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On Excellence And Resilience: Lessons & Mental Models

Do you know what some of the world champions of different disciplines have in common? Most of them prioritize perseverance as much as they prioritize recovery. Here I summarize the mental models to achieve excellence and build resilience from a master in chess and tai chi.

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A few days ago, I woke up to my usual Twitter morning read and came across a captivating thread by George Mack summarizing the teachings of a chess prodigy, Joshua Waitzkin. While initially intimidated by reading a bullet point biography of a superhuman, I was then inspired to revisit the ambition of my current goals. Through mental models he’s tested over time, he confirms there is a method to excellency and personal growth. 

A few hours later, I got this text from my dad (who, by the way, is also a superhuman): “I highly recommend you read the full thread”. And because we both have the same interests and morning Twitter habits, I immediately knew what he was talking about. Two days later we explored the topic again, went into more details about each mental model, and discussed the importance of sharing these learnings.

About Joshua Waitzkin

Joshua Waitzkin is currently only 43 years old but his philosophy around mastering a new skill represents the wisdom of someone that has lived many lives. Since very young, he has excelled as a chess prodigy, starting as a champion at his school in NY. We’ve always been huge fans of chess, but our deep interest in Waitzkin went beyond this one area of expertise. Throughout his life journey, he also became a champion in many other disciplines that require high competence levels, like Tai Chi Chuan and Jiu Jitsu.

How is one person able to master such complicated and different skills? Is it genetic predisposition or does he have a secret?

His Obsession For Depth Vs Breadth

In any teaching program, breadth refers to the variety of the topics within the knowledge acquired, whilst depth is the extent to which each topic is understood, amplified and explored. While many of us focus on the surface of a wide range of topics (the ultimate masters of “nada”), Waitzkin has been obsessed with depth since his childhood.

His life is a testimony of the precision one can achieve from engaging in a hyper-focused and persistent learning process. Every time he sets a new goal for himself, he spends 5 to 10 years mastering it before moving onto something else. His belief is that it takes that much time to truly understand every underlying principle of it. 

The Video Game Paradox

He turns his new goal into a video game and doesn’t move onto “level 2” until he is completely sure he is done with “level 1”, and the same goes for every level onwards. Now that our lives remain restricted, it’s a good opportunity to experiment with this framework and adopt a new goal. Of course, acknowledging we might not even get to level 2 when the pandemic is truly over, but at least we would have established a new habit and undergone a proven path towards meeting a clear goal eventually (be it a change in lifestyle, gardening, learning a new instrument, strengthening our emotional intelligence, or even beginning a coding camp). 

Achieving Unconscious Incompetence

When we start learning something new, we must go through 4 key learning phases:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – We don’t know how to do something so we don’t recognize the deficit in knowledge that we have. Therefore, we tend to take upon a new goal highly enthusiastic trying to immediately excel at level 10.
  2. Conscious Incompetence – We’ve tried enough of it to understand what it takes to be good, so at this step we’re fully aware of the knowledge gap we have. 
  3. Conscious Competence – At this stage, making mistakes is a crucial part of our learning process. It usually takes a very long time and requires the person to be focused and persistent.
  4. Unconscious Competence – After what feels like an infinite amount of practice, we achieve mastery level. We can even complete our tasks excellently while multitasking, like when you’re driving a car while thinking about your day.

Most of us often quit at step 2 because of some socially accepted bias that, after self-awareness, comes quitting. That’s often our ego getting in the way. The purpose of self-awareness is to be able to continue working on our personal growth, rather than serving as a quitting signal. 

The Good Weather Analogy

Waitzkin says that our resilience is shaped from our childhood. Our parents often tell us “don’t go outside because it’s raining” or “we should go outside! It’s sunny.” We’re wired to think that our successes and failures are conditioned by our circumstances, when in reality we have more control over our happiness and successes than what we think. Waitzkin and his son always play outside, regardless of the weather or situation. It’s always a beautiful rain, or a beautiful snow, or a beautiful sun. This is an important frame of mind for persevering through step 2 (where most people quit). A frame of mind that helps us see the importance and value of making mistakes, errors, and challenging circumstances. No successful journey comes without hurdles.

Recovery After Stress

In Waitzkin words “Most people in high-stress decision-making industries are always operating at this kind of simmering six, as opposed to the undulation between deep relaxation and being at 10”. According to George Mack’s tweet, “the best critique of hustle culture”, and we agree.

In order to perform at our best, we have to be able to reset our stress levels (in other words, continuous recovery to avoid burnout). If we want to play at level 10, then we also need to relax at level 10. Waitzkin tells the story of Marcelo García, a 5-time world champion in Jiu Jitsu, whom he saw asleep prior to an important game. He then learned he religiously slept for 5 minutes before every competition started. 

There are many evidence-based methods to promote relaxation, calm our minds, and boost mindfulness. We just need to explore the ones that work the best for us at different times, so we can easily fit them into our daily routines and/or into our practice routine. That’s how we keep fueling the virtuous cycle of learning and creativity. They both become more potent and adhere a fresh touch to their performance.

Journaling To Get Unstuck

Another barrier to our personal growth comes once we face questions we can’t answer or problems that seem too big to be tackled. Waitzkin believes in the power of letting topics rest in our subconscious and revisiting at a later time. The process that has worked for him is to formulate the question or problem in his head and let it sit there without trying to find answers or come to conclusions in the moment. He then takes a break. He wakes up in the morning and journals about it, and that’s how he has achieved many “AHA” moments.

A Wake Up Call

We need more of Joshua Waitzkin and less of imposter syndrome in our life’s journey. Even the pursuit of happiness requires discipline and perseverance. Nothing is 100% left to chance. What works for Waitzkin might not work for everyone, but in his teachings there are models that should at least be explored by all of us. Dad (Cesitar) is retired and yet making the best out of this moment. He hasn’t complained about being in strict lockdown a single time, and instead is determined to learn something new. He chose a new language (Italian). And myself (Lamia), I’m inspired to refocus my priorities which, as an entrepreneur, feel impossible to juggle on a daily basis. I remember a few days ago I told someone “I’m tired because the system doesn’t allow me to rest, to slow down, to recover, so I can perform at my best, even though I should because I’m working on a mental wellness business.” I’ll remind myself now that what I said was a bad excuse. Instead of blaming my burnout on the “system” I need to be more accountable for my burnout and choices. 

Co-authors: César Pardo (Dad of a brave entrepreneur) & Lamia Pardo (Daughter of a superhuman that has never complained about the weather).

For more articles on resilience, mental health and journaling, visit Journify.

Article also published on LinkedIn.

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