Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Losing to win, investment in loss, not repeating mistakes

At the age of eight Josh Waitzkin was defeated in his first bid for a national chess championship. He had been the favorite, but ultimately he fell short. He took the summer off to go fishing with his parents. It was during this time that he “questioned everything and decided to come back strong, [that he] arrived at a commitment to chess that was about much more than fun and glory. It was about love and pain and passion and pushing [himself] to overcome.” He had confronted his chess mortality and “responded to heartbreak with hard work.” (p. 23)

Years later came a new challenge—Push Hands from Tai Chi that seeks “to defeat a thousand pounds with four ounces.” The only way that Push Hands students can progress “is to release the ego enough to allow themselves to be tossed around while they learn how not to resist.” (p. 107) It’s what his instructor calls investment in loss—giving yourself to the learning process. Waitzkin also describes it as humility training. The less successful students were “frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. . . They were locked up by the need to be correct.”

Waitzkin suggests that “if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice—both technical and psychological—he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field. Of course such a feat is impossible—we are bound to repeat thematic errors, if only because many themes are elusive and difficult to pinpoint.” In his own chess career, for instance, he didn’t realize that he was “faltering in transitional moments until many months of study brought the pattern to light.” (pp. 107-108) And let me quote the passage that describes this faltering in full because it should resonate with traders. “For a period of time, almost all my chess errors came in a moment immediately following or preceding a big change. For example, if I was playing a positional chess game, with complex maneuvering, long-term strategical planning, and building tension, and suddenly the struggle exploded into concrete tactics, I would sometimes be slow to accommodate the new scenario. Or, if I was playing a very tactical position that suddenly transformed into an abstract endgame, I would keep on calculating instead of taking a deep breath and making long-term plans.” (p. 75) With awareness and action, he reports, his weakness was transformed into a strength.

My follow-up post, on using adversity, will continue this general theme. As a sidenote, I just finished reading T. J. Stiles’s biography of Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, a prize apparently worth the non-Vanderbiltian sum of $10,000. The commodore had horrific losses, adversities that beset him like clockwork, but he was always revitalized to push on harder and smarter than ever. He’s not nearly so endearing as Josh Waitzkin (he certainly wasn’t a Push Hands kind of competitor), but he’s a model of the power of relentless perseverance.

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