Remember "Searching for Bobby Fisher?" Why Josh Waitzkin, the chess phenomenon, grew up to be a man who no longer plays chess should be of interest to teachers and to parents. Here, he reflects on the learning process that applies equally well to business, athletics, and to life.
I think in the learning process it’s really valuable for people to go very, very deeply into one thing at one point in their lives and touch quality. And then they can, like you’ve described, translate that quality into other things, because I believe these principles are the same. They transcend specific disciplines.
Talk of the Nation
May 14, 2007)
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.
The 1993 movie "Searching for Bobby Fisher" tells the story of a child with an unusual aptitude for chess. The picture was based on the a book about Josh Waitzkin, who as a kid took home eight national chess championship titles and became an international master by the time he was 16.
A great deal has happened since. For any number of reasons - celebrity among them - Josh Waitzkin decided to give up a career in chess. At about the same time he focused on the Chinese martial art of tai chi and became a champion there as well. Those two disciplines might seem completely different but he realized that many of the principles he applied to chess worked in tai chi, and vice versa.
Now in his 30’s, Waitzkin has concluded that his real gift is neither chess nor the martial arts; it’s the learning process by which he developed those skills, a process he says applies equally well to business, athletics, and to life.
Josh Waitzkin. If you have questions for him about either of his careers or his learning techniques, give us a call. And if you’ve mastered a certain skill - whether it’s sports, public speaking, an art form - what psychological process helped you in your performance? Our number is 800-989- 8255, 800-989-TALK; email is email@example.com.
With us now from NPR’s bureau in New York is Josh Waitzkin. His book is The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. So thanks very much for joining us today.
Mr. JOSH WAITZKIN (Author): Great to be here, Neal. Thanks for having me.
CHADWICK: How in the world does a cerebral intellectual discipline like chess, where you can ponder each move, help you in a violence physical martial art where speed is essential?
Mr. WAITZKIN: That’s a good question. People all think that chess and the martial arts are very different. And for me, of course, when I moved into the martial arts it had nothing to do with an ambitious idea. I wanted to get away from the spotlight, to get away from the ambitious need to win, to win, to win, which I’d been in since I was six years old.
But then what started happening was very interesting. In my first couple years in the martial arts I began to feel this translation of level, which at first I related to in a very abstract way. I used words like parallel learning. It felt I was taking all of my chess ideas, or the essence of my chess understanding and transferring it over into the martial arts.
I remember this very strange experience in Memphis. I was giving a simultaneous exhibition playing 40 chessboards at once. And I was walking around playing a move; my opponents would think as I moved around. And I realized about an hour and a half into the simul that I wasn’t playing chess, I was doing tai chi, I was doing the martial arts. I was riding flow, filling spaces left behind like I would in the martial arts.
And it became such an interesting time of growth where the walls between these two different pursuits broke down. And they became the same in my mind.
CONAN: You are known – your style, as a chess player, was a very attacking style. Are you an attacking tai chi competitor?
Mr. WAITZKIN: Well, I’m an aggressive personality. I’m a creative – I like things to get crazy. I like to mix things up. But to be honest with you, towards the end of my chess career I was working on this other style of chess play called prophylaxis. Kind of stopping the opponents’ ideas before I conceived them myself. And people always thought I was a very talented chess player; maybe I was, but I don’t believe that I’m a terribly gifted martial artist.
In world championships I’ve competed on I’ve gone up against people who are much, much stronger than me, more gifted physically, have been training professionally since they were five years old. And it’s the mental side of the game which is what’s allowed me to excel. So in many ways, what I’ve done is I’ve taken chess into the martial arts. I’ve learned to read my opponent’s intention. I’ve learned to fill in, kind of figure out these patterns that were emerging in the game.
And I think if I had to describe my style martially it would be to get the body out of the way and make the mental game take over.
CONAN: Mental - obviously a great deal of chess is mental and not just – well, we all remember the great trash-talking scenes in the movie “Bobby Fisher”; of course you remember them from in person. But there are a lot of players who like to trash talk as well. And nevertheless you write in the book about looking at people and trying to figure out, you know, what – how you could get inside their head, how you could exploit their weaknesses. And exploiting weaknesses I guess is a lot of what tai chi is about.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely. You know, a lot people think about chess as being very mathematical or technical. But I’ve always thought of the study of chess as a study of numbers to leave numbers. You do this incredibly enhanced mathematical, technical work and ultimately you transcend it, and those numbers become intuitively understood, and you’re experiencing chess as the sense of flow. And tai chi is very much technique to leave technique. You leave the technique behind and your feeling is very similar in terms of flow.
And then the psychological connection between competitors becomes – what takes over. And what I found is that in both arts, at the highest end, what will determine success is whether or not you’re expressing yourself truly through the art you do. If someone’s – someone has an inorganic relationship to their art, it’s going to come under big pressure.
And so if you notice the wrinkles of someone’s personality and lead them into a position or a situation they’re not entirely comfortable with – for example, if they’re a very controlling person, you take them into a place where the position or the situation is out of control, where they have to roll with the punches, they have to allow their intuition to navigate through things that aren’t necessarily going to be mathematical understood, then you’ll have them in the place where they are not necessarily of sure foot.
On the other hand, if they’re a very creative, intuitive person, then you can make the position very technical, very precise, where they have to take some time and find the exact solution. So reading the opponent on a buffet line, for example, in chess tournaments, is very interesting. If you watch someone tapping their feet or impatient waiting on line, or pushing their peas to the side of the plate, that can – that single kind of observation can become absolutely decisive in competition.
CONAN: Numbers to leave numbers, the example you gave in the book was the painter Jackson Pollock, famous for splattering paint on a canvass. But of course that wasn’t random, and he was a master at all kinds of standard painting techniques that allowed him to do that brilliantly.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely. I mean, a lot of people then take the idea of being true to oneself or expressing themselves creatively as an excuse to be self- indulgent. Of course you have to gain a very solid technical foundation to then leave it behind and allow yourself to leap off from that foundation into creative insight.
CONAN: And the – what’s interesting, I was reading in your book about the learning curve, if you will, when you started doing tai chi. Within a couple of years, very, very quickly by the standards of that sport or indeed of any rigorous discipline, you were advancing by leaps and bounds. Is that the moment when you began to realize that what you were good at was not necessarily either chess or tai chi, but you’re really good at learning?
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely, yeah. I won my first national championship in the martial about two years after starting to study. And I became fascinated with this idea of what was going on here. And like I mentioned, for me it felt like this idea of translation of level, but what does that mean? What does essence mean? What does intuition really mean?
And I started to – I was going to Columbia University at that time and I was studying Eastern philosophy, trying to understand what Upanishadic Buddhists, neo-Confucian ideas, Taoist ideas, how they are all connected to this learning process I was experiencing. Because I wanted to understand what was really going on in the human creative moment, where I was having this unbelievable experience of the walls breaking down between everything.
And then I would have this insights than wouldn’t even relate to chess and tai chi. I remember I’d be sitting on a cliff in a chess tournament in Bermuda meditating, watching the birds fly. And suddenly I’d see the solution to a chess problem I’d been wrestling with for months and months. And all of these different moments of my life became interconnected. It was a very exciting period of years that followed a period of very difficult years.
Because the last – when I was 17, 18, 19, the pressures from the film kind of externalized my relations to chess. Instead of losing myself in thought, I was beginning to have this experience of watching myself think from across the room. And that was very troubling for me, and that was part of the reason I started to move away from chess. And so this period of explosive growth and of kind of elation in the learning process was a great return.
CONAN: Let’s get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Josh Waitzkin. His new book is The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. You know him as the kid in “Searching for Bobby Fisher.” Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert’s on the line. Robert with us from Flint, Michigan.
ROBERT (Caller): Yes. My name is Robert and I’m calling from Flint.
CONAN: Yes. You’re on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERT: Yes, I studied martial arts for 30 years, studied and taught. I also taught my students to get into the game of chess for, you know, to help them to concentrate, to help them be able focus on, you know, a particular thing at any one time. A lot of times, when I would watch people fight, a lot of times they would be distracted because they had other things that bothered them, you know.
They were worried about the people watching them, or they were afraid of losing or getting hurt. And what I wanted them to do was just to get to the point where they learn how to concentrate on beating that person, you know, looking for the openings that they have, that they had opened, I mean, that they had there.
CONAN: If they could just see them, yeah.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely.
ROBERT: Yes. Everyone is open. I mean, when you’re attacking me, you’re open with your attack. And the other thing I want them to do was to be able to just relax and defend the motion that they were being attacked by and take advantage of the opening that they had left.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely. You know, the idea you’re bringing up, I think, is very important because ultimately we have to learn how to use adversity to our advantage.
Mr. WAITZKIN: But you have to build up this mental capacity to be calm under crazy pressure, under really intense attack.
Mr. WAITZKIN: I know for me, in terms of my work with performance psychology, I’ve learned how to - there was this period of time when I was a kid, for example, when I was 10 or 11, 12 years old, starting to compete in adult chess tournaments, when songs would get stuck in my head. You know, I was a little boy competing against really strong adult masters. And for example, the song, "Scooby Doo" song, you know, from the cartoon would get stuck in my head, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.
CONAN: We’ve all had that experience, but…
Mr. WAITZKIN: I know. It can be really troubling. And then the ticking chess clock can be like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or someone whispering next door can be - it can take over, you know, really haunt you. But then what I learned to do was to think to the beat of the song that was stuck in my head, instead of pushing it away, learn how to use it. And like Robert said, in the martial arts, for example, you’re dealing with fiercely intense, great athletes coming at you with a lot of aggression, and the key is to learn how to have a presence of mind and use that aggression.
I talked about this idea of the zone in my book, the soft zone. And if you think of your performance state as the zone, the hard zone could be parallel to a brittle twig or a tree that will ultimately get blown over by hurricane-force winds. But a blade of grass, a soft zone, it can flow with whatever comes at it. If you can this state of mind under intense pressure, which is like that blade of grass, you’ll roll with whatever comes and you can take advantage of the incoming aggression.
ROBERT: Yes, because there were - a lot of times, I’ve won two national tournaments myself and…
Mr. WAITZKIN: Congratulations.
ROBERT: I’ve had students that won, like, 15 national championships. And I have one student right now that’s ranked number one in the world in his weight. And I have another one that fought in three world championships. And I told them in the beginning that I would teach them to be world champions, but I’ve never thought any of them would get to that point. I just wanted them to think that way. I didn’t want them to be restricted in the way they thought about things.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely.
CONAN: Robert, congratulations again, and thanks very much for the call.
ROBERT: Well, thank you. And I’m going to look for that book, too.
CONAN: All right.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Thanks so much, Robert.
CONAN: The name of the book, in case you wanted to write it down, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. Author Josh Waitzkin is with us. If you’d like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email us, email@example.com. I’m Neal Conan. We’ll be back after a short break. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.
We’re talking with Josh Waitzkin about his new book, The Art of Learning. He is best known for being a child chess prodigy, a story that Waitzkin’s father told in a book, which was made into a movie called "Searching for Bobby Fischer."
(Soundbite of movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”)
Mr. JOE MANTEGNA (Actor): (As Mr. FRED WAITZKIN) Your move, Josh.
Mr. MAX POMERANC (Actor): (As Mr. JOSH WAITZKIN) Did you move that pawn?
Mr. MANTEGNA: I moved a pawn, yeah.
Mr. POMERANC: Yeah, that one. Move my horse in front of my king.
Mr. MANTEGNA: You mean your knight.
Mr. POMERANC: Yeah. Did you do it?
Mr. MANTEGNA: Yeah.
Mr. POMERANC: Can we go out now?
Mr. MANTEGNA: Well, the game’s not over yet, Josh.
Mr. POMERANC: Yes, it is.
CONAN: Max Pomeranc and Joe Mantegna in the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Josh Waitzkin, I guess you’re never going to escape that.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Maybe I won’t. Maybe I won’t. But just for the record, I never liked beating my dad.
CONAN: You never liked beating your dad. Okay.
Mr. WAITZKIN: No. He’s my best friend.
CONAN: Interestingly, there are people who at one time expected you to be the next great, great American chess player. In a sense, you’ve decided not to do that. You’ve decided to move on do other things. Are you ever disappointed that you never became that?
Mr. WAITZKIN: No, I’m not. I’ve had a wonderful experience in chess, you know. I started playing when I was six years old. I was a professional player for, I guess, 17 years. I learned so much from the game. And you know, more than anything, chess for me was a channel for internal growth. I loved learning from the game, learning about life, learning about myself, learning about how I reacted to different situations.
And, you know, what began to happen after the movie came out was that there were so many fans at tournaments asking me to sign autographs. I’d be trying to compete against a world-class grandmaster and I’d be pulled into this vision of myself from the outside, and that was alienating for me, you know.
What I love from chess, about chess, was that pure, pure relationship to the game. And I feel like I rediscovered that, in a sense, moving away from the game. When I went into the martial arts, when I started meditating very intensely and I moved away from a purely ambitious relationship with chess, which was what I had in the last couple of years of competition in the game, I returned to my love for the game again as this channel for internal growth. I have no disappointment. I had wonderful times in chess, and I still learn from it every day.
CONAN: Do you still play?
Mr. WAITZKIN: I play sometimes with friends. I teach. I teach mostly through a computer chess program I developed called Chessmaster. And I mostly teach not so much technically chess, but I teach about how to learn life lessons from the game and how to connect chess to life.
CONAN: Let’s get another caller on the line. This is Julie. Julie is with us from Portland, Oregon.
JULIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
JULIE: I was a professional musician for many years, and part of being a musician is that you have to learn what’s called muscle memory.
JULIE: When you play guitar or any kind of an instrument, you study and you study and learn how to control your body in a way that you don’t have to think about those functions anymore, and that’s where the real creativity starts to happen. That’s where you become a real musician.
And I was able to sort of take some of those principles and then apply them to starting my own business. And it was amazing how - so the principles work in poker, too. You learn how to, you know, use the situation to your advantage, how to read people. You’re not having to worry so much about what you’re doing and all the technical aspects of, you know, what the cards are, or what buttons to push on your instrument, or, you know, how to do the job that’s been put in front of you by your client, and really just concentrate on finding the artistry in whatever that activity is, because it’s gone beyond the mechanical and the technical. And I was just kind of - I was sort of interested in seeing the correlations between chess and even tai chi and so many other kind of creative endeavors.
Mr. WAITZKIN: That’s beautifully put. I really think that these connections are out there for all of us to discover. I think in the learning process it’s really valuable for people to go very, very deeply into one thing at one point in their lives and touch quality. And then they can, like you’ve described, translate that quality into other things, because I believe these principles are the same. They transcend specific disciplines.
Your description of the relationship of music, for example, to business or to poker or anything else, I relate to this from what I do. And what’s interesting is that I think of chess as being very musical itself. It’s so…
JULIE: Yes. Yes.
Mr. WAITZKIN: The experience of these, you know, discovering hidden harmonies. It’s so beautiful. These connections are very powerful.
Mr. WAITZKIN: These connections are very powerful. And a big thing I talk about in my book is I describe a methodology for how to discover these connections, because a lot of people who have done things passionately, a lot of people when they were young played sports or did with something with a tremendous focus…
Mr. WAITZKIN: …and a great discipline. But then they move on to other things and they go about their everyday life without that kind of connectedness.
I think breaking down those walls between our diverse pursuits is a wonderful thing that we can all do as long as we think about how to do it and we cultivate that process as seriously as we can cultivate anything else.
JULIE: Right. Well, thank you.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Thank you.
CONAN: Julie, remind me not to play poker with you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JULIE: Right. Thanks very much.
CONAN: Let’s see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Kim, and Kim’s with us from Berkeley.
KIM (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Thank you.
KIM: I’m so appreciative of this conversation about creativity and learning. I’m like a fifth-grader who can’t learn math in the classroom but does great with her tutor who plays games with her.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely.
KIM: But what I was connecting with is I’m a pastor, and I preach sermons every Sunday. And after about 10 years, decided I wanted to try to memorize mine like the mentor I had admired and failed miserably until I figured out that what I had to do is not memorize it but learn it by heart. You know, that old phrase.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Right.
KIM: And it was about connecting with the passion of the message. And all the academic and intellectual things were important, but once I could, you know, put my passion in it and visualize the message, then I learned it by heart and have no trouble, you know, preaching or speaking for 20 or 30 minutes without a note or without having to memorize anything. And that’s what I think you’re talking about is having the passion which can connect all those points together.
Mr. WAITZKIN: I think that’s a beautiful point, you know, having a feeling for something. I found that it in everything I’ve done, I’ve observed teachers trying to often fit students into cookie-cutter molds, often their own cookie cutter molds, what worked for them.
And I think the really great teachers are the ones who don’t try to stuff a student into some specific mold but discover the unique path of that individual student, because we all have our specific personalities and we should all pursue excellence or whatever we’re doing in the way which is best for us.
I think that when we’re nurturing ourselves, you know, in our learning process, we should do exactly what you just said – figure out how to let ourselves shine. Some people will want to memorize things. I’m personally not a memorizer. I would much prefer to, like you described, get the feeling of something, for it to touch me deep in my heart and then to move from that feeling.
And, you know, one thing that I’ve talked about in the book in my learning process, is the idea of getting the feeling for…
Mr. WAITZKIN: …people have talked about this idea of making smaller circles in the martial arts, in terms of very high-end training. You do a certain technique over and over and over until you get a certain feeling for it. And then, ultimately, you can condense the external movements while maintaining that feeling, that feeling for truth.
And what’s interesting is that the external movements can be condensed into almost nothing, but you still have the potency of the thing. You still have the feeling. And that, for example, you brought up, Neal, early in terms of Jackson Pollock. I think that’s very much what he does, you know. You have these brilliant artists who have taken some very concrete idea and reduced it to an essential reality, then they’re able to convey that essential reality with very little external form.
CONAN: Now, if there’s – this is what Kim was talking about also reminded me that scene in "Stage Door" where Katharine Hepburn comes out on stage at the end of the play, the trauma, the death (unintelligible) anyway, starts speaking lines. And somebody turns to the playwright and says, that isn’t what you wrote. And he said, it doesn’t matter. She’s got the character right. She’s getting it right. She’s getting it right.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that’s at the center of the learning process. That idea of (unintelligible).
CONAN: So you’re the Katharine Hepburn of the pulpit, Kim.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KIM: Well, I’ll take it. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Okay. Thanks for calling.
KIM: Thank you for this program.
CONAN: Here’s an email. This is - we got from Eric, who writes: What’s your opinion of chess boxing? Is this on your radar? It seems like this new sport exemplifies this show’s topic.
Well, chess boxing is supposed to be, I guess, a combination of chess and boxing.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing that’s going on. You know, to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to get involved in boxing or chess boxing, because frankly I don’t like to target the head. I don’t like taking shots to the head because of the trauma it does to the brain. So from one perspective, I think that chess boxing is very interesting.
What I love about the martial arts is, again, the self-cultivation. I do very intense grappling, intense throwing arts. But for m, the one thing I don’t like to target is the head, just because the idea of chess players targeting the head, you know, you definitely take blows and the chess playing skills will decrease the more they box. So it’s an interesting sport, it’s not one that I’m terribly attracted to.
CONAN: Let’s go to Mike, and Mike’s on the phone with us from Traverse in Michigan.
MIKE (Caller): Here I am.
CONAN: Go ahead, Mike.
MIKE: Yeah, Josh. Thanks for the call. I guess the last few questions have answered a few of the big picture for me, but I’ve got a 12-year old super athlete tennis player that happens to be my son. I was Division I college tennis player, and I’m struggling with his psychological approach.
And just in the last few months we’ve made the decision to go with the thing he and I call playing with no emotions. And even when things go well, you don’t celebrate, but especially when things go bad, you don’t react to any bad points or bad games. And I wonder what your thoughts are about, you know, the emotional, like, outbursts that happen especially with junior athletes.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Well, that’s a great question. My personal relationship to this is I think it’s important to be as organic as possible. I spent a lot of years trying to suppress my emotions. Mostly, you know, this came up for me when I was competing against dirty chess players. You know, I have one Russian rival who used to kick me under the table when I’d be playing. You know, we’d be in the national championship finals first board, last round. I’d be 15 minutes into a thought process, and he’d kick me under the table. I’d look up and go back to the game and he kicked me again. And he keeps on kicking me until I reacted.
And at first I tried to suppress that emotion, then I tried to – I tried block it out, tried to roll it, try to do everything. But ultimately worked for me was to learn how to use that emotion and how to channel it into heightened focus. You know, what I’ve found is that under really intense pressure, something will break us. If you have this idea of having a perfect state of mind or something that you won’t be touched by emotion, something will happen that will make you emotional.
And so, for me, the process relates to first learning how to roll the emotion. Learning how it not to let it throw you off. And then you’ll learn – just how I describe with music – learn to think the beat of the song. You learn how to channel that emotion into a more intense focus. So if someone’s a very emotional person, in order to be true to themselves in the learning process and in their performance psychology, they have to learn how to use that emotion. Because if they don’t do that, they won’t be bringing their natural shine. So it’s a very delicate balance.
And, of course, if your son is being thrown off by emotion, you have to - maybe some breathing techniques, some ways of learning how to come back to his center. But what I would aim for in the long run is to learn how to channel that emotion into a heightened state, because that will be his greatest ally down the road.
CONAN: But you also wrote in your book that it is important to acknowledge that losing means something, because it does. Otherwise, why play? And that winning – though winning is transient – that winning is fun, too.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely. That’s a beautiful point. I mean, I think that it’s all right to smell the roses. It’s all right to enjoy a big win. And it’s also all right to feel the pain of defeat within a long-term perspective of the fact that the losing is what’s going to teach you the greatest lessons. When I think back on my life and chess and the martial arts, I’ve won a lot of championships, a lot of big games, but the funny thing is that I hardly remember the wins. They felt good. They brought me some glory, but they weren’t really important events in my life.
But when I think back on to the big losses, they’ve been the defining moments. They’ve been the huge lessons. They’ve thought me the things that have ultimately propelled me to deeper success down the road. So, it’s all right to enjoy the wins. It’s all right to feel the pain of defeat. As long as you do so with a long-term perspective and the fact that a loss is what’s going to teach you the greater lessons. I think it’s important to be as organic as possible in the stuff, or else you’ll be lying to yourself and he’ll be lying to himself.
CONAN: Mike, we wish your son the best possible luck.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate your call.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Good luck. Thanks for calling.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: We’re talking with Josh Waitzkin, one-time chess prodigy about his new book The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. And you’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Email from Cathy in Tempe, Arizona: I was wondering if you face the problem of being very hard on yourself where small defeats were debilitating. I have a bright son who sometimes feels like he should die when he gets something wrong because he feels worthless. This problem can be common with bright people. I hope you had some strategies to face these struggles.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Absolutely. You know, it’s a great question. And to be - actually, chapter three of my book, I described two approaches to learning. And this is basically on this topic that you’ve just brought up. For me, I think the greatest thing that ever happened to me was in the last round of my first national chess championship. I was at that point the top-rated kid in the country. I had beaten everybody. I was in the last - I was in the last round of top board. I didn’t think anyone could touch me. I was going up against somebody who was much lower rated than me. And he caught me in an opening trap early in the game, and I lost the game and I was shattered. It was completely outside of my conceptual scheme to lose to a kid. And I was forced to come back to regroup the next year, to work very hard.
And that year, from losing to winning is the arc of the film "Searching For Bobby Fischer." And I think that that loss was ultimately, maybe the most important thing that’s ever happened to me in my competitive career, because it taught me first of all that the road to winning isn’t about innate talent or about perfection, but it’s about overcoming adversity, about rebounding from defeat.
And there’s a brilliant developmental psychologist named Carol Dweck, who’s done research on these two different theories of learning. And she describes it as entity versus incremental theories of intelligence. Children who have an entity or a fixed trait of view of intelligence tend to associate success with something ingrained to them. They tend to be perfectionists, while kids or adults who are incremental theorists tend to associate long-term success or the pursuit of mastery with hard work.
And what’s interesting is that if you have an entity theory of intelligence, you got to tend to have - getting anything wrong will be just devastating. It will be overwhelming, like you described. But kids who have an incremental theory of intelligence will tend to rebound from disappointment with a great spirit, with an idea, okay, I have to work hard like this. And kids can be helped out with this.
Parents can have feedback which relates to process, or they can have feedback which relates to results. And, for example, if your child does wonderful in a math test and you say, you know, great job. I’m really proud of you for all the hard work you’ve done. That’s programming or helping someone who have an incremental theory of intelligence. Well, if the feedback is you’re the best at this. You’re smart in math.
You’re not good in English. You tend to make it as if people are naturally good at some things and naturally good at other things. Then they will have a fixed trait or an entity view of intelligence, which can be paralyzing. And feedback at home, in school, from teachers - you know, it’s very subtle. But kids and adults should have an incremental theory of intelligence. They should embrace the long-term journey, as oppose to having a static, fixed-rate view.
CONAN: You spent some of your time now - in addition to writing and teaching chess, of course - you do a lot of public speaking about your learning process. How should we distinguish your method from, I guess, scores of others who talk about, you know, keys to success and then breaking through and then achieving your goals?
Mr. WAITZKIN: You know, for one thing, I’ve lived my life from the trenches. It’s been a very strange and unusual life I’ve lived. From when I was 6 years old, I’ve been competing under national championship pressure, world championship pressure. And I’ve had a lot of ups and I’ve had a lot of downs. And in many ways, what I’ve come to - you know, it’s not – it just doesn’t come from books. It doesn’t come from being an armchair professor.
What I’ve come to is, you know, the reaction to having periods of being a free- flowing competitor and performer and learner and having intense periods of alienation from that process. And I’ve experienced times when I was living very true to myself, experienced times when I was completely alienated from my voice as a performer, as a learner. And I think that my lessons, you know, they come from real life. They’ve come from - you know, my experience is in these two disciplines - these brutally competitive disciplines - in an attempt to maintain a perspective of what really is important in life, living under such pressure.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us. And good luck with the book.
Mr. WAITZKIN: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Josh Waitzkin’s new book is The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.