how to use the lessons from this type of experience without needing to get injured: a basketball player should play lefty for a few months, to even out his game. A soccer player who favors his right leg should not take a right-footed shot for an extended period of time.
Chapter 13: Slowing Down Time
Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline.
By carved neural pathways I am referring to the process of creating chunks and the navigation system between chunks.
Most people would be surprised to discover that if you compare the thought process of a Grandmaster to that of an expert (a much weaker player, but quite competent chess player), you will often find that the Grandmaster consciously looks at less, not more. That said, the chunks of information that have been put together in his mind allow him to see much more with much less conscious thought. so he is looking a very little and seeing quite a lot. This is the critical idea.
Chapter 14: The Illusion of the Mystical
As a seven year old boy in scholastic chess tournaments, I sometimes lured my young opponents into blundering by 1) making a move that set a trap and then 2) immediately groaning and slapping my head. This over-the-top display would usually inspire a careless moment of overconfidence followed by an eager capture of a poison pawn or some other seductive bait. Not very subtle on my part, I agree. But as with all skills, the most sophisticated techniques tend to have their foundation in the simplest of principles.
Part III: Bringing It All Together
Chapter 15: The Power of Presence
Grandmasters know how to make the subtlest cracks decisive. The only thing to do was become immune to the pain, embrace it, until I could work through hours of mind-numbing complexities as if I were taking a lovely walk in the park. The vise, after all, was only in my head. I spent years working on this issue, learning how to maintain the tension – becoming at peace with mounting pressure. Then, as a martial artist, I turned this training to my advantage, making my opponents explode from mental combustion because of my higher threshold for discomfort.
While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning.
The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.
Chapter 16: Searching for the Zone
Learn the science of long-term, healthy, self-sustaining peak performance.
LGE recently renamed the Human Performance Institute
In virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods.
Remember Michael Jordan sitting on the bench, a towel on his shoulders, letting it all go for a two-minute break before coming back in the game? Jordan was completely serene on the bench even though the Bulls desperately needed him on the court. He had the fastest recovery time of any athlete I’ve ever seen.
The physical conditioners at LGE taught me to do cardiovascular interval training on a stationary bike that had a heart monitor. I would ride a bike keeping my RPMs over 100, at a resistance level that made my heart rate go to 170 bpm after ten minutes of exertion. Then I would lower the resistance level of the bike and go easy for a minute – my heart rate would return to 144 or so. Then I would sprint again, at a very high level of resistance, and my heart rate would reach 170 again after a minute. Next I would go easy for another minute before sprinting again, and so on. My body and mind were undulating between hard work and release. The recovery time of my heart got progressively shorter as I continued to train this way. As I got into better condition, it took more work to raise my heart rate, and less time to lower my heart rate during rest: soon my rest intervals were only forty-0five seconds and my sprint times longer.
… For example, during weight workouts, the LGE guys taught me to precisely monitor how much time I leave between sets, so that my muscles have ample time to recover, but are still pushed to improve their recovery time. When I began this form of interval training, if I was doing 3 sets of 15 repetitions of a bench press, I would leave exactly 45 seconds between sets. If I was doing 3 sets of 12 repetitions with heavier weights, I would need 50 seconds between sets, if my sets were 10 reps I would take 55 seconds, and if I was lifting heavy weights, at 3 sets of 8 reps, I would take one minute between reps. This is a good baseline for an average athlete to work with. In time, with consistent work, rest periods can incrementally shortened even as muscles grow and are stressed to their larger healthy limits.
With practice, increase the intensity and duration of your sprint time, and gradually condense rest periods – you are on your way!
Chapter 17: Building Your Trigger
This tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive.
Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life.
To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on.
Step 1: create a trigger.
Find a serene activity.
Create a four- or five-step routine.
- Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes.
- 15 minutes of meditation.
- 10 minutes of stretching.
- 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan.
- Play ball with your son.
The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes.
Your personal routine should be determined by your individual tastes.
I had learned from Jack Groppel at LGE to eat five almonds every forty-five minutes during a long chess game to stay in a steady state of alertness and strength.
Step 2: Condense the routine.
The next step of the process is to gradually alter the routine so that it is similar enough so as to have the same physiological effect, but slightly different so as to make the “trigger” both lower-maintenance and more flexible. The key is to make the changes incrementally, slowly, so there is more similarity than difference from the last version of the routine.
I trained myself to be completely prepared after a deep inhalation and release. I also learned to do the form in my mind without moving at all.
Once a simple inhalation can trigger a state of tremendous alertness, our moment-to-moment awareness becomes blissful, like that of someone half-blind who puts on glasses for the first time.
My note: I wanted to underline this whole chapter but that’s just not practical. Here’s a summary. Step 1: Build your “trigger”. A ~30 minute routine that you will associate with a task that puts you into a particular state of mind, typically one of serenity, awareness, presence, focus. Find an activity that already puts you in this state of mind and begin your routine prior to that event. Step 2: Practice this association routine enough times to sink it in. Likely 30 times minimum. Step 3: Once the routine is set, begin to reduce it to a minimum possible. Use the trigger at the appropriate length to prep for events where your presence is key.
Chapter 18: Making Sandals
To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.
I’ll focus on one of the most decisive emotions, one that can make or break a competitor: Anger.
I sought out dirty players and got better and better at keeping cool when they got out of control.
If someone got into my head, they were doing me a favor, exposing a weakness. They were giving me a valuable opportunity to expand my threshold for turbulence. Dirty players were my best teachers.
Chapter 19: Bringing It All Together
In the early chapters, I described the importance of a chess player laying a solid foundation by studying positions of reduced complexity (endgame before opening). Then we apply the internalized principles to increasingly complex scenarios. In Making Smaller Circles we take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Then we gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power. until we are left with an extremely potent and nearly invisible arsenal. In slowing down time, we again focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. After training in this manner, we can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down. In The Illusion of the Mystical, we use our cultivation of the last two principles to control the intention of the opponent – and again, we do this by zooming in on very small details to which others are completely oblivious.
To win the Chung Hwa Cup, I would have to confront them with strategies and refinements they couldn’t imagine.
For the final three months before Taiwan, I recorded all of Dan’s and my training sessions. Then, every night I would go home and study the tapes.
We were in a state of dynamic equilibrium. the only times points were scored were in moments of creative inspiration, when one of us did something that transcended our current level of ability. These were the moments I focused on in the videos.
Chapter 20: Taiwan
This happens all the time in chess at the highest levels; top players discover hidden resources in opening positions that had been considered theoretically weak.
I didn’t have many notes in this chapter since Josh mainly tells the story of the world championship.
[…] this book after hearing about it from Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning, which I took notes on here. Although not quite as profound as The Art of Learning, this book had a few really key insights for […]