This one’s for you if… you’re interested in pursuing excellence in any field.
What is this book about?
Its about the difficulties of being successful at the same time as growing up. Its about how to learn. Its about how to apply what you learn from one field in another. Its about embracing failure and challenging yourself. Its about working with different people at different stages of development. Its about how we praise children and what effect that has. It is about how different aspects of our lives can all come together in one moment. It describes the intensity of emotions felt during the pursuit of excellence better than any book on sport or psychology or performance that I have come across.
Waitzkin transitioned from being the world’s greatest chess player to winning the world push hands championships- a competitive martial art form. His book weaves these two journeys together through his humble approach to continuous improvement, embracing strengths and addressing weaknesses.
These two videos from the push hands championships can only be appreciated after reading Josh’s detailed and gripping account of them in the book. They demonstrate the magic of sport: its David vs Goliath battles, the unpredictability of the outcome and the sheer strength in body and mind of athletes.
“Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever-deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at the chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and also spiritually cleansing. It centred me. Chess was my friend.” xii
“Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle. We are too smart for ourselves in such moments. We sense our mortality like a cancer beneath the bravado, and when things start to go out of control, there is little real resilience to fall back on.” p17
“Very smart kids with entity theories tend to be far more brittle when challenged than kids with learning theories who would be considered not quite as sharp.” p31
“If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built in armour must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can spring from. Someone struck with an entity theory of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell.” p33
“When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away even as we inhale.” p46
When your position in competition changes “Your heart starts to pound because of the disconcerting chasm between what was and what is.” p62
“I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative laps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love of discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off- no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating.” p79
“To my mind, 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 no so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents. Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.” p88 Tao Te Ching
“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.” p123
“The key to this process [seeing more with less] is understanding that the conscious mind, for all its magnitude, can only take in and work with a certain limited amount of information in a unit of time- envision that capacity as one page on your computer screen. If it is presented with a large amount of information, then the font will have to be very small in order to fit it all on one page. You will not be able to see the details of the letters.” p146
The approach of meditative practice is based on “breaking down the artificial barriers between our diverse life experiences so all moments become enriched by a sense of interconnectedness.” p183
“The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.” p187
“In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.” p262