Friday, January 8, 2010

Matching style to temperament

Josh Waitzkin, in The Art of Learning, fleshes out the oft-repeated advice that your trading style has to match your temperament with autobiographical reflections on his ups and downs in chess. Between the ages of nine and seventeen he won eight individual National Championship titles and had many team chess achievements. “A key ingredient to my success in those years was that my style on the chessboard was a direct expression of my personality. It is my nature to revel in apparent chaos. . . . [A]s a young competitor I would guide critical chess games into positions of tremendous complexity with the confidence that I would be able to sort through the mayhem more effectively than my opponents.” (p. 41)

With the release of Searching for Bobby Fischer, Josh Waitzkin’s life started to change. First, he was becoming distracted by the fans. Second, he began training with a new Grandmaster who was “a systematic strategist with a passion for slow, subtle maneuvering.” He wanted Josh to become more like Anatoly Karpov and less like Bobby Fischer, more cold-blooded and less wild. He wanted Josh to give up his natural voice. As a result, the author says, he lost his “center of gravity as a competitor.” (p. 87) Perhaps, as he later came to think, he had been offered a rare opportunity to grow, but the fact was that “the effects of moving away from my natural voice as a competitor were particularly devastating.” (pp. 88-89)

Reflecting on how he came to be distanced (or distance himself) from chess, Waitzkin shares some hard-earned thoughts. “To my mind,” he writes, “the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of greyness—of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if stretched too thin, they will snap. A competitor needs to be process-oriented, always looking for stronger opponents to spur growth, but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence. We have to release our current ideas to soak in new material, but not so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents. Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.” (p. 88)

Read this last paragraph more than once. Josh Waitzkin lived these words.

1 comment:

  1. Brenda, ok, I take it, you enjoyed The Art of Learning :) In fact, your enthusiasm has persuaded me to read it a third time!

    Two things came to my mind as I read your post. First, I was reminded of the disastrous consequences of when I changed track and field coaches and the new one altered radically my stride for a much more elegant one... that resulted in continuous injuries.

    Secondly, regarding the balance between challenge and confidence, I remembered my initial puzzlement at how "easy" it was to get good grades in the American educational system (as opposed to the Spanish/Continental Europe one; over here you need a mere 50% to pass - and still fewer than 10% of my class finished the freshman year in college without failing some course). This is usually cause for some derision of America's grade inflation, but it was only years later that I realized that an educational system - as ours - in which people experience too much failure all too often ends up teaching people to avoid failure, instead of seeking success (yes, European youth *may* end up being more "cultured", but also tend to seek more the security of - mediocre - government jobs, rather than the challenge of starting new ventures - least they fail).

    Best trading,