So I’ve been reading the book “The Art of Learning” by John Waitzkin after I found out about it from Chess Master XI. I was planning to write a review after I’d read the whole book, but I felt compelled to share some thoughts before I lose them in my Mom-Brain haze. We are almost through the first part of the book and I am distinctly reminded of the time when I was rock climbing intensely.
The Mental Game
I used to keep a journal of my own pursuit of excellence in the sport of rock climbing (you can read snippets of it here) and the meditative quality of it is not unlike Waitzkin’s. My internal introspections of my emotional states when climbing felt very similar to those that Waitzkin writes about in his book and it seems to me that a large part of excelling in any area is the mental game rather than the physical or mental skills associated with that particular activity. You can be physically and mentally brilliant at a particular activity but if you haven’t mastered your mental game, your success will be limited.
For instance, I was playing Mario Party with Aristotle yesterday morning and we were on a mini game that I am usually good at. We were supposed to swing the Wii remote to hit the ball with our virtual bat – like in baseball. That morning, we had some spectators and I got nervous. Instead of relaxing and timing my shots, I kept swinging too early and missing the ball. Even though I knew what I was doing wrong and I kept telling myself to slow down and be patient, it was like my arm had taken on a life of its own. I knew I had the skill to play well, but my mental game was in shambles. This is probably not the best example, but there it is.
Climbing is a great sport for examining the mental game. A lot of people have the misconception that you have to be really strong before you can climb but it isn’t necessarily so. At the height of my climbing, I was still physically weaker than some of the male climbers in my group, but yet I was able to climb better than them. My physical limitations taught me to be creative in order to overcome my weakness. They taught me to focus on core techniques that are easily forgotten when you’re strong and able to power through difficult moves on the wall. When I couldn’t muscle past a particular overhang, I looked for an alternative route and followed a crack line instead. I was told by stronger climbers that you couldn’t follow the crack and that the overhang was the only way. They believed this because they had never explored the crack and that was because they didn’t need to. It is like the old adage – “Necessity is the mother of invention”. If we allow them to, our weaknesses can help us find our strengths. But if I had believed what I was told, I would have kept pumping iron until I was “strong enough” to climb.
I suppose this is why you need to be passionate about something in order to be brilliant at it. You’ve got to love it enough to want to spend hours and hours examining every aspect of your game in minute detail so you can tweak it to fine tune your performance. If you like it but not that much, you wouldn’t have the patience to do this. It’s easy to become decent at something, but it’s much harder to get really good at it, and even harder still to get brilliant at it. Each level of improvement requires an exponentially increasing amount of attention and effort to achieve. And that’s why your child will never be the next Picasso if he’s ambivalent about art; he’ll never be the next Mozart if he only likes to dabble in music; and he’ll never be the next Tiger Woods if being a world champion golfer is Daddy’s dream and not his.
Success Breeds Success
And that leads me to another point – when you learn how to excel at one activity, it teaches you the fundamentals of learning how to excel that you can apply to anything in your life. When I became better at rock climbing, my career also started taking off in a way I never expected. My focus had been on rock climbing, but it had a positive effect on my work performance. I found that I could apply everything I learned about the mental game of rock climbing to other aspects of my life. At the time I thought it was something unique to rock climbing, but now I realise that it is unique to success.
I am reminded of of the example I read in Ken Robinson’s “The Element” – Gillian Lynne (famous dancer and choreographer) was failing school until her mother started sending her for dance classes. After she started dancing, her school work picked up. Sir Robinson attributed it to the fact that Gillian needed movement to learn and he explained that some people need to move in order to learn. I also think that her discovery of her passion (which was dancing) and the opportunity to pursue it and excel at it helped her regain her confidence and discover new skills that taught her how to succeed in other areas of her life that formerly eluded her – like school.
And that brings us to the final point – all skills learned are transferable. When Steve Jobs gave his commence at Stanford University, he urged everyone to pursue their dreams even if it seemed at the time that their dreams are leading nowhere because sometimes you can’t see how the dots will connect until you reflect upon your life. It is like another old adage – “hindsight is 20/20”.
The benefit of following your dreams is that your passion will provide your driving force. It will help you to keep going when all might seem lost or hopeless. Once you’ve found your success, even if you decide not to continue in that area, the lessons you would have learned from the experience will be applicable in other areas of your life. Everything you have learned has value – nothing is wasted and nothing is “all for nought”.
In other words, once you learn how to succeed in one area of your life, you essentially have the mental blueprint that you can apply to any other area of your life to achieve the same success. And I believe that this is a lesson that our children will have to learn through their own experiences. It is not something that we can teach them. The best way for us to help them learn this lesson is to provide them with opportunity and encouragement where possible. And the earlier they learn this lesson, the better they will be able to apply it in all aspects of their lives.
So don’t worry that your child is obsessed with trains, or cars, or dinosaurs. Let him follow his passions and see where they lead him. Even if they don’t seem to be leading anywhere, you can be sure that whatever he’s learning in the process will be life skills he can apply later in life.
To conclude, these are the fundamental principles that I believe form the foundation for learning how to succeed:
- Master the mental game – once you figure it out, you will have a plan for success.
- Have passion for whatever you do because you’re going to need it if you want to have the staying power to figure it out.
- Once you have gained success, it is easier to get more success.
- The skills you develop, you will be able to apply to anything else you choose to do later.