Matt Franz : Zealous For Knowledge

Josh Waitzkin On The Progression Project

Josh Waitzkin was on The Progression Podcast. This is a brand new podcast and I am looking forward to more. Here are my notes from the episode.

But first, a quick background on Josh Waitzkin. Josh is a world class performer in three different disciplines – 8x U.S. National Chess Champion, 2x Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion, and a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Marcelo Garcia. He was the subject of the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer and wrote the book The Art Of Learning. Waitzkin’s current area of learning is paddle surfing and the podcast’s host (Erik) is his teacher.

1. Become comfortable with discomfort.

Growth happens at the point of resistance, yet this is where most people stop. Muhammad Ali understood this. He said:

“I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counted when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.”

Seth Godin discussed this in The Dip. The dip is the point in the learning or creative process that feels hard. It’s when you the initial excitement has worn off and it begins to feel like a grind. Most people quit here. In doing so they settle for mediocrity and give up the potential for mastery. Waitzkin practices cultivating a love of discomfort constantly across all aspects of his life. His examples are taking cold showers and building tension by withholding orgasm.

2. Go deep.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu most people will learn a technique and then drill it, alternating on their left and right sides. Waitzkin prefers to drill it solely on his right until he achieves mastery. Then he will transfer that quality to his left side. By simplifying a technique to its absolute root, it becomes easier to achieve high quality. Knowing quality – what it feels like and how to get it – is critical to the learning process.

3. Lean into your weaknesses.

This is similar to becoming comfortable with discomfort. You cannot achieve mastery without training your weaknesses. Most people will shy away from confronting their weaknesses, but this is what separates masters from the mediocre.

4. Fear isn’t always present when risk is. Risk isn’t always present when fear is.

Waitzkin brings up David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech This Is Water. Wallace is among my favorite authors, and this speech is one I return to every few months. Wallace says:

“The most obvious and important realities are often the hardest to see and talk about.”

An ability to see the most fundamental pieces of a discipline is a prerequisite to mastery.

This reminds me of what Howard Mark’s means when he takes the temperature of the market. He uses a two pillar approach, focusing first on the quantitative (price to earnings ratios, interest rates, etc) and then the qualitative (sentiment in the news, eagerness for participation in deals, etc). I admire the regimented process Mark’s takes to make sure he sees the fundamental realities of the market in front of him.

5. Train the Most Important Question (MIQ).

Part of seeing the most obvious and important realities that surround us is knowing what the most important question is. We need to first know what the MIQ is, and then focus intently on it. I have found that most stocks have one key question imbedded in their price. If you don’t know what this question is, then you’re the patsy at the poker table. And if you don’t have a better answer than the rest of the market, you’re not much better off.

6. Question the source.

Waitzkin prefers to learn from people who are actually doing what they write about as opposed to studying what they write about. He says to beware of the armchair professor, which is what Robert Pirsig calls the “Philosophologist.” In Lila Pirsig explains:

“Philosophology is to philosophy as musicology is to music, or as art history and art appreciation are to art, or as literary criticism is to creative writing. It’s a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host’s behaviour.”

Waitzkin says the greatest insight is very near the greatest blunder. Before you can help someone navigate a decision on the razor’s edge you need to have spent time there yourself. This is the problem with monday morning quarterbacks.

7. Say “no” to almost everything.

Depth is the opposite of broad and shallow. This is hard, and I particularly admire Waitzkin’s ability to do this. He has gone deep, studying a single field for up to ten years, before moving to the next. That’s how he became world class in so many disciplines. He could have never become world class in Chess, Tai Chi Push Hands, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu if he studied them concurrently, even if for thirty years. This is a strong argument against multitasking. Again, this reminds me of what Seth Godin wrote in The Dip – quitting what you cannot be world class in to free yourself to focus on the one thing you can be world class in. That is, know your opportunity cost.

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