The Art of Learning: Chess, Jiu Jitsu and High Performance

      As musicians, we have all committed ourselves to a process of lifelong learning and self-discovery. We spend years honing our artistic process and fine tuning our connection to our instrument physically on a daily basis.  Looking to maintain a growth mindset, there is a lot to be learned from high performance athletes in other disciplines. I’ve been a chess aficionado for many years, so I occasionally pick up a book on strategy or read the biography of some chess grandmaster. I recently discovered Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, and it was a stunning read which touched upon many struggles we face in the artistic world, from dynamic vs static mindset, learning from failures, psychological/emotional discipline, the value of teaching and mentorship,  and more.

   Waitzkin was a New York chess prodigy who became an International Master at the age of 16; he was featured in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, but the press attention and hype led him to quitting competitive chess altogether. Nonetheless, his lifelong pursuit of learning led him to pursue Aikido and other martial arts deeply, eventually becoming a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and world champion in Taiji Push Hands in 2004.  He credits all the tactics, strategy, and learning techniques he learned in years of competitive chess with enabling him to master new disciplines on an incredibly high level; the concepts he used are distilled into memoir form in The Art of Learning (2007).

   Reading Waitzkin’s book, I was continually reminded as to how much a high performance endeavour depends upon psychology and our mental ability to run a marathon, while sprinting when needed. One needs to continually face and examine one’s weaknesses and then find ways to strengthen those areas; high performance is not simply about aptitude and athletics, but about mental toughness, grit and the desire to get down to the details on a daily basis, enacting incremental progress towards your goals. Perhaps the key word is resilience. It’s not about being the best, but working towards your best.

   I also think there is a lesson here for some of us in the musical world, where changes in technology and society have been decimating our income sources for years.  There is nothing that prevents you from taking everything you have learned in the musical world and applying that growth mindset to a whole new discipline, hobby or side business. In fact, it might even make you a better musician.

Waitzkin gave a talk at Google which you can watch below:

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance


About AudibleArchitect

I live a double life as a jazz doublebassist and composer as well as a software developer/data scientist in NYC View all posts by AudibleArchitect

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